Want a cut-rate price on a new 'N Sync CD? Need a home-repair book not stocked by your local store? The Internet is the obvious place to shop, but many people find the Web bewildering.

And for good reason. Will you get the right merchandise when you want it—or get hoodwinked? Will you pay the best price, or would a better one be available with another 10 minutes' surfing?

In the real world, you find good deals by comparison shopping. Ditto for the Internet—but once you consider essential details like shipping dates and costs, merchant reliability, and possibly sales tax, Web comparisons can be a black hole for time.

Squander 15 minutes or 20 minutes to save a few bucks, and you may find yourself working for minimum wage. Perish the thought—you might do better visiting a full-price bookstore—where the browsing is likely to be a lot more interesting.

Let the 'bots do it
But these objections disappear faster than a hot rod from the starting line if you automate the comparison process. And that's just the goal of "shopbot," also called "comparison shopping," Web sites. Once at these sites, you simply describe the merchandise you're seeking and click the "search" button. The Web site's software will display a table with details from dozens or hundreds of e-tailers about:
  • price
  • availability
  • shipping schedule
  • e-tailer rating from an independent agency (optional).
  • a "buy" button or hotlink to the merchant.
Knowing that the real and the ideal don't always see eye to eye, Home & Family Finance Online decided to tour some shopping bots. Think of it as comparison shopping among the comparison shoppers.

Like other Web businesses, the comparison shoppers use a bunch of different "business models." Some prowl the Web for deals; others simply advertise for merchants. Some receive a percentage of each sale from the merchant, while others get paid for listings.

Shopping the shopbots
Bots can't work unless they can find what you want, so we started describing merchandise. We searched the home and garden category at Excite.com's shopping site for "spades." After a couple of minutes, the site helpfully displayed one printed fabric and 13 (!) sledgehammers, but nothing that might dig in the dirt.

We tried something surefire, searched for "bicycle," and got 238 results. They were apparently all human-powered vehicles with two wheels, but doing the comparison was unwieldy, to say the least—each page briefly described 12 bikes but took several minutes to load. (To be fair, you could speed downloading by opting not to download the pictures—but you want to see what you're comparing, yes?) Unfortunately, narrowing the search to one brand ("trek bike") still brought 269 results. Worse, the first page featured one shoe, 11 first aid kits, and zero bikes.

Logically, the Web has plenty of comparison shoppers for computers and assorted electronic doo-dads. Pricewatch.com seemed helpful—if you know what you need—since it has lists of product names and model numbers and precious little handholding. Pricewatch describes itself as an advertising service, meaning that it does not actually search the Web, and it warns that it is "not in the position to police retailers."

If the Web can be confusing, so can shopbots. For example, at first glance, ZDnet computer shopper seemed to return only one example of one Palm organizer. The "check prices" button starts the "magic" of instant comparison—four Palm IIIe, at prices ranging from $140 to $199.99, suddenly appeared. Unfortunately, the shipping charges were not listed for all merchants, and when we visited the cheapest merchant, the item was back-ordered. A second merchant offered the ominous message "call" rather than a price. The hotlink to a third merchant took us to the main Web site of a giant computer manufacturer—not to a page describing the Palm IIIe.

Baffled, boggled, and bewildered by the technology sites, we shifted to "fibermedia," as the online world sometimes describes books and magazines. In a search for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, MySimon.com returned prices ranging from $9.98 to one high-rent site selling the same item for $17.94. By default, the display sorted the results by price, but we had the option to sort by title or merchant. The site also listed the Gomez merchant review—reassuring information when dealing with an unknown merchant.

While searching for this writer's home repair classic ("The Complete Idiot's Guide to Trouble-Free Home Repair," by David J. Tenenbaum, ISBN 0028610423), BestBookBuys returned 14 choices. Used prices, including estimated shipping cost, ranged from $10.42 to $14.48. New prices, again including shipping, ranged from $13.51 to $20.45.

This comparison could explain why some e-tailers hate shopbots. The Web sites do direct traffic to e-tailers' sites, but the quick, cheap comparisons can be daunting. Amazon.com, for example, was $6.22 more expensive than Ecampus.com on the home repair book. Then again, what is Ecampus.com? Do you want to deal with them?

Although shopbots are mainly used to compare prices, it turns out that price is not critical for online shoppers: A recent survey by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Web customers were willing to pay extra for first-class service, and that only 47% of respondents said they'd bought from the cheapest e-tailer.

If you're still curious about shopbots, heed some elementary advice for using them intelligently:
  • The better you specify the product, the faster and more accurate the results will be.

  • Be prepared for slow downloads— these sites carry plenty of images and Java script.

  • For the same reasons, expect some printing problems.

  • Know thy vendor. Even the shopbots recognize that the new online world is scam-friendly. Pricewatch, for example, asks users to notify it if vendors "are trying to play a game of charging excessive shipping fees to make up for the lowball price."

  • If you end up throwing money down a rathole, don't expect much help from the shopbot that sent you to the rathole. Here's a standard warning from one site: "DealTime.com cannot be held liable for any actions taken, either wholly or in part, based on the information provided on DealTime.com. Furthermore, DealTime.com shall not be held responsible for any loss, damage or destruction resulting from any business conducted with any company listed on DealTime.com."
Despite the cautions, experts think 'bots have a bright future, especially when they get smarter. In a few years, before your next visit to the National Toy Train Museum in Pennsylvania, you may send a few lines of computer code out onto the Web, searching for the best combination of price and accommodations.

According to the techno-optimists, these 'bots will be even smart enough to buy the tix for you—certain that the airplane would fly to Philadelphia, Pa., rather than Philadelphia, Miss.

Based on our tests of the first generation of shopbots, we're skeptical, to say the least. Still, those vaunted and unerring "Internet experts" predict that eventually billions of shopbots will be cruising the net, looking for values and putting downward pressure on prices.

Maybe. But even before that happens, you may be able to shave some bucks off your bills by intelligent use of the 'bots—if you're cautious, and maybe lucky.

    Taking in the sites

    Know thy vendor.
    Even the shopbots
    recognize that
    the new online world
    is scam-friendly.

    A recent survey found
    that Web customers
    were willing
    to pay extra for
    first-class service.

    The better you
    specify the product,
    the faster and
    more accurate
    the results will be.

Taking in the sites

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