Bargains exist, but be sure to compare

Shopping: Web sites can help, but do your research and check fees.

May 03, 1999|By LESLIE GORNSTEIN | LESLIE GORNSTEIN,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Peanut the Rare Dark Blue Elephant rambles in the shadows of cyberspace, fetching hefty sums, considering that he's small and stuffed and a member of the species Beanie Baby.

Twenty dollars and fifty cents on one Web site, a mere $5 on another, but nearly $30 at a third site.

Flaming Peanut fans can spend hours comparing these prices on auction sites such eBay or uBid. Or they can go to Bidder's Edge, a new site that lets you compare bids from more than a dozen auction sites (www.biddersedge.com).

Comparison-shopping Web sites are the new darlings of the Internet savvy. Go to www.bookfinder.com to get a deal on the latest Patricia Cornwell hardback. Eyeball digital-camera prices at www.computershopper.com. You can even price life insurance, cellular phones or washer-dryers.

But watch out. Some sites, awash in advertisements and tiny links, are harder to read than the Rosetta Stone. Shipping charges may make you wish you had done your shopping the old-fashioned way. And if you're in a hurry, you may be disappointed that even basic information isn't at your fingertips.

Let's go shopping for three items: a book, a clothes dryer and a digital camera.

The book:

Sitting at my Melrose Avenue hair salon, watching the skinny, skinny stylists trip from customer to customer in 5-inch platform mules, I was recently informed that the novel "Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres is the talk of Europe. To be hip, one must read it.

To be hipper, one must get a deal on it online.

Enter Bookfinder. Search by author's first name, last name or by title, and up comes a list of editions and prices from various online sellers, including Amazon.com and Bibliocity.

The site offers detailed descriptions of each book's condition -- as in new or used, stained, cleaned or written-in -- and even which printing we're talking about. Estimated shipping costs -- usually about $3.50 -- are listed under each bookseller.

Bibliocity is supposedly offering a "very good trade paperback" version in its 29th printing for only $6.50, care of an Austin, Texas-based dealer, Asylum Books. The bad news: The book's original printings weren't in English, and it doesn't say whether this volume is a translation.

The good news: There's an automated e-mail form you can send to Asylum to see if the offer is legit. Less than two hours later, Asylum's Bob Wolfkill writes back confirming that the book is available, it's in English, and yes, I can use my Visa card. (Good. If this is fraud, my liability is limited.) The book will be held for me until Bob gets paid $9.50, which includes shipment and all that.

The same book sells at my local Barnes & Noble for $13.

Other book-hunting sites are even easier. At eCompare (www. ecompare.com), you type in a keyword ("Corelli's Mandolin") and then click on a link to the book itself. The retail price is at the top. A chart shows the availability of each book from each online dealer. Books are usually either ready to ship or available within three days. Shipping prices are listed at the end of each line.

The dryer:

Online commerce analysts are eyeballing Consumers Digest's site (www.consumersdigest.com), where you can compare prices on household goods and electronics.

Getting to the section on dryers is easy. Click on household goods, major appliances, and then dryers. It helps to know what brand you want, how much you want to spend, and what features you're looking for, such as child lock-out, wrinkle guard or a lighted drum. The site will ask you about all of that.

I know nothing about dryers, so let's see ... I check wrinkle guard, sneaker-and-sweater rack, electric, $350 or less. Five dryers emerge, starting at about $280. But you have to click on each link to compare prices -- if you're using a slow modem, forget it.

Manufacturers' list prices and photos are often unavailable -- only a "best price," whatever that is. You do get the make and model of each dryer, but no way to buy online. Warranties? Customer service? Participating retailers? No idea.

A Frigidaire model pops up with a best price of $303. A major-appliances salesman at Sears says the store has a similar dryer on sale for $399. Or maybe it isn't so similar.

"Is the dryer you're looking at a front-loader or a top-loader?" he asks. Well, the site offers no photo and no clue.

The bottom line: Get in the car and go to the mall.

The digital camera:

Technology media empire Ziff-Davis is getting notices for its Computer Shopper site (www. computershopper.com), which lets you browse all things chip-enhanced.

The design is a lot like Times Square at night. Flashing advertisements dance and prance. Little bitty links appear on the horizon like a constellation of far-off supernovae. Info on "hot products" scrolls upward from the left.

Ah, yes. The camera.

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