The Bottom Line on Online Shopping Bots

Like many regretful TV viewers, I missed the first season of “The Sopranos” on HBO. Not to worry, since the whole season is available for sale on videotape. I decided to use an online shopping bot to find the best price after it became clear that I was going to spend at least US$100 in a brick-and-mortar store.

In the last couple of years, I have become a big fan of bots, having successfully purchased a PalmPilot, a personal CD player, CDs and a number of other items found through using bots.

That’s why it’s so hard to understand why shopping bots are struggling. The concept of having an electronic wizard scour the Internet for the best price on an item I want to buy should be as hot as it gets.

However, bot players, such as Dealtime.com, MySimon.com and a few others, are having a tough time attracting the mass consumer base.

Obstacle Course

As is the case with so many good ideas, bots are facing an obstacle course of stumbling blocks.

First, since banner advertising has taken a hit on the Internet, comparison sites have suffered. By some estimates, these sites depend on banner ads for up to 50 percent of their revenue.

Also, since comparison sites do not sell and control a specific inventory, they are fully dependent on consumer whims and market trends. When e-tailers suffer from low sales volume and inadequate traffic, bots suffer as much or more. Bots make the rest of their money from fees paid by e-tailers to which customers are directed.

Further, if a customer finds a good deal through a comparison site, and then has a negative experience with an e-tailer, chances are the credibility of the bot will suffer.

New Directions

With all sorts of factors to overcome, will bots survive the ongoing dot-com tempest?

Possibly. But it may take some retooling or even a major overhaul. First, comparison sites will need to rely more on creative alliances and partnerships.

Bots need to take full advantage of their association with the merchants to whom they refer customers. For example, when the most recent season of “The Sopranos” ended, had a comparison site immediately featured on its home page the merchant with the lowest price on the first-season videos, chances are sales would have been brisk.

Along the same lines, bots need to create a few pages that tap into our collective consumer hunger for real bargains. A frequently updated page of best buys could provide just such a hook.

Higher Profiles

Additionally, consumers need some coaxing. Ask many online consumers about shopping bots, and they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.

MySimon.com ran a highly imaginative television advertising campaign to raise its profile and increase consumer awareness, but when the economy slowed, that campaign disappeared from the airwaves. Ironically, that’s when MySimon should have bit the bullet and increased the frequency of its ads.

BizRate.com, another surviving member of the bot fraternity, recently inked a deal with Half.com to cooperatively drive traffic to one another’s sites. And in other news, Dealtime.com is forging working relationships with portals that might direct their users to the comparison site.

Islands in the Stream

Comparison sites also need to maximize the revenue they receive from their participating e-tailers. MySimon, for example, already charges its merchants to be listed high up on the list of responses when a user keys in a desired item.

Another boost for comparison sites would be to streamline their navigation. Many are still visually unappealing and text heavy. A lot of the time the comparison search results require too much effort for Web surfers to wade through.

Some of us are not willing to spend a couple of hours trying to understand the comparison results we’re offered. Make it easy and we’ll probably sign on again.

Return to Basics

And finally, while some bot sites rate their merchants on the basis of reliability and efficiency, it would help to rate merchant return policies as well. It often takes way too long to find the return policies, much less understand the policies.

Still, I ended up finding Tony Soprano, et al. for $76 by using a shopping bot. Bada bing.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


12 Comments

    • As a former etailer I can tell you that Bots are the scourge of the etailing industry. Why would any etailer pay to compete with other sites to sell products? Think about it for a second, how many etailers offered the lowest price and thus went out of business? The Bot business model is doomed.

      • Even though e-tailers don’t like the fact that the Net makes it easier to comparision shop, they can’t do much about it. Bots provide consumers will a valuable service, and can even help people find rare items, like the PlayStation 2 when it was released in limited numbers. Bots are an example of how e-commerce is changing the way business is transacted…

        • Bottom line: Bots offer a compelling value proposition to CONSUMERS.

          Bots’ relationship to most e-tailers will be antagonistic. Accept it.

          Bending over backwards to accomodate e-tailers is self-defeating.

          Best bet is to embrace a subscription model, paid for by consumers.

          Must first achieve strong brand recognition, for example, thru alliances with

          consumer advocacy vehicles such as Consumer Reports. Must

          then combine with impeccable ability to showcase vendors offering products’

          LOWEST PRICES – no kidding, no fooling, no compromise.

          • Some thoughts/beliefs:

            o Consumers rarely go for the cheapest, but they want to make sure they’re not getting ripped off or unaware of a sale

            o Dealtime and mySimon acquisition costs for customers are still too high to be offset by merchant commissions

            o CNet Shopper.com should be included on this list — and they make a ton of $$

            o All of the bots provide the best ‘buying’ experience, but not a great ‘shopping’ experience. If they could bring their expertise to the point of purchase at an e-tailer, the consumer would be best served

            o The use of bots is the first step in an evolution towards dynamic pricing. Imagine a day when you want to buy something, are recognized as an important current/potential customer, and your purchase is dynamically priced. The money that would have been spent in a shotgun marketing strategy is instead finely spent on a single customer.

            o Most e-tailers should be excited to be in the bot hunt, it’s their most efficient customer acquisition channel — and the commissions they pay should still yield a transactional profit.

            Let me know your thoughts….

          • Dotcommaven said: “All of the bots provide the best ‘buying’ experience, but not a great ‘shopping’ experience. If they could bring their expertise to the point of purchase at an e-tailer, the consumer would be best served.”

            I believe she is missing the point here. Bots are not about point of purchase. Bots are about service, and in the process they have hit on a clever way to maximize the use of electronics for profit. I agree with everything she said except this one point.

            Also, all of these people who are saying bots are dooomed are way off the mark…I think Internet consumers are looking for whatever might help them find what they’re looking for, the right brand at the best price. What’s the big mystery here and why would comparison shopping disappear?

          • What I meant about bringing the bot service to the point of purchase is this: I love shopping at CDNow, but don’t like their prices. If one of the shopping bots could make it easier for me to “shop” at CDNow and then decide where to buy using their service, I would be ecstatic. It’s a long process from looking at REM’s latest on CDNow to executing that same search at mySimon — if it were easier, I’d do it every time.

          • My company is currently developing a new shopping bot (shopping comparison site) completely geared towards the consumer experience. Of course we will depend on revenue from the merchants, but our biggest concern is giving the shoppers the best possible experience. I like the opinions and criticism I AM reading here and would love any input any of you have regarding what you would want to see in a shopping bot. Please feel free to view our progress at http://www.DealSnatch.com and e-mail AM comments or suggestions. Thanks in advance.

  • No surprise to me. What the New Economy gurus never figured out is that consumer shopping is much more about the experience and the relationship with shopkeepers than it is about lowest price. Shopping bots deny critical fundamentals of the shopping experience.

    Ditto the crashing e-marketplaces. Same problem. Successful supply chain needs the handshake, not just the lowest price.

    The Internet works to extend and enhance established and traditional relationships. It is never going to succeed at faceless, impassive connection. Society doesn’t live that way.

  • Interesting article. It left me wondering, though, what the E-tailers themselves think of the bots. If possible, wouldn’t they block the bots to discourage comparison shopping, preferring “direct” visitors who might tend to stay at their sites longer and shop?

    Just a thought.

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