Comparison ShoppingBuying consumer electronics online can save a ton of money--it's time I tried it.
Cathy Lu, special to PC World
Cathy Lu is a freelance writer and editor.
I'm all about instant gratification. If I'm hungry, I eat immediately. If I'm bored with my clothes, I head to the mall. If I want a new gadget, I'm off to the local Best Buy.
But that's not always smart. Electronics stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and The Good Guys thrive on people like me: people without patience, Veruca Salt types who want it now.
Several years ago I did purchase an electronics product online: a Pioneer DVR-810H TiVo with a built-in DVD recorder. The product was selling for more than a grand at the time, but I bought it for a little over $600 from some no-name online seller I found on Pricewatch.com. I had to wait a week or so to get it, but it was worth the savings.
These days I'm in the market for some new gadgets. Specifically, I'm looking for a Casio Exilim EX-Z750 digicam as a gift for my sister, and a DirecTV HD TiVo receiver so I can take better advantage of my giant high-def television. So I thought I'd foray once again into the world of comparison shopping to see what kinds of deals I could get. But instead of searching for these items on tried-and-true sites, such as PC World's Product Finder, I decided to check out four new services that have recently cropped up on the Internet.
Think of Become.com as the Google of comparison shopping sites. (Yes, I know that Google has its own shopping service, Froogle--but there's no comparison.) Become.com features an interface that's strikingly similar to Google's: a simple search box with two buttons beneath it labeled "Research" and "Shop." If you want to look up info or articles on products, click Research. If you want to cut to the chase, click Shop. Oh, and when you type your search term into the box, Become.com displays a dynamic list of results to try to match what you're looking for--kind of cool.
First I tried looking up some background info on the Casio Exilim EX-Z750. Surprisingly, the results list turned up a pretty good mix, including the Exilim product page (which didn't even make Google's first page) and a slew of reviews from various sites. Sponsored links are located at the bottom and to the right, so they don't clutter up the page.
Next I looked up prices. Become.com turned up only three results, with prices ranging from $333 to $379. That's not a lot of stores, yet the lowest price was lower than any price I found on PC World's Product Finder, which provided me with more than 30 stores and prices ranging from $340 to $450. Of course, that doesn't take into account the important fact that PC World's site gives me bottom-line pricing--how much a product will cost after sales tax and shipping.
Become.com's shopping service failed to find the DirecTV HD DVR HR10-250, although plenty of results popped up when I clicked Research. The site appears to list products only if a retailer is a sponsor, which limits its usefulness. Until Become.com becomes a little more magnanimous, I'll be shopping elsewhere.
Microsoft says its recently relaunched MSN Shopping is bigger and better than ever before. Guess what? It actually is bigger and better.
Say you go to MSN Shopping's Electronics & Photo section. You can look for products by any number of categories, such as Camera & Optics, Cell Phones, Portable Electronics, and TV & Video; or you can check out some of the highlighted categories and goods that MSN wants you to be interested in. Once you're in a subcategory--Digital Cameras, say--you can narrow your focus by type of camera (pocket cameras, SLRs, cameras with docks, and so on), then narrow that further by price, brand, or megapixel count. You can even select several products and compare specs.
One cool feature is the site's partnership with Consumer Reports. On the Electronics home page, for instance, you can scroll down to the Consumer Reports section and choose a category, such as LCD televisions or DVD players. You'll find an in-depth report on how to shop, what to look for, and top-rated products.
But since I already know what I'm looking for, I can just type my search term into the box. First I looked for the Casio Exilim EX-Z750. The site turned up 28 results, with prices running from $346 to $450, which is comparable to what I found on PC World's Product Finder. Unfortunately, MSN does not provide bottom-line pricing, so you're not really getting the full scoop.
Next I plugged in the DirecTV HD DVR. I had to wade through a list of related but incorrect products, but I finally found what I wanted. MSN turned up 13 stores in all, with prices ranging from $485 to $999. The results are also similar to what I found on PC World's Product Finder, which brought up ten stores with prices from $480 to $899.
Between its Consumer Reports offerings and the ability to compare product specs, MSN Shopping is definitely a good place to visit when you're browsing, or you're not sure what you're looking for.
Originally started in Europe in 1999, PriceRunner launched its U.S. site in April of this year. There are now versions for Denmark, Germany, France, the UK, the U.S., and Sweden--just in case you want to check how much your object of desire costs in pounds or kroner.
At first glance, the mostly text-based PriceRunner site looks easy to navigate. And instead of lumping all electronics goods into one uber-category, it actually provides separate categories for Cameras and Camcorders, Video Games and Consoles, and Home Entertainment. And for all you near- and far-sighted individuals, it even has a Contact Lenses category.
If you go to a subcategory, say DVD Players (under Home Entertainment), you see a list that's broken down by criteria such as brand, price, newest, most popular, and type of DVD player (portable versus recordable versus ones with VCRs). Pick one, and you get a list of products that you can narrow down even further by price or features. To be honest, I like this straightforward, no-frills approach to online shopping. I don't need pretty pictures, a list of "featured products," or suggestions on what to buy.
Still, the most important feature of a comparison shopping site is price. I first looked up my sister's Exilim EX-Z750. One nice feature on PriceRunner is the fact that it links you to several professional reviews of the product. So if I'm unsure about the quality of the Exilim, I can immediately browse five different expert reviews of the product.
As for selection, PriceRunner brought up 42 different stores with prices ranging from $327 to $450. It also provides a box for entering a zip code, so I can see which store will give me the lowest price once tax and shipping are factored in. It turned out the store selling the EX-Z750 for $327 still had the best deal--very impressive.
I also managed to find the DirecTV DVR, although it took a little finagling with search terminology. The site didn't return any results for DirecTV HD DVR, DirecTV DVR, or DirecTV TiVo. I had to enter the actual product name, Hughes HR10-250, in order to find it. Once I did, though, PriceRunner listed seven results ranging in price from $478 to $999--again, the lowest range I found.
I decided to try out one last service: Cairo, which is a little different from other shopping sites. Instead of perusing the Internet to find you the best Web prices, Cairo hunts down sales in your local area and tells you where you can find the product you want for cheap. If nothing else, that's a good way for me to find out just how much my local stores are ripping me off.
First, the Casio camera: In the Seattle area, Cairo turned up one measly sale on the EX-Z750: $450 to buy it from my local Ritz Camera shop, which isn't much of a bargain. That was the highest price I found online, and about a hundred bucks more than the lowest prices.
As for the DirecTV HD TiVo, several results popped up, but nothing that was spot-on. I got one hit for a non-HD DVR, and a few ambiguous listings from Best Buy and Circuit City--but none for the product I was looking for. Based on my admittedly limited tests, either Cairo, or this whole shopping-at-my-local-stores thing, is kind of a bust.
But really, this bargain shopping stuff is actually fun. Maybe my mom--queen of the coupon--has rubbed off on me more than I thought.