New generation of shopping 'bots swarms in

New shopping engines help out consumers -- but also cut merchants into the pie.

Shopping "bots" and recommendation engines may be a boon to online bargain shoppers, but they can be a bane to merchants fighting eroding profit margins. So much so, in fact, that some merchants have barred the automated systems, which crawl the Web looking for the best prices for a certain product, from entering their sites.

Now, a new breed of recommendation engine and services from companies including Frictionless Commerce and Active Research may allay merchants' fears. The new engines don't just look at price. They use a new method for determining the product components consumers are looking for, factoring in concepts such as quality and service. In short, the services add value to the recommendation equation.

Frictionless Commerce, the brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, this week will unveil the Frictionless Value-Comparison Engine. The company also will announce that Lycos is among its first licensees.

Separately, Active Research will unveil the second version of its Active Buyers Guide along with partnership agreements with Lycos, Go Network and the my Simon.com consumer shopping site. "A lot of manufacturers don't allow online purchasing of products; they just don't want things to be strictly price-oriented," said Mayer Balser, vice president of Supreme Video. Sony Electronics, for example, recently ordered Supreme Video and other online merchants to pull Sony electronics products off their sites. Sony is expected to come up with an official online sales policy this week.

Balser sees more logic in supporting recommendation products from companies such as Active Research. Comparisons that combine price and features are more natural for a consumer's buying decisions. "Let them pick the product they want," he said. "What's the whole Internet based on? It's based on doing your own research."

At Go Network, Commerce Project Manager John Miniati is ready to convince the network's 300 merchants that a recommendation engine-particularly one that isn't just about price-can be a good thing for driving traffic. "If we were working with just one merchant, maybe it wouldn't work for us," Miniati said. "But we're working with 300, and I think it's a good fit."

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