The number of online merchants may have dwindled, but price competition among the survivors is fierce. For shoppers, the savings can be substantial: the new Billie Holiday CD box set sells for $154 at one online store but for $127 at another; a top-of-the-line Nikon digital camera that lists for $899 and typically sells online for $799 can be found for well under $700. And why buy that "Citizen Kane" DVD for $29 when you can have it for $21?
The competition can be a bonanza for consumers, but only if they can actually find the best price. Fortunately, a number of Web sites are waiting to help. These price guide sites list the prices at a variety of different stores — in some cases including tax and shipping, which can have a big effect on the final cost — and many offer ratings of the online vendors as well.
The sites are most effective when you are looking for commodity items that are widely available from store to store: books, movies, music, consumer electronics, computers, software. They tend to be less worthwhile when you are shopping for items like clothing or toys, for which the number of online stores is smaller and selections from store to store are more eclectic.
PriceGrabber.com (www.pricegrabber .com) has gotten just about everything right. Its pages are quick-loading and well organized; searches are fast, and the data appear to be mostly accurate and up to date. Its listings give prices with and without shipping, handling and tax, and they can be sorted in price order. (In the initial display, "featured merchants" who pay a fee to the site get the top positions.) Most products are pictured and well described.
While most other price guides offer merchant ratings from the two major online merchant rating services, BizRate (www.bizrate.com) and Gomez (www .gomez.com), PriceGrabber lets shoppers describe their shopping experiences and rate vendors themselves on a five-star scale. In areas like electronics — where the lowest-priced vendors sometimes sell gray- market goods without United States warranties or force consumers to purchase accessories or pay huge insurance charges to make up for rock-bottom prices — the reviews can be amusing and far more telling than the simple star ratings from BizRate and Gomez. (They are also more subject to abuse: lower-rated merchants sometimes contribute reviews under pseudonyms, trying to repair their reputations by saying nice things about themselves. PriceGrabber says it tries to detect and delete such postings.)
There are two notable drawbacks to the PriceGrabber service: it does not consistently show price listings from Amazon.com, the largest online retailer, and the "lowest price" it displays in its search summary is often for a used item being sold on Half.com. For shoppers intending to buy new goods, this ensures a moment of elation followed by disappointment. PriceGrabber's director of marketing, Dan Goldman, said that the issue with Amazon was a technical one that the two companies were working to resolve and that the lowest-price problem "will be fixed," but not in time for the holiday season.
For those seeking computers, software and electronic goods, CNET's Shopper.com (shopper.cnet.com) provides a wide array of vendors, fast and efficient searching, flexible sorting of results and links from products to CNET's extensive collection of product reviews and user ratings. The states where vendors are located are identified, allowing the shopper to determine if sales tax will be applied, but neither the tax rate nor amount of the tax charged is shown.
For other products, CNET relies on MySimon (www.mysimon.com), which it owns. MySimon also has an extensive selection of vendors. But pages tend to be slow- loading (removing the ubiquitous pictures of the site's weird-looking humanoid mascot might help), and almost any search requires an additional "narrow your search" step that further slows down the process.
MySimon's way of displaying search results can be frustrating: For example, a shopper who tries to find the Billie Holiday CD set by searching from the home page for "Lady Day" won't find it on the first page of results, even though those are the first two words of the title. The listing of shipping prices is hit-or-miss, and total price is not calculated. But MySimon also has some merchants that its competitors do not (including AllDirect.com, which had the lowest price on the Billie Holiday box set).
PriceScan.com (pricescan.com), which began during the Internet boom as a guide to computer and software prices, has gradually expanded into other areas. It is simple and clear, though not as well designed or easy to navigate as PriceGrabber. It does, however, let a shopper narrow a search by price and product features in a way that other sites do not, and it distinguishes between United States and gray-market goods.
Once perhaps the best of the price guides, PriceScan seems to be editing some listings less carefully than in the past, and competitors now offer features that PriceScan lacks. A couple of weeks ago, for example, none of the newer models of Apple computers could be found there, even though they have been on the market since July. (They appeared after a reporter's inquiry.) PriceScan also provides less product information than consumers might want, and gives some shipping and handling costs but not taxes, leaving it to the shopper to add it all up.
At DealTime (www.dealtime.com), whose service is featured on several of the major portals, searches are fast. But the subsequent store listings suffered from slow response during several recent visits. DealTime tends to return fewer listings than its competitors; searches this week for the "Citizen Kane" DVD, for example, returned 7 listings, compared with 11 on PriceGrabber, 13 on PriceScan and 12 on MySimon (the last also listed three Amazon auctions).
BizRate, which began as a service that rates the performance of online vendors, now offers price comparisons as well. It offers a good array of merchants in most categories and does a better job than other guides at alerting shoppers to special offers and promotions. But its pages load more slowly than those of many of its competitors, and sorting by price can be leisurely to the point of annoyance. In addition, shipping and tax costs are not provided.
For book lovers, there is one last site worth noting: AddAll.com (addall.com) searches roughly 40 vendors of books, new and used and out of print. There are no fancy graphics or banner ads; the site simply presents the results, reasonably quickly, in a clear, straightforward fashion in order of price, including tax and shipping. It's a good example of less is more.