New bots a shopper's best friend

These shopping bots whisper in your ear, 'Hey, this book is cheaper on BOL!'

Imagine walking through the mall with a shopping-savvy friend who, when you're about to buy, whispers in your ear, "Hey, that blouse is $10 cheaper at Loehmann's."

A group of shopping bot companies is trying to replicate that experience online. You don't go to these sites to find a better price or more favourable shipping. Instead, their bots accompany you around the Net and suggest alternatives when you're ready to buy.

DealPilot and both launched browser-based shopping "bots" last week, and iChoose is developing a plug-in that will go live later this month.

The products vary slightly in their approach. DealPilot and iChoose both display price comparisons on bars at the bottom of a browser. Go shopping for the latest Harry Potter book at, for example, and the tools will show you that another store has it for $5 (£3) cheaper. DealPilot also allows you to compare shipping costs. iChoose also throws in customer ratings of merchants.

Dash doesn't offer price information, and instead provides coupons and other rewards from participating merchants. You look at that same book on Amazon, and a 10 percent off coupon for pops up. Dash will also offer coupons if it detects you looking for products on search engines.

The services are somewhat limited. DealPilot, which is owned by German media Giant Bertelsmann, only searches for books, music and CDs. iChoose adds computers, software and toys to that list. And both iChoose and Dash only present results from merchants that they have signed deals with.

The service is also not as easy as having that friend whisper in your ear, said Rebecca Nidositko, analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston. Consumers still have to download an application and install it, something many newcomers may be reluctant or unable to do, she said.

But with more and more shoppers heading online, tools like these should proliferate, she said. "I think we're going to see more companies trying to solve problems for consumers, because shopping on the Web is still hard," she said. "Shopping bots were one of the first ideas, and now we have things like iChoose, which are more advanced because they travel with you. But it's still rather complicated."

See the e-commerce special for more business news.