Comparison shopping online

Plugged In

November 23, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

Sara wants to know if the ivory-colored bag on clearance at J. Crew is too summery to wear now.

A guy in Arizona who wants to stand in line at Best Buy on the day after Thanksgiving to get a $379 laptop has a question about Black Friday line etiquette.

Total strangers have the answers in the online world of retail talk, where thousands, maybe millions, of people head to the Internet to plan their shopping expeditions and talk about them afterward.

"In the last three years, there has been an explosion," said Naveen Donthu, a professor of marketing at Georgia State University who has studied the trend. "Before that, we used to have online communities, but they mainly were software enthusiasts."

Now more than ever, the Internet is a place not just for shopping. It's a hub for researching prices, planning strategies and just plain yakking about it all.

About 25 percent of holiday purchases this year will be influenced by the Internet, according to a survey by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation.

Electronics is still the most popular item for searches on price comparison sites, followed by apparel, appliances and home improvements.

Web entrepreneurs across the country are making money on this quest for knowledge, without actually selling products themselves.

Brad Olson, a 27-year-old computer engineering graduate from Marquette University in Milwaukee, launched www.gottadeal.com in January 2004, from his home in Oak Creek, Wis.

In November of that year, he launched a companion site that publishes bootleg copies of Black Friday sale ads a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving.

Olson gets the ads from people who are in a position to get their hands on them inside the companies, printing plants and newspapers, he said. During the weeks before Thanksgiving, the Black Friday ads triple the traffic to his site, but he operates 12 months a year.

This month, Olson logged his 100,000th member on Gottadeal, which highlights good buys on a variety of products sold online. Visitors who sign up as members can use the sites' message boards to ask questions and chat about the deals.

Olson gave up on his search for an engineering job after his site took off, and he now supports himself with the money he makes when visitors to his site click through and buy one of the products he recommends.

Two other sites launched this year: www.savvies.com and www.jellyfish.com.

Savvies is a shopping chat site owned by Stephanie Campbell, 35, of Middleton, Wis., and her husband, Christopher, who runs a Web service business, SoftMill Productions.

Stephanie Campbell is a former accountant who gave up that career after the couple's two daughters were born.

"I'm a shopper, and I love fashion," she said. Now she works from home overseeing the Savvies message boards. Each month, she tapes a podcast where she shows viewers how to find a fashionable outfit for $100, visiting a different store each time.

Just as Savvies caters to young adult women, Gottadeal started with a base of consumers much like its founder.

"When it started, it was mostly males looking for deals on computer stuff," Olson said. But after his Black Friday ads attracted national attention, the fan base for the site started to attract women who were making holiday shopping lists.

"We're getting more stay-at-home moms," he said, adding that he now posts deals on products that appeal to them: appliances, toys and shoes, for example.

Jellyfish, which launched this summer, is a price-sorting shopping site for bargain hunters who are more interested in deals than chat.

Jellyfish lets its members comparison shop across categories and rebates part of the commission paid by retailers who make a sale through the Jellyfish site.

Jellyfish was founded by Madison, Wis., businessmen Brian Wiegand and Mark McGuire and has attracted millions in venture capital. Their new site will compete with a long list of comparison shopping sites, but with only a small number of sites that rebate part of their commissions to shoppers.

Jellyfish has launched a reverse auction to keep shoppers coming back. The site puts up an item at noon each day and reduces the price each second, until the item is either sold or given away free.

A new five-year forecast from Forrester Research says people who are the biggest online spenders also are the most likely to use sites that compare prices. Top sites for comparison shopping are pricegrabber.com, CNET Networks, Shopping.com, shopping.yahoo.com, mysimon.com, www.nextag.com, froogle.google.com and www.shopzilla.com.

Forrester reports that a large majority of shoppers already use sites with consumer product reviews, for-sale listings and message board posts.

The biggest online spenders put more stock in product ratings than in blogs, Forrester said.

Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group inc. in Chicago, a research and consulting firm, said social sites such as Savvies.com appeal mainly to a younger audience.

Freedman said the majority of online shoppers are looking for the best price on whatever they want to buy.

But for those who need some coaching, there are a legion of sites and other shoppers with opinions.

Sara, the woman who asked Savvies.com about the J. Crew purse, was advised that it just wasn't right for her cold-weather wardrobe. But if the deal is good, Sara might want to buy it now and save it for next summer, responded someone named Stephanie.

And as for the guy who asked Gottadeal.com members whether Best Buy allows people to save places in line on Black Friday? Veterans of the pre-dawn stakeouts suggested he needn't worry about store rules on that, but to look out for the guys behind him in line.

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