December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Here a Bot, There a Bot

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Buyers yes-but from your site or someone else’s? Dash, Clickthebutton and others in effect grab customers from one retailer and deliver them to another. Some hail this as smart, aggressive marketing, but others aren’t so convinced. “If you’re looking at a book on Amazon, for instance, a bot can tell you four sites where you can get the book cheaper. Why should Amazon participate? And once you lose the participation of a strong merchant like Amazon, it weakens the value of your bot to consumers,” says Cassar. “Maybe consumers won’t really mind if a leading merchant isn’t listed in a particular bot. But that remains to be seen.”

Battling bots

While bots slug it out, the average consumer is unaware of the fine points of differentiation. “Most consumers are just happy when they find a site they can use and feel they can trust,” says Rubin. But for truly paranoid online shoppers, may be just the ticket. In the lag time between purchase and delivery, shoppers can post an electronic receipt on the site to see if they get a better offer. Sometimes a smaller or a local company can beat bigger outfits in areas like delivery time. Nosaleisfinal developer, Dino Vervilos, started thinking about the idea after waiting weeks for Sears to deliver his new washing machine.

With this service, consumers get a cure for buyer’s remorse, and small businesses that register with the site get a chance to compete with the big guys. “This lets an independent bookseller interject itself in a sale that Amazon’s just made, force the cancellation of that sale, and sell the same product for roughly the same price,” says Vervilos. “The challenge for small businesses is not so much that their prices are lower or higher than someplace like Amazon. It’s that they don’t have millions of dollars to spend on acquiring customers.” Within a week of the site’s January launch, it had registered more than 200 shoppers and nearly 40 merchants-without advertising.

New spins on bots are popping up at Internet speed. “For the bots, the shakeout could be a lot slower than for e-commerce merchants,” says Maclachlan. “Their costs are lower, and they don’t keep an inventory. They produce revenue by selling advertising or charging for leads or transaction. Most aren’t investing heavily in marketing.”

For now, that makes the long-term future of comparison shopping services anyone’s guess. What is clear is that online and offline comparison shopping closely mirror each other. “The merchants that consistently charge more, or who consistently provide sub-par service and quality, probably will suffer, but I think the market will gravitate away from them anyway,” says Epp. “The merchants who are either price competitive or have brand recognition-with good fulfillment and delivery track records-those are the companies that will win with shopping bots.”

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