Notes From the Epicenter: Online Shopping Helpers Hold Their Own

The other day I received an e-mail from someone calling themselves MyGeek. It was not, as I had originally surmised, a message from one of my more technology-addicted friends, but from a company that said it could help me find the best prices on products on the Web. MyGeek as it turns out is one of a handful of online shopping agents that help consumers locate, compare, and price just about anything to be had on the Internet.

With most of these agents, you specify what product or type of product you’re seeking, and the agent displays a list of specific products sold by specific online merchants, along with the price each merchant charges. MyGeek is somewhat different: With it, you provide information about the product you’re itching to buy, and MyGeek passes it along to merchants, who then e-mail product quotes to you.

This might have come in handy for my sister who, during a visit last week, decided to buy a fleece jacket online. I watched for a good hour as she surfed first to REI.com, then to Patagonia, to The North Face, and even to Gear.com. At each site, she had to search for the kind of jacket she wanted and then click through multiple screens looking for the right color. Then it was on to the next site, lest she end up spending too much on an inferior product. Throughout the process she consulted with friends who owned similar fleece jackets. “Is yours very fuzzy on the inside?” “Does it have a zipper or buttons?” “Is it really warm?” Her shopping might have been significantly easier had she entered a description of what she wanted into MyGeek. Then she could have sat back drinking tea while vendors out in cyberspace submitted their bids to her.

Does Easier Mean Better?
Of course, as the failure of a hundred dot-com’s can attest, just because something is easier doesn’t mean the world is ready for it. I mean, thousands of people with open Internet connections still reach for the telephone book instead of looking up their numbers on the fast, easy, and intensely useful YellowPages.Com or WhitePages.com.

Still, according to the New York Times, comparison-shopping sites aren’t doing quite as badly as their e-commerce counterparts. Despite the recent shutdowns of Productopia and Deja.com, and a big round of layoffs at Epinons.com, these sites appear to be weathering the downturn storm. And rumor has it that Productopia will be back on the Web soon, under different management (and, one assumes, with different employees). It turns out that helping companies sell products and helping consumers find them is cheaper than selling products yourself.

Trust Me
The venerable shopping agent MySimon has even been appearing in television ads of late (the company is owned by CNET, which may have something to do with this display of solvency). MySimon’s a freaky looking character to be sure — an avatar on steroids. But perhaps his pixilated presence in America’s homes will help raise awareness about this under-utilized service. For its part, MyGeek boasts more than a million members, but it’s hard to imagine this many people being won over by the silly-looking pictures of people with big heads and tape on their glasses that adorn the site (hey guys, the taped-glasses look is so Harry Potter).

Still, like e-commerce businesses before them, comparison-shopping sites may have trouble earning consumers’ trust. After all, most of them make their money by taking a percentage of any sale they facilitate, as well as collecting fees from companies that want their products displayed more prominently in search results. Of course Coca-Cola has been paying supermarkets for years to have more shelf space for its sodas, and consumers seem to have gotten over that. But the Web is a new medium (yes, still) and it may take longer for consumers to settle into the realities of online capitalism.

The Wave of the Future E-Business
If you ask me, though, MyGeek need not worry overly much. Just as search engines cropped up to help the information-seeking masses find what they are looking for on the Web, so will comparison shopping sites be needed to help consumers find what they want to buy on the Web. It’s one of the few dot-com ideas that actually did, on closer inspection, turn out to be clever — and that may make you proud to ask a geek for help.

 

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Posted on: February 19, 2001

2 Comments on Notes From the Epicenter: Online Shopping Helpers Hold Their Own

  1. I requested a quote for a Sonicare toothbrush and EVERY response I’ve received has been from a “team member” from an Amway-affiliated company called “Quixtar,” offering to make me a member (for free!) if I use the person writing as my sponsor or whatever.

    No thanks.

  2. Try http://www.ebrick.com. Using their search engine brings up a list of e-commerce sites that have been rated and reviewed. They also have tons of online coupons called “Deals & Steals” where you can find great bargains that you won’t find elsewhere.

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