`Should I participate in an online comparison shopping guide?’

Everyone wants to know that he received the fairest price quote before making a purchase. Use of online shopping bots such as MySimon, DealTime, eCompare, or Bottomdollar can deliver the best prices from various online merchants in real-time. The consumer can then click a link from the shopping bot site and be taken to the exact location to purchase it directly. What could be better than that?

Well, for the customer looking to buy a commodity such as a refrigerator, a computer part, or a hard-to-find holiday toy, these agents can be a great way to find the lowest price from a group of merchants. After all, online marketing is supposed to be fast, cheap, and easy, and with the advancements of transaction technology speed, shopping guides and bots can make this happen.

But for the marketer, other issues come into play. The most obvious is that if you are featured on an online shopping site, some of your competitors likely will be too – and they may be offering the same merchandise as you at a cheaper price.

Beyond that issue, with a shopping agent, the customer is shopping from the guide site, and only buying from you. In other words, the brand is that of the guide site. The prospect may have little interest in your brand. In fact, if the shopper doesn’t make a purchase from you or doesn’t opt in to your e-mail list, you may never be able to communicate with him again. Nor can you determine what he did or did not like about your site.

Supposedly, in a relationship with shopping agents you are seeking to acquire new customers. But shopping agents tend to attract more-experienced shoppers. These shoppers may already have biases toward specific brands or sites. Or they may be so price-driven that they have no brand loyalty at all; unless low prices are how you differentiate your brand, such buyers are not likely to be valuable in the long run.

But don’t dismiss shopping bots out of hand as a source of lead generation. For one thing, because users of bots are typically more-experienced online shoppers, they need no assistance in the transaction, navigation, or checkout process. They’re also more confident about shopping online with a merchant that is new to them. If your brand is not as well known as that of, say, Amazon.com or L.L. Bean (and let’s face it, few brands are), participating in a shopping bot can at least get your name out there in front of prospective customers.

Then, too, some types of merchandise are better suited for shopping bots than others. Shopping agents work best for products that

* are commodity-type items, such as toys, software, appliances, or auto parts

* are likely to be purchased by impulse

* aren’t tied to a brand

* require minimal information/involvement; and

* are unlikely to require upselling, cross-selling, or customer support.

If your product line meets those criteria, go ahead and consider participating with a shopping agent site. But use such participation as just one method of enticing buyers to your site. No marketing tactic should be evaluated in isolation, so consider shopping agents in your mix of customer acquisition efforts, which could also include e-mail, couponing, viral marketing, and incentive programs.

Above all, keep in mind that your goal in gaining new buyers is to have an identifiable audience with which you can develop long-term relationships. That means you must support this marketing effort with strong service and additional offers to entice customesr back again. In the end, it’s your responsibility as the marketer to create the customer experience and encourage loyal, repeat use.

Marketers have their pick of a variety of online comparison shopping sites to consider. Below, a look at several of them.

MySimon (www.mysimon.com) searches more than 2,000 merchant sites. Merchants are not required to pay a fee to be part of the service, although marketers can buy banner advertisements or sponsorships. To participate in MySimon’s Free Listing Service and have products listed on MySimon’s search-results pages, merchants’ Websites must meet MySimon’s criteria, which include detailed product information; the ability to upload in eight seconds or less at 28.8 kbps; at least 10 individual products for sale within at least one of the product categories listed on MySimon; prices posted in U.S. dollars; easy online ordering; and thorough telephone customer service. Merchants can also join MySimon’s BOLD (Building Online Demand) Program. More than 100 online merchants already participate, paying a variable fee and a 45% commission to appear with a larger icon on the search results pages.

GoTo Shopping (shop.goto.com) works on a pay-per-click-through basis: Merchants listed on the site pay GoTo a fee (negotiated with a GoTo representative) for every online shopper who clicks through its site from GoTo. Participating merchants need to provide GoTo with such product information as manufacturer, price, stock status, and description.

ValueFind (www.valuefind.com) charges marketers a one-time set-up fee of $99.95 and a flat yearly renewal fee of $20 for inclusion in its shopping agent site. Marketers’ sites must offer secure online ordering, provide good customer service, and have their own product search engine with which ValueFind’s shopping agent can interface.

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