Let the Buyer Compare

If customers can check rivals' prices at your site, they're less likely to walk out

A new digital camera on Amazon.com (AMZN ) beckoned Eric Mueller like a siren song. It was cutting-edge and "cute," the 29-year-old Web designer thought. So he slipped the $400 gadget into his virtual shopping cart. He continued to browse, tossing in a book and a CD. Then, as Mueller got to checkout, reality hit. "This is silly," he recalls thinking. "Let's see if I can beat Amazon's price." He bailed, and still hasn't bought the camera--or the book or the CD. But when he does, he's likely to skip Amazon and buy from one of the cut-rate shops he found through a comparison-shopping site.

This deal-seeking instinct should frighten e-tailers. Nearly two-thirds of online shoppers make it all the way to checkout and, like Mueller, leave in search of a better deal, according to Forrester Research Inc. Of these, more than 40% split to compare shipping costs, and 35% say they're looking for a lower price on the product itself. And of those who go hunting, 70% don't return. Nearly a quarter find a lower price elsewhere, and most others get turned off by the search and don't buy at all. My brief career in sales taught me this: Allowing a prospective buyer to walk out is a no-no. "You can't let [customers] get away," says Forrester analyst Christopher M. Kelley.

There's a way to keep deal-seekers like Mueller from escaping: Let them make comparisons right on your site. For years, sites such as MySimon.com and PriceGrabber.com have helped consumers find bargains by ferreting out the lowest prices for anything from camcorders to jigsaws. But once customers bolt to a competitor, they could be gone forever.

Booksamillion.com, a low-cost online bookseller, hangs on to prospective sales by serving up prices from its top rivals. Punch a title into the site's comparison engine, and up pop prices from Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com (BNBN ), and others. In more than a dozen searches for various books, Booksamillion beat its competitors handily. Even if that's not always the case--something Booksamillion President Terry G. Finley admits is possible--the comparison engine helps differentiate the site from its rivals. It's popular: At least 40% of new visitors use the pricing tool, Finley says. And it has helped boost sales, although Finley wouldn't provide specifics. "We think it has become core to the experience," he says.

Sure, many merchants cringe at the thought of posting details of another company's products on their home turf. But by comparing features that set you apart from rivals, you can win a lot of customers. UAL.com, the site of United Airlines Inc. (UAL ), shows how its operations stack up against competing carriers on points including: on-time departures, the number of stops, and the availability of seats. These might sway a buying decision as much as price, which the engine also compares. United can't say what effect this service has had on sales, but spokeswoman Chris M. Nardella says it improves the airline's image among consumers by making it seem more open. "We want to keep our site as user-friendly as possible," she says.

The lesson? Letting consumers compare is a good way to keep them from abandoning you at checkout. Of course your price must be competitive, but many shoppers will pay a few extra bucks for more reliable delivery or better service. "Regardless of what you're selling, there are levers you can pull to entice consumers away from your competitors," says Forrester's Kelley. If done right, you might even get customers like Mueller snapping pictures with your camera, rather than surfing for a deal.

By Roger O. Crockett

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