...And All The Price Trimmings

These two shopping "bots" scour the Web for the best price on just about anything--and they actually find it

Chances are, you're reading this on a December weekend in the teeth of the holiday shopping season. That's Big December to retailers, also known as Our-Whole-Year-in-a-Month time. If you don't feel it's your patriotic duty to go spend dough, it's not because someone hasn't tried to convince you otherwise. But if you want to ditch the malls and shop via your PC, you might want to take detours to mySimon.com and DealTime.com, two of the Web's best-known shopping search engines. You'll probably save some money.

Such sites, known as bots, are one of the neatest things about online buying because they compare prices at different online stores instantaneously. For an item you already think you want, you'll be able to check the price at more than 2,000 stores, using mySimon, or up to 7,000 stores, using DealTime. In my testing, they both did a good job turning up bargains and usually found the best ones in relatively remote corners of the Web. Examples? When I looked for a copy of BUSINESS WEEK Economics Editor Michael J. Mandel's $25 title, The Coming Internet Depression, Deal Time delivered it for $13.50. MySimon clobbered the price offered at group-buying site Mercata.com for a Palm handheld. There are many more examples. And unless you're a total Web junkie, you've probably never heard of tiny sites like doublediscount.com and Abe's of Maine where these buys turned up.

If I could use only one of these bot sites, however, I'd use DealTime. It's not just that DealTime works with more stores (I'm taking at face value the companies' claims about their roster of stores). It's that DealTime has done a better job of organizing everything else about the site to help surfers narrow their choices in oft-bewildering categories like consumer electronics and appliances. Because the real key to Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa isn't just getting the right price: It's getting the right gift in the first place.

DealTime's secret weapon is a clever mix of software utilities that mimic the sales process you would encounter in stores. Focusing on areas like stereos, DVD players, and cameras, DealTime's "Interactive Advisers" guide surfers through their choices, narrowing the field based on users' answers to questions about the features they need and the prices they want to pay. Along the way, I learned how to decipher the code of digital-camera specifications for the first time, to name one example. Alas, this utility only exists for a few categories of gifts, leaving out biggies such as computers and fitness gear. But it's still more than mySimon offers.

MySimon, which is owned by CNET Networks Inc., suffers this year from the demise of its former partner, Productopia.com, which used to provide detailed reviews and recommend products in different categories at different price points. Instead, mySimon is aiming for a sort of consumer-magazine approach, in which a staff of writers and editors present their picks and gift recommendations. But the project has an undisciplined, half-finished air to it, kind of like a salesperson who has just been hired for the holiday season and doesn't really know the merchandise. But mySimon is clearly working on it: Just in the last week or so, after this review appeared online, it added content from CNET to review cameras and computers. But mySimon still doesn't do enough to lead a consumer through a new category and narrow the choice in a structured way that leads to a confident buy.

OPINIONS, PLEASE. Both sites, really, offer too little information about the products their partner stores sell. The ideal would be to have one place to go to for solid, if self-interested, advice about the choices consumers face--such as you would get at a store in the mall--coupled with the price-finding capability of a bot. DealTime offers that only in the few categories covered by its online-adviser questionnaires. And although both sites offer user reviews--mySimon from its own customers and DealTime via links to Epinions.com--I don't take user reviews terribly seriously.

Both sites, however, do well at reassuring customers about the relatively unknown stores whose prices they present. DealTime and mySimon accompany each price quote with the store's rating from Gomez Advisors, which assesses e-store reliability. Fear that a cheap store won't deliver the goods on time? If Gomez pans the store, you'll know in time to choose whether to pay a few bucks more to deal with a store with a better track record.

At mySimon.com and Dealtime.com, you won't be served eggnog or air-kissed under the mistletoe. But you'll find almost anything sold on the Web about as cheaply as it can be found--and beat the crowds to boot.