A Guide to Shopping Online
I began my search by going to CNET (http://www.cnet.com), where you'll find a good number of online vendors for the desired item. Though the retailer with the rock-bottom price didn't have it in stock, I ordered from one who said that it did. When the camera didn't arrive as promised (I needed it in a hurry and asked for it to be shipped overnight) I called, and after having some trouble getting through, I was told first that the item wasn't in stock, then that it had been in stock but had never shipped, and finally, that it had shipped but was going by ground and wouldn't be with me for another 7 to 10 days. I canceled my order.
I then discovered a site called 2020consumer.com (http://www.2020consumer.com). And I discovered that about 90% of my fellow shoppers had rated my online vendor -- remember? the one that had given me the awful experience? -- as "awful." Had I had that information in advance, of course, I could have spared myself a lot of hair-tearing (not to mention howling at the moon and all those things I did with the meat tenderizer).
The business ratings sites exist to help you answer the question: is this online store any good? The same question can be asked of bricks-and-mortar establishments, of course, except that you can actually go in there and yell at someone if you're unhappy. The same is not true on the Web, especially if the place you ordered from happens to be in New York and you happen to be in Portland.
This disadvantage is more than made up for by one of the core strengths of the Web -- it affords people the opportunity to communicate in ways they wouldn't have been able to in the dark years B.W. (Before Web).
Let's take a closer look at some of these services.
Bizrate (www.bizrate.com) gives a store description and shows which ordering, payment, and delivery methods are available, along with contact numbers. It also provides a list of "special features," including whether or not you must register, whether the site has one-click ordering, whether your customer information is kept confidential, and so on.
It also rates a heck of a lot of different kinds of stores. If you search for soccer gear, for instance, you'll find a list of fourteen stores, and their accompanying ratings.
One of the interesting features of Bizrate.com is that it has a rebate program as well. You register, create an e-mail address (the mail for which you have automatically forwarded to your regular e-mail address), and then use that address when you shop at one of their participating stores. At Amazon the discount is 5%. The money isn't deducted from your initial purchase, however; it's mailed to you in the form of a rebate check, which you must request from Bizrate.com. Also, you must go directly to the retailer from the Bizrate site in order to qualify for the discount.
Is there the possibility of conflict of interest here -- a business rater having a commercial relationship with the companies it rates? Er... well, a Fool would have to answer, "Yes." It doesn't mean it's necessarily so, but it does give us pause. It's a good sign that there seems to be no correlation between whether or not a store gives a BizRate discount, and its relative rank. Then too, the fact that there is competition among these business raters is good for the consumer -- it helps to keep them honest, and gives consumers more of a choice.
RatingWonders (www.ratingwonders.com) is another large site, with rates across a wide range of products. Categories include: products, services, site quality, features, ordering, payment, shipping, and returns. When you click on each of these categories you get a further breakdown. For instance, the products category yields information on the range of products offered, the price range, whether product images are available on the site, whether there is a product description, and if you can find a larger image by clicking on the smaller one.
There's a tab on the site for "consumer reviews" -- whereby you can input any experience you might have had with the shop. You can also read what other consumers have written.
2020consumer (www.2020consumer.com) also has simple message boards (a feature that Fools are bound to like). But how do we know (here or elsewhere) that the company in question wouldn't spam the board with favorable comments? Well, there's no foolproof way, but 2020consumer does take the precaution of requiring you to confirm from your e-mail address that you posted that note before your message is posted to the site.
In addition to contact information for the retailer, 2020 asks a series of questions of the consumer: "Did they have the item in stock? Did they try to convert you to buy another product instead of the one you wanted? Did they try to sell you other stuff (e.g. accessories) that you didn't want?" By answering these questions and then seeing the results, shoppers can get a clearer idea of the kinds of difficulties they may anticipate at the less-savory sites.
There was no rating for my "awful" retailer on bizrate, but there was on 2020, though it seems to be a smaller (and presumably newer) site, with far fewer respondents than some of the larger ones.
Gomez (www.gomezadvisors.com) rates an awful lot of things. Not just online retailers, but banks, brokers, insurance companies, travel agents, pet suppliers -- you name it. Ratings are given across a range of categories: overall, ease of use, customer confidence, onsite resources, relationship services, and overall cost. In addition, the site offers a breakdown by customer profile -- for Amazon it will show you how users rated Amazon who were book lovers, gift buyers, or self-helpers. (Could you be a self-helping book-lover? Or would that tie the database up in knots?)
Active Buyers Guide
Reluctant to overpay for features you may never use? Shame on you! Just what kind of a consumer are you? Actually, there's help online. Active Buyers Guide (www.activebuyersguide.com) helps you filter out those unwanted features by asking you a series of questions about your preferences. It compares products in a table, so it lets you see what you might be able to find closest to your particular needs.
With these kinds of tools, you can shop a whole lot more intelligently than you can in the bricks-and-mortar world. You aren't at the mercy of the latest newspaper ads to find out who has the lowest prices. If you're in a rural area, you've still got plenty of choices. Once you find those lowest prices, you can find out in advance what other customers have to say about the online store before you buy. And once you've completed your purchase you can contribute to the commentary yourself.
Go ahead. Use the online tools. Be a part of the online community. Be Foolish!
A Guide to Shopping Online