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Cybershopping

With Internet holiday sales booming, here are ways to make the most of your online shopping.

illustration
[Times art: Rossie Newson]

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1999


Welcome to the Internet holiday shopping bazaar. Dicker over prices if you wish. Click a virtual coupon. Spend some of your hard-earned beenz. Let the world know what you really want to receive.

It's a crowded, noisy, often confusing marketplace, with more people shopping online this year and more sites hawking their wares.

You'll see familiar, traditional retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Sears, as well as established online giants such as Amazon.com, America Online and Yahoo. You'll also stumble upon upstarts trying to attract shoppers, from beenz.com, which created a digital currency, to hagglezone.com, which negotiates prices with customers, to Mercata, which offers group discounts on merchandise, to gift registries, which allow people to make online wish lists.

"We've done our best to bring the kind of Moroccan bazaar feeling to the 21st century," said Bill Graham, vice president of the Netmarket Group, home to Hagglezone.com.

Haggling is just part of a holiday online retailing scene expected to reach $4-billion this year, according to market research firm Forrester Research, about triple last year's spending.

That's only a fraction of the overall retailing market, but its anticipated growth is causing a mad scramble as companies jockey for what they hope will be the right stuff to secure their place in the future of e-commerce.

If you're considering some online shopping for Christmas, you'd best get to it this week. Most sites promise shipping in less than 10 days, but they don't always deliver on that pledge. Some sites offer expedited service, but buyers need to ask if that costs extra.

Even if you're just interested in virtual window-shopping, here's a look at some of what's new and notable this season:

* Heading to AOL's megamall. For some online merchants, bigger is better. AOL, the largest online service with more than 19-million subscribers, keeps adding partners to its shopping offerings. It had 110 retail partners last year; it's up to more than 275 this year.

"It's becoming less online shopping and just part of shopping, part of people's everyday retail mix," AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg said. "As people see names they know and trust in the offline world, they venture more and more online."

While AOL can build on its brand name as well as those of its partners to attract consumers, others are trying to build virtual malls that link from one site to multiple merchants. Forrester analyst Seema Williams isn't persuaded that technique will work. "The whole Internet is one big mall," said Williams, who thinks consumers prefer to go directly to a particular retailer.

What consumers are finding online is a blizzard of pitches, incentives, services, gimmicks and, this year, more competitive pricing. The premium once extracted for the supposed convenience of online shopping has disappeared as competition heated up, Williams said.

* It's all in the shipping. Shipping fees from online purchases can add up, sometimes making up for the state and local taxes that e-merchants don't collect. Shipping costs about $4 for a book from Amazon.com. This season, some e-merchants are offering free or reduced-rate shipping. Among them is freeshipping.com, which has deals with 23 online merchants.

* Whose robot is it anyhow? People who want shopping help will find sites that let them compare products and prices, using software robots known as bots. But buyers need to be warned that many such services "recommend" only the products of their advertisers or promote their partners' products more visibly than other items that might be better deals. Yahoo, for example, first searches sites in its stores. For lists of bots, check botspot.com or smartbots.com.

Looking for a camcorder at bottomdollar.com brought back more than 140 items, ranging from about $100 to more than $1,000.

* Clip coupons online. About a third of online shoppers are doing so, says NPD Online Research in Port Washington, N.Y. The coupon sites include valupage.com and coolsavings.com. At valupage.com, owned by Catalina Marketing of St. Petersburg, a user can type in a ZIP code and find coupons for nearby stores, such as Winn-Dixie and Kash n' Karry. Click and a list of specials comes up, which can be printed and taken to the store. For those who don't mind getting additional e-mail, they can sign up for special offers sent electronically from participating companies or choose from product categories, such as toys.

* Surf for a reward. Beenz.com is based on the premise that online shoppers, who are subjected to ads and customer surveys at every turn, deserve a payoff. "Walking in front of a window at Macy's isn't going to make Macy's any money," said Glenn Jasper, director of communications for beenz.com.

"You as a consumer go online, you do e-work online," Jasper said. "You are paid for your e-work and then you can spend the beenz that you earn online" to buy products.

Consumers sign up with the site and "earn" beenz by visiting affiliated sites (about 200 so far), purchasing something or agreeing to fill out surveys for companies. The accumulated beenz can be spent on products ranging from compact discs (about 3,000 beenz) to a Caribbean vacation (350,000 beenz). The company claims 400,000 people have signed up so far.

* Free stuff (in return for giving up your privacy). The price of convenience on the Web often is revealing personal data, from your age and sex to your finances and tastes in music, so merchants and advertisers can "mine" that data for sales pitches. Read the fine print on privacy rights and unsolicited pitches wherever you shop.

The trade-off is especially clear at some sites that will give you free goodies of significant value in return for registering in some detail. For example, greengrassgolf.com says it will send you a free golf putter if you'll fill out a form (and pay a $24 shipping and handling fee). And Living.com will take $100 off your first order over $500.

* Go gang-shopping. If the fun is in the chase at beenz, it's in "power buys" at Mercata.com, says Randy Nargi, vice president of marketing for the company that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed. The hook: The more people who sign up to buy something, the lower the price.

Recently, it featured a Toshiba DVD/CD player with Dolby Digital sound. The list price for the item was $449.99. The starting price on Mercata was $399.99, but it dropped to $329.71 with a few hours left. Sales are timed, ranging up to two weeks, or until the merchandise is gone. Shoppers control their destiny by putting in a maximum amount they're willing to spend on an item. If it stays above that amount, they don't have to buy.

Nargi said some of the site's shoppers are comparison-shopping bargain-hunters but others "almost see it as a game. People write in or call and are so excited when they get a product." When they snag an item, he said, they sometimes exclaim, "I won."

* Start your bargaining. The same thrill of the shopping chase seems to inspire customers at Hagglezone. Graham said the bargaining works because the site hopes to make its eventual profits on advertising shown to the hagglers who spend time on the site.

"The object isn't to make money on product sales," Graham said, though it sets a minimum price for negotiators.

At Hagglezone, users sign up and get an account name and password. The site recently featured the Sega Dreamcast video game system with a price of $199 -- before the haggling began. Hagglers submit their offers to the site electronically. If a mutually agreeable price is reached, the item is sold.

"This is definitely a niche product," Graham said. "Someone who wants to do shopping in a hurry" can go to a site such as Netmarket, which boasts 800,000 items. "This is more of an entertaining shopping site."

* Choose a lovely gift certificate. For those stumped for what to buy, online gift certificates may provide a solution. Many sites offer them. Some, such as Amazon.com and Buy.com, e-mail the gift certificate to the recipient.

* Remove the guesswork. You can hope that your friends and loved ones sign up with this season's new gift registries and wish lists. Like a department store's bridal registry, it allows would-be recipients to list exactly what they hope to receive and gift buyers to check off what they've bought. Among these sites are Della.com, Amazon.com's Wish List and WishClick.com.

At Della.com, people who sign up can send their friends e-cards with gift hints, as well as create a list on the Web site with merchandise from participating stores. Gift givers can search the site by name or e-mail address to see what someone's holiday hopes are.

Some tut-tut the idea of online wish lists.

"There's something so mercenary about this," etiquette expert Letitia Baldridge said. Using an online gift registry to request presents, she said, reduces the magic of the holidays to "ordering up on a menu at a restaurant."

-- Information from Bloomberg News and other Times wires was used in this report.

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