Some Web sites trying to help the e-buyer beware

Do you ever get the feeling as a consumer, even an electronic consumer, that it's just you against the world? You should, and it's a pretty old concept.

Do you ever get the feeling as a consumer, even an electronic consumer, that it's just you against the world? You should, and it's a pretty old concept. It's called caveat emptor, or, let the buyer beware.

There are a few places of refuge for the buying public—consumer protection agencies, the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports and Ralph Nader, to name a few. But that de facto consumer safety net was created in the days of brick and mortar. It seems a bit old-fashioned in the age of the Internet, when consumer power is at an all-time high, with buyers being enabled to find the best prices, even bid their own prices, and find the best selections.

Certainly there's more power than ever in the hands of the online customer, but only up to a point. With that power comes extra risks. Now it's you against the World Wide Web. Brand identity of many online merchants is still low; customer service, fulfillment and fraud are still major issues.

In addition, with online services being subject to the whims of the Internet, such as poor connectivity and balky browsers, e-consumers may find it difficult to research and buy the best product online. They may end up going with the first product or site they find, which may not be the best, or they may end up letting their fingers do the walking.

When it comes to selection, shoppers may choose the easy route and go with the "Earth's Biggest Selection." But if the subject is not books, videos, DVDs, toys or whatever else Amazon is selling this week, where would one go for, say, a toaster? Or, what if you actually find your product on different merchant sites but you're not sure which site is better, more reputable and more efficient, price notwithstanding?

There are some sites out there that are trying to close the caveat emptor gap. Productopia (www.productopia.com), a product information guide, has been around for a year and has just added new content aggregation and community services. Productopia employs "expert" researchers who, in effect, do the shopping for you. They pick the products and rank them for "quality," "style" or "value" according to your budget or needs. The site integrates links to merchants for purchase, although I ran into several dead ends and error messages when I tried to buy online.

There are other guides out there. CompareNet (www.comparenet.com) is easy to use and has links to purchase products, but my experience there also led to a series of errors. The venerable Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.com) offers some minireviews, but full reports are available only to subscribers, and there are no links to merchant sites.

While hesitant to compare itself with Consumer Reports, ShopServe.com, which launches this week, is close. The free service doesn't review products per se but rather offers reviews of the merchant sites. Its experts find the products and then rank the best places to buy according to shopping experience, customer service and so forth. ShopServe intends to be a consumer advocate site, with purchase protection services as well, according to officials.

As for the toaster, I really like the classic stylings of the Russell Hobbs Chrome 2-Slice, but I was unsuccessful in all of my attempts to buy it online. Consumer guides look like they're here to stay, but they still have a long way to go.

Whither the online "mall"? Write me at scot_petersen@zd.com.

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