If you want to get a bargain, simply fire up the modem and shop on the Web, right? Sure—if you're also the type who waits

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If you want to get a bargain, simply fire up the modem and shop on the Web, right? Sure—if you're also the type who waits in breathless anticipation for the money-saving revelations of the next 10-321 commercial.

Conventional wisdom holds that the lowest prices for any product are on the Net, because overhead and distribution costs are supposedly so low. E-commerce advocates and the popular news media certainly have done nothing to disabuse consumers of this notion, making much of cheap last-minute tickets for airline seats, frenetic online auctions for computer and consumer products, and the meteoric rise of Internet-only retailers like Amazon.com for books, music, and more.

But expecting that appending .com to a store name is a realistic guarantee of savings is like expecting all hookers to look and act like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

Take computer software. Analyzing market research firm PC Data's average prices for a dozen popular PC products (including Riven, Microsoft Windows 95 Upgrade, Guard Dog Deluxe, and Tomb Raider II) for the first third of this year shows that, in most cases, online retailers' prices were consistently—and sometimes dramatically—higher than those at traditional computer storefronts and mail-order catalogs.

Purchasers of other online goods encounter similar pitfalls. The recent annual conference of the American Society of Travel Agents highlighted a number of online travel scams that have propagated like e-bunnies. Auction sites can be dangerous if you don't research the real value of an item: I know of one financially troubled company that dumped its inventory on a high-profile auction site, resulting in "winning" bids higher than the price for the product on store shelves.

E-commerce boosters like to counter that shopping 'bots will save the day, automatically comparing prices across multiple Web sites for the consumer. Danger, Will Robinson: No technology is so advanced that it can't be screwed with. Books.com, for example, lets you click on a nifty "Compare Prices" button to send its shopping agent to check prices at competitive booksellers. The goal is to report back and adjust the Books.com price so it's lower. Great idea, until Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble apparently started to block the shopping 'bot on some titles—and other site operators have noted that it would be child's play to feed false data to an incoming shopping 'bot.

A consumer can buy conveniently and save money on the Internet. But no matter what the medium, the lazy shopper is always at a disadvantage. The price of low prices, it seems, is eternal vigilance.

Why 2K?

A new study on consumer awareness of the Year 2000 problem—under which computer-controlled devices may quit working when faced with a year they may interpret as "1900"— says a lot more about human nature than awareness. The survey, sponsored by CIO magazine, starts out by disclosing that 38 percent of people contacted admit they're not aware of the Millennium Bug. Of those aware, half are "not at all concerned" about it affecting them personally.

But if in mid-1999 it becomes apparent that companies will not solve the Y2K problem, 25 percent of those surveyed will take their money out of the bank and hide it under their mattress or somewhere else in their house. Twelve percent blame the government for "creating" the Y2K problem. And, if they're injured as a result of a millennium malfunction, 46 percent already say they'll look into a lawsuit against the product manufacturer.

Married off

The Learning Company's acquisition of longtime, and long-revered, consumer software developer Broderbund last month ends several years of failed courtships. The wooing began in earnest four years ago when games company Electronic Arts planned to merge with Broderbund, best known as the publisher of Carmen Sandiego, The Print Shop, Kid Pix, and Myst. At that time, the clash of cultures (one observer equated the near-merger to "the Walton family meets the Manson family") between take-no-prisoners EA and family-friendly Broderbund led, in part, to the deal's failure. The nuptials between budget-software giant the Learning Company and premium-image Broderbund suggest a different mismatch: Imagine Kmart buying Nordstrom.

More Slade of hand

Microsoft's senior US senator still is among the fact-challenged—at least when it comes to the software industry. First, Sen. Slade Gorton embarrassed himself by citing outdated statistics in a widely circulated newspaper essay about Microsoft's share of the software market, and did not reveal Microsoft as the source of the numbers (Byte Me, 4/8). Now he has slammed the Software Publishers Association's call last month for a widening of the federal investigation of Microsoft to include Windows NT.

Gorton said on the Senate floor that Windows NT competitor Sun Microsystems joined the SPA a few days before the June report, implying a cause-and-effect relationship. However, the SPA countered that Sun became a member months earlier, in January. Perhaps Slade should check with his own research staff before he opens his mouth—and not, as it appears, rely solely on the one in Redmond.

Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at catalano@catalanoconsulting.com.

 
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