Web Shopper Points

SAN FRANCISCO (07/26/2000) - I've never been a coupon clipper. I forget to send in rebate coupons. But when the stakes are high enough, I'm not completely immune to the lure of the freebie. Come to think of it, I keep closer tabs on my frequent flier statements than on my checking account.

So lately, I've been intrigued by Web incentive programs. They're springing up everywhere: Beenz, ClickRewards, Greenpoints, MyPoints, Yahoo Inc. Points, and similar programs award you points every time you buy something at an affiliated Web shopping site. Some even give you points for visiting partner sites or--if you're willing to squander your privacy--providing personal information. Amass enough points, and you can cash them in for gift certificates, merchandise, travel packages, and other prizes.

If you're the sort who pursues free stuff for the thrill of the hunt, you should probably belong to one of these programs. But now that I've spent some time chasing points from a bunch of the contenders, I can safely say that none of them will sway my habits as a cybershopper.

The Point System

First the good news: Most of these programs will throw at least a little something your way simply for registering as a member. For instance, MyPoints (www.mypoints.com) awarded me 150 points for joining and filling out one of the lengthiest, nosiest online surveys that I've ever encountered. (No, I am not planning to have a baby anytime soon, and yes, I guess I would rather listen to Tori Amos than to Fleetwood Mac.)Just what will 150 MyPoints get you? Well...nothing, actually. Even a reward as mundane as a US$5 Red Lobster gift certificate costs 750 points. Worse, the complications of the MyPoints currency make me pine for the simplicity of Skee-Ball tickets. At Borders.com, for instance, you can earn points but not redeem them, while Barnesandnoble.com lets you redeem points but not earn them.

Or was that the other way around?

Then there are Beenz (www.beenz.com), 275 of which I quickly collected by registering at The Motley Fool and Bidz.com and taking a tour of the Madame Alexander doll site. This booty, I discovered, was worth roughly $1.37; to gather Beenz in meaningful numbers, you need to make purchases at Web stores that dole them out. Unfortunately, those sites are dominated by nichey merchants, some of whom are located outside the United States and don't award Beenz to stateside shoppers. (Typical example: an Australian purveyor of "innovative women's fashion underwear.") I was left with the feeling that I'd be hard-pressed to assemble a substantial hill of Beenz even if I put my mind to it.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect instant gratification from MyPoints or Beenz or any other point system. They are, after all, frequent-shopper programs, designed to to reward folks who make lots of purchases. But even when you pile up some points, most of the deals seem pretty lackluster. For instance, you'd have to buy around five dozen CDs at CDNow to accrue enough ClickMiles for a $15 CDNow gift certificate. Over at MyPoints, blowing $2600 on a loaded Dell laptop would get you almost (but not quite) enough points for a $50 Eddie Bauer gift certificate. Big whoop.

Stamp Of Approval

The one web incentive program I can muster any real enthusiasm for is S&H Greenpoints (www.greenpoints.com). Maybe I'm just waxing nostalgic: Greenpoints are a cyberoffshoot of S&H Green Stamps, which evoke shopping excursions with my folks circa 1967. Still, S&H has lined up a sizable roster of name-brand Web stores, including Borders.com, Buy.com, Dell.com, Outpost.com, Toysrus.com, and plenty of others. When you sign up, you get enough points to claim a modest prize (such as a movie ticket) immediately. And although the site's larger prizes tend toward the prosaic (toasters, floor lamps) and/or kitschy ("Grandma's Little Angel" tapestry pillows), I can see myself amassing enough points to claim an item I actually wanted.

But I'd never opt to buy from a particular shopping site simply to collect Greenpoints. Not when a few clicks at a shopping bot might let me save some bucks by taking my business elsewhere.

And bucks, I've decided, remain the ultimate incentive currency. They're accepted everywhere, and they never expire. Save up enough, and you can cash them in for just about anything under the sun--floor lamps and innovative underwear included. If you find a points program that has more advantages and fewer drawbacks, let me know.

Contact PC World executive editor Harry McCracken at websavvy@pcworld.com.

On the Net...

Brainy Searches: WebBrain (www.webbrain.com) is a search engine with a 3D interface that uses spoke-and-hub graphics to show how search topics interrelate. I can't say that it outperforms its more humdrum rivals, and its results do vary in quality. But it sure is fun to fool around with... Hired Hands, Web Style: Many a Web site will do your grocery shopping for you. But how about other tedious tasks such as tidying your house or mowing the lawn?

The provocatively named MyLackey.com will send someone around to take those and other chores off your hands (for a fee, natch). The service is available in Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle, with plans for more cities soon... No More Free Ride: Will the Web stay a freeloader's haven forever?

Maybe, but I recently got an e-mail from all-in-one in-box service MessageClick (www.messageclick.com) notifying me that my free account was going away.

MessageClick now charges its users $10 and up per month, but a host of similar services--including EFax.com and Onebox.com--still don't cost a dime.

Gimme Five

ISP Information Sites

If you're in the market for a new ISP, your options can be downright dizzying.

Arm yourself with the facts and advice dispensed by these sites:

1. Dawn McGatney's ISP Guide (dogwolf.seagull.net): A huge homespun hodgepodge of resources, including user reviews, ISP news, and more.

2. The List (www.thelist.com): The information is a bit sparse, but with 8800-plus providers, this ISP guide is definitive.

3. Free ISP Directory (www.isp.f2s.com): This nifty guide to no-fee providers details the pros and cons of more than 40 choices in the United States alone.

4. 4InternetService.com: An ISP miniportal with links to info and offers around the Net, from provider ratings to DSL primers.

5. Cable Modem Help (www.cablemodemhelp.com): Come here for essential technical tips before (and after) you decide to go the broadband route.

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