Why Internet retail agents fail to impress

Sites which promise to find the best Net deals may appear a good idea, but they lack the substance to make a real difference to shopping, says Benjamin Ensor

There’s every of reason to suppose three new shopping “agents”, launched in time for Christmas, will prove popular. While online buyers cite convenience as the reason they started shopping online, according to Fletcher Research’s latest study, 29 per cent – the biggest number – make their online shopping decisions according to price.

However, these new shopping agents – BT’s Spree (www.btspree. co.uk), Focus Digital’s rebranded ShopSmart (www.shopsmart.com), and Asda’s ValueMad (www.valuemad.com) – are unlikely to make much impact on consumers.

To succeed, online shopping agents need to combine finding the best prices with a broad selection of goods and thorough information about those goods and the retailers that sell them.

Unfortunately, none of the current shopping agents aimed at the UK market manage to do all three.

Most of the UK shopping agents are pure search engines that do not offer any information about the products, whether by providing their own content, or linking to external reviews (as Excite’s Jango does in the US) or inviting users to contribute (as eBay and Amazon do). Only DealPilot (www.dealpilot.com) has added content as well as searches.

Product range is also limited. ShopSmart and DealPilot are restricted to books, music and videos, while MyTaxi (www.mytaxi.co.uk) also offers computer goods. Spree has broader coverage, but for now this is superficial – its electrical goods section only includes cameras. Only ValueMad has a really broad range of goods.

But one of the most serious flaws is that these agents don’t always find the best prices. For instance, a quick comparison search on ValueMad located the Dyson DCO2 vacuum cleaner for £175 at BeDirect. Though this was much less than Argos’ £229, it didn’t match the £169.99 we found at Great Universal’s Essential Electrics (www.essentialelectrics.co.uk), or the £171.99 at Home Electrical Direct (www.hed.co.uk).

Without comprehensive coverage, a directory falls short, and agents are no different. One way to get around this issue is for agents not to seek permission before involving retailers, and simply take their data anyway.

But this would remove the agent’s business model – taking a commission on the sale – and runs into some potentially serious emerging legal issues surrounding taking data from other sites.

On the positive side, online retail agents will help increase choice and drive the perception that the Web is a value-conscious place to shop. But, for the time being at least, they certainly can’t claim to be the font of all retailing knowledge.

Benjamin Ensor is a business analyst for Fletcher Research

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