`Bots' Don't Make Great Shoppers

Intelligent agents that search the Net often miss out on the best bargains

Like most other guys, I'm not terribly fond of shopping, especially at this time of year. In fact, I don't even much like shopping online: Web delays can make the server seem as slow as the mall. About the best I can say about Web shopping is that I don't have to look for a parking place.

So I should be a natural customer for a software technology that uses "intelligent agents" or "bots" (as in robots). These snippets of software are designed to scour the Web for the best prices on all sorts of goods, making online bargain hunting painless. Alas, this turns out to be another case where the hype is outrunning reality.

To test this new approach, I tried out three automated shopping services. mySimon is brand new and offers service through its own Web site, www.mysimon.com. Junglee and Jango are more established, and they power the shopping services on Web portals. I tried Junglee on Yahoo! (yahoo.junglee. com) and Snap (www. snap.com) and tried Jango through Excite (www. jango.com).

DEAD END. I shopped for a variety of potential gifts: TVs, cameras, golf clubs, toys, and kitchen equipment. Not one of the shopping services came close to turning up all the items I sought. And none consistently offered the best prices. In the end, I think I did about as well using sites I was already familiar with or found using conventional search engines.

For example, I chose a 27-inch Sony TV, Model KV-27V22 available from online electronics dealer 800.com (www.800.com) for $489.95. None of the agents found it there or anywhere else. mySimon did best, finding the fairly similar Model KV-27V40 at Best Buy Online (www. bestbuy.com) for $499. The closest Junglee and Jango came was the KV-27V40 for $50 more at Crutchfield (www.crutchfield.com).

An attempt to buy a camera went only slightly better. I chose a Canon EOS Elan II from Wolf Camera (www.wolfcamera.com) for $599.95. mySimon found it for $519.95 at Abbey Camera (www.abbeycamera.com). Jango doesn't offer conventional film cameras. Junglee pretends to, but searches for any models of well-known makes came up empty.

KitchenAid mixers are favorites of serious cooks, and Appliances On Line (www. appliances.com) offers the Model K45ss Classic for $175. Neither Jango nor mySimon offer cooking gear, but Junglee tracked it down for an unimpressive $239 at FactoryMall (www. factorymall.com).

Finding the Microsoft ActiMates Arthur interactive doll was simple, but the price disparities were an eye-opener. Jango located it at Chumbo (www. chumbo.com) for an excellent price of $40.99. mySimon offered $49.95 at EB World (www.ebworld.com). But the best Junglee could do was $110 at F.A.O. Schwarz.

Lego's robot construction kit, MindStorms Robotics Invention System (BW--Oct. 12) posed more of a challenge. I found it at Discovery Channel Online (www. discovery.com) for $199.95. mySimon didn't locate it at all. Junglee went back to F.A.O. Schwarz, which wanted $220. Jango found a remarkable price of $149 at Chips & Bits (www. cdmag.com), but the site was only taking "preorders," even though the product has been available for a month.

BARRIERS. I had very good luck shopping for a Callaway Biggest Bertha Driver. Divot's Discount Golf (www. capecod.net/divots/chouse.htm) sells it for $369. mySimon and Jango both found it at Golf.com (www.golf.com) for $289.99. Junglee, oddly, found only a women's model, at $349.99, at Fogdog Sports (www.fogdog.com). Some facts of Internet life are responsible for these disparate and generally disappointing results. A lot of sites block the bots because online retailers do not want to be searched and listed by price to comparison-shopping services. Some retailers will strike a deal with one service and freeze the others out. The result is that none of the services delivers on its promise of comprehensive searching.

Meanwhile, online shopping (like its mail- and phone-order cousins) calls for some caution. Read the fine print on prices, because shipping and handling charges vary considerably. And make sure you know what you are getting. Particularly in cameras and consumer electronics, there's a lot of "gray market" merchandise that has been imported outside of normal channels, and the products may or may not come with a valid manufacturer's warranty. High-tech or low, the old advice still applies: If a deal looks just too good to be true, it probably is.

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