Five seconds more and I would have bought that camera.
But as I prepared to click my mouse to approve the purchase online - an act that always gives me an anxious Dr. Strangelove sensation of commencing war on my wallet with the push of a button - I scrolled down the screen and was stopped in my tracks. What caught my eye was an excerpt from a user review trashing that particular camera. The person commenting might have been a crackpot and the criticism offbase, but the fervor of it caused me to hesitate and hunt around the Web a little more.
After pecking through a dozen other reviews, including several from professional online publications, I ultimately bought another camera.
I'll probably never know if the one I bought, as a gift, is truly better than the one I almost did. But the fact that some unknown and unverified user's comment caused me, at least, to investigate the purchase more and ultimately change my mind reflected the new muscle of consumer reviews online.
Product reviews have long been a staple of mass media. But they've been amplified in recent years by bloggers, some of whom cultivate a large audience and authority in a specific area, like photography or fashion. "Social shopping" sites such as ThisNext, Yahoo! Shoposphere, Stylehive.com and Crowdstorm.com are also growing - networks of consumers who share their likes and dislikes about products.
The online discussions can be particularly potent this season with people mulling big-ticket items that can seem confusing, like computers, big-screen televisions, video games and cameras. And retailers are buying into the shift themselves, realizing that the more discussion about their products, the merrier. Or perhaps, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Wal-Mart, Target, Macy's and Staples are among chains that include consumer comments about products.
"Like media, retail seems to be moving from a broadcast model to one of consumer control," said Kate Niederhoffer, director of research methodology for Nielsen Online, which recently examined the impact of hundreds of blogs on holiday gift discussions.
In a poll commissioned for iProspect and JupiterResearch earlier this year, one in three Internet users said their decisions were influenced by sites with social content such as Amazon.com.
"It's human nature. People trust people like themselves," Robert Murray, president of iProspect, said. "So when it comes to recommendations, they tend to trust the input of fellow consumers much more than corporate marketing."
User comments are often more raw and emotional than product reviews in the media. Someone disparaging something they've bought or gushing over it can come off as an unbalanced tirade or as irrationally exuberant, but as Murray indicated, the unvarnished comments come in stark - and sometimes powerful - contrast to the more polished marketing used to promote the product in the first place.
Dan Ackerman, a senior editor with the technology site CNET .com, suggests reading a wide range of assessments, from users and professional reviewers, to get the truest sense of a product. Be wary of overwrought criticism, he said, but also of reviews by "fanboys" - people who seem infatuated with a particular brand like Apple or Nintendo.
"You have to take it all with a grain of salt. When users review something, they generally give it a `1' or a `10.' You typically don't write one, if you're in the middle about something," said Ackerman, who believes that the professional and user reviews also roughly agree about most products.
Consumers in Asia rank highest for their trust in so-called consumer-generated media, or CGM. Roughly 75 percent or 80 percent of shoppers in South Korea and Taiwan reported relying on Web opinions about goods, compared with about 65 percent in North America and, at the low end, 35 percent in Finland, according to Nielsen Online's BuzzMetrics.
Similarly, in a Deloitte Consulting survey released in October, 62 percent of consumers say they read consumer-written product reviews on the Internet, including 42 percent of people 75 and older.
Technology, understandably, is the major area for people writing and reading product reviews. The Deloitte study found that 45 percent of consumers had read at least one product review in the past year on home electronics. Car buyers, on the other hand, still apparently evaluate the product the old-fashioned way, kicking tires and visiting showrooms: Only 13 percent of consumers surveyed said they had read online auto reviews.
I just hope the person for whom I got the camera likes it.
I'd be loath to admit I took the advice of someone whose name I don't even know.
Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.