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.
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.
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.
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.
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.