Smart Tools for Smart Buyers

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Of course you buy stuff online. You love the convenience. And you'd like it even more if you could easily get what you wanted at the best price--without clicking constantly from one e-tailer to another to compare prices, shipping charges, and so on. Another thing you'd like: not having to hand out your credit or debit card number all over the Internet.

Fortunately, help is at hand. New desktop tools promise to handle the comparison shopping chores for you--automatically or with a single mouse click.

New payment services let you buy anonymously, without sacrificing the convenience of a credit card. Still other technologies help you experience noncomputer products more accurately before plunking down your hard-earned dollars.

Are these new shopping aids and services as useful as they're cracked up to be?

We looked at several and found that their helpfulness varied. As with many other new technologies, some kinks remain to be worked out. For example, 3D shopping sites don't work well over dial-up connections. Shopping bots are only as good as their databases. And there are still times when brick-and-mortar trumps cyberspace. Still, the best of these new tools could make Web shopping more satisfying and convenient than it already is.

Let's Find a Deal

As e-tailers focus on the bottom line, bargains are getting tougher to find.

Luckily, tools for tracking them down at online stores are becoming more sophisticated, too.

The original generation of shopping bots--MySimon Inc.'s MySimon.com, Evenbetter.com (now part of DealTime.com Ltd.), Mygeek.com, and some others--required shoppers to launch a browser and type in the name of a product, after which the Web site returned a list of sites that sold the product, along with the price each charged. The newer bots--including Clickthebutton Inc., Dash.com, IChoose Inc., and RUSure Ltd. -- are desktop applications that you download, install, and run in the background. When you peruse an item at your favorite Web store, these deal finders alert you to lower prices elsewhere. To put them to the test, we shopped at Amazon.com Inc. for a scanner, software, a DVD movie, and a book.

Better Bots

Though not the flashiest of the bunch, Clickthebutton was our favorite. Its 2-minute download time is among the fastest, it doesn't ask you to supply personal information, it searches some 400 stores, and overall it saved us the most money. For instance, it found a DVD version of The Thomas Crown Affair for just $14.48 at Sam Goody versus $17.49 at Amazon. Savings were even more dramatic on the Epson Perfection 1200U scanner: $177.15 at Buy.com, compared to $232.94 at Amazon. Clickthebutton.com lists BizRate's rating for each merchant; its prices reflect taxes, and it shows separate totals for different shipping options.

In most cases, Clickthebutton delivers its search results automatically in a pop-up window while the product is visible on screen. We were required to type the name of the scanner into the desktop application, however.

RUSure hunted down the Perfection 1200U at Avnetdirect.com for $187.74, only $10.59 more than Clickthebutton's bottom-dollar price. But it told us Amazon's price for the DVD movie was the lowest available. RUSure takes about 20 minutes to download, and it takes some time to search 700-plus sites for the product.

The shopping bot performs price comparisons for 131 of those sites. When you open a product page at an Internet store, RUSure asks "Are you sure?" in a funky synthesized voice and displays its search results in ticker-tape style as they arrive. Like Clickthebutton, RUSure lets you search for an item manually.

IChoose works with large, popular retailers that have agreed to offer its users small discounts, coupons, or some other special deal, like free shipping. If a discount at an IChoose store brings its price below the one you're considering, the blue icon IChoose installs in your system tray flashes; you click on it to check the offer. As with RUSure, you needn't lift a finger once the program is installed. We liked the way IChoose fills out order forms using information you provide on setup, too. But IChoose found no prices lower than Amazon's for any item on our shopping list.

Dash.com's DashBar runs across the bottom of your screen as you browse, delivering weather information and search-engine access as well as a list of its 125 partner sites. As you look at products, the bar occasionally flashes a message about a related site's discount--but it's up to you to investigate the details. In its quest for our book, My Parrot, My Friend, Dash.com alerted us to a Barnes & Noble offer that cut $1 off the $20 price--far above the $7.95 Clickthebutton and RUSure found at Allbooks4less.com.

All four new bots work with Internet Explorer 4.0 or later; Navigator and America Online Inc. support is spottier. We noticed no drag in our system's performance.

Paying in Private

Still feel uncomfortable about sharing your credit card number online?

PrivateBuy, a new service from Ecount, allows you to shop in complete privacy at any online retailer that will accept MasterCard International Inc. and will ship goods to a nonbilling address.

You supply your credit card number, name, and other information at sign-up.

PrivateBuy then gives you a 16-digit MasterCard account number, an alias, and a fictitious billing address that's tied to the account. When you shop online using this number, the Web site has no clue as to the true identity of the buyer. Slick.

E-Tail Details

You pay $4 each time you add money to your PrivateBuy account, which can hold up to $1000 at a time. Ecount says that it keeps your credit card and other ID information on a secure server offline.

Achex and E-cash, free services slated to launch this fall, debit your checking account to pay for Internet purchases. Achex lets e-tailers receive funds directly from any checking account that accepts direct deposits. The first time you visit an e-merchant that accepts Achex payments, you sign up, entering your name, address, bank name and routing number, and two pieces of information for authenticating your identity into a secure form that only Achex sees. After that, you just select the Achex payment option and enter your user ID, password, and memo information (if any) to include on a viewable, printable electronic receipt that looks like a check. Shoppers can track their account activity via an electronic register at www.achex. com. As of mid-August, Webvan Group Inc., 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., Peapod Inc., and 17 other merchants had signed up to accept Achex payments.

E-cash users must download funds from a linked account at a participating bank into a "wallet" application on their PCs. The money takes the form of certified digital currency, bearing serial numbers but not the individual's checking account number, which ensures anonymity. When you buy something, the wallet app transfers the payment due to a participating merchant's "cash register" application. E-cash's U.S. partners had not been announced at press time.

Internetcash is aimed primarily at cash-only customers and at security-conscious shoppers who frequent such specialty stores as the Sunglass Hut and Overstock.com. You can purchase Internetcash in $10, $20, $50, or $100 debit cards at designated brick-and-mortar stores. To activate a card, you go to the Internetcash site and enter a 20-character ID located under a scratch-off label on the card. Afterward, you can shop at any of the 120 record, clothing, game, and other sites that accept Internetcash. So far, the cards are available in only nine states. But you can fund an account with a credit card--say, if you want to give Internetcash as a gift.

Deals Getting Real

The long-prophesied day when shoppers will routinely be able to stroll through 3D showrooms to examine merchandise is still mostly a dream. But color matching, 3D graphics, and a range of other enhancements currently available on a handful of sites are able to give shoppers a better idea of what they're buying.

Ever ordered a teal sweater online, only to receive a navy blue one in the mail? E-Color Inc.'s True Internet Color utility seeks to fix this. QVDS Inc.'s Blindsgalore.com, Bloomingdales.com, VenusSwimwear.com, and several other sites already use the new technology.

To set up E-Color, you go through a onetime process of adjusting your monitor's brightness and working with color charts to determine how your monitor and graphics card process color. This generates a cookie with display profile information used by E-Color's server to adjust the color in True Internet Color Web pages. Results are uneven: In our tests, a lime-green T-shirt from Bloomingdales.com did not accurately match the color of the image displayed on the Web site, with or without True Internet Color.

Home furnishings merchandiser Breakthrough Commerce LLC's MyMaison.com takes a lower-tech approach. Shoppers who purchase a $20 color fan containing all 1757 Pantone shades can look up the tint of an item according to the number listed on the Web site. The system matched colors well in our test, but casual shoppers are unlikely to want to bother buying the fan.

Turn, Turn, Turn

Other e-tailers are starting to deploy 3D tools that let you zoom in on an image, rotate it, and use other special effects to get a closer, more complete look at the goods.

By the end of this year, Yahoo Inc. will have converted thousands of the 5 million items on its shopping portal into photo-realistic 3D objects that you can view from the front, side, and back by clicking on left and right arrows.

Other Web stores are using photography combined with computer-generated models to create 3D objects that are a bit less realistic but more interactive. At SharperImage.com, you can use your mouse to rotate, flip, and view the site's lie-detecting telephone, its ionic pet brush, and 19 other yuppie must-haves.

You can even "turn on" mechanical devices by clicking their on-off button with your mouse. To do this, you'll need one or more plug-ins such as Macromedia Inc.'s Shockwave and 3D Dreams' Spike. Unfortunately, this technology didn't work on some of the computers we tried to test it on.

Don't like buying something based on a fuzzy thumbnail photo? By adopting MGI Software Corp.'s Zoom Server, a few apparel and furnishings merchandisers--including J. C. Penney Co.'s JCPenney.com, Ninewest.com, and Neimanmarcus.com--let you perform super-high-resolution zooms on purses, shoes, bedspreads, and other products. It's well worth waiting a few seconds between zooms to see texture and detail down to the weave of a straw bag or the wood grain in a rolltop desk.

Shoppers who can't face the dressing room mirror can try clothes on virtually using a 3D model at Landsend.com, Just4meplus.com, and other sites. But this technology needs further tweaking. When we imposed Dolly Parton proportions (a 23-inch waist and 53-inch bust) on a model, her appearance didn't change much from when we supplied less drastic measurements.

Smells Like...

Whether you're ready or not, smellable, touchable products may be coming soon to an online store near you. Oakland-based DigiScents says its ISmell digitizer will reach stores by next year. About the size of a bookshelf speaker, this USB peripheral will receive signals from DigiScents-enabled Web sites to emit different fragrances, depending on the product selected. The device, which hasn't been priced yet, creates the scents by blowing air over 100 tiny heated vials of oil. Procter & Gamble Co. is testing the technology for possible use with some of the products on its site.

Another breakthrough on the horizon: Someday, before you purchase a four-pack of Charmin at Webvan, you may be able to sneak in a squeeze. By mid-December, a mouse that uses a variant of the Immersion technology introduced in Logitech Corp.'s WingMan Force Feedback mouse for 3D games should arrive, allowing you to "feel" a sweater's buttons and the texture of a nubby towel on sites supporting the technology.

These tools for online shoppers are still in their infancy. But as the technologies mature and more sites adopt them, more people will likely gravitate toward their monitors to find clothes, cars, food, and even houses.

Going online to buy may seem as natural someday as piling into a car for a trip to your neighborhood mall.

Business Buying From B2Bs: Who Qualifies?

Business-to-business e-commerce is all the rage. But how big must a business be to shop at a B2B? Even if you are the sole employee of your small company, you may be welcome at some of these sites. In many cases, all you need is a credit card.

Business-to-business sites for shoppers who might otherwise head to Staples Inc. or Office Depot Inc. include group-sales merchants such as Mercata Inc.

(www.mercata.com) and MobShop Inc. (www.mobshop.com). At these sites, prices drop as small-scale buyers pool their orders to create one large purchase. With Works.com, an online buying service for small and medium-size businesses, you can apply for a credit card on the spot (if you don't already have one) to shop for computer, office, and other business supplies.

Even the smallest business can use B2B portals, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Bcentral (www.bcentral.com), to get virtual services. A newer competitor, AllBusiness.com, offers to help you hire recruiters, seek funding, and secure legal or other consulting services.

Of course, some B2B sites want to traffic only with big fish. Terms like "Fortune 500 clients" on a home page generally indicate that the site isn't interested in your one-person show. But the "business-to-business" label itself shouldn't scare you off: Do a little more research, and you may find that your small business is plenty big for B2B.

--Gaea Zhou

Color matching, 3D graphics, and other enhancements already give shoppers a better idea of what they're buying.

When Good Deals Go Bad

Customer service reps who ignore e-mail. Electronic shopping carts that won't display sales tax or shipping charges until you plug in your credit card number. Vendors that balk at shipping to an address different from the one where your credit card bill goes. Shopping on the Web introduces unique frustrations while at the same time recycling others already familiar to mail-order fans.

Where's My Order?

BizRate Inc.'s Bizrate.com, a site that researches and rates e-commerce merchants, says that last year 30 percent of all online orders arrived late--or never. Delivery problems and the failure of some online sellers to honor promotional offers are the top complaints at UGetHeard.com, a customer loyalty site visited by 200,000 people a month.

Still, an informal PCWorld.com survey finds that most respondents are happy with their Web purchasing experiences. Most of the respondents' complaints relate to late-arriving shipments, incorrectly filled orders, or fine-print terms that seriously altered purchase costs.

PC World reader Richard Todd of Salinas, California, says he almost had to pay $36 in shipping fees on a $44.49 Petopia order because he didn't read a disclaimer saying that a free shipping offer didn't apply to purchases weighing over 30 pounds. Petopia waived the shipping charges after Todd complained, thereby ensuring his future business.

The Web still rules when it comes to selection, but it's more important than ever to read the fine print before you buy.

Other commonsense tips to avoid or respond to problems:

*Improve Web shopping for everyone by rating a site if it offers this option through services such as BizRate.com.

*Think twice before shopping online (or via mail order, for that matter) if you're on a deadline. Better to pay a few more bucks to get that cheese knife on time from a neighborhood store than to give your boss a birthday gift two weeks late.

*Complain to the e-tailer via e-mail and telephone. Sometimes that's all it takes.

*Got ripped off at an auction site? Consider an arbitration service at sites such as UGetHeard.com or Squaredeal.com.

*If all else fails, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau in the city where the online store is headquartered (find the info you need at bbb.org) or with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov, 877/382-4357).

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