Shopping: Bagging the Best Deals Online
Everybody raves about Apple's sleek design for its music players, but it's the iTunes site that's more remarkable. The elegant layout guides even the newest iPod nano owners through the shopping process. And song previews make browsing addictive. "That 30-second clip of a song is one of the most brilliant creations in online shopping," says Gian Fulgoni of the comScore research group.
The consumer electronics superstore uses "product finders" that quiz visitors to help narrow down which gadget is right. Other features like the "digital living room"a diagram of a home theater that links to CNET.com's resources-provide extra guidance. "It's all the info you'd want to get from a salesman in a store," explains Sucharita Mulpuru, an E-commerce analyst for Forrester. Bricks-and-mortar stores also help the site, adds Mark Renshaw of Arc Worldwide. Simply order online, and pick up your goodies in 45 minutes at a nearby store.
There are loads of sites that compare the prices for a particular item at various Web storesPricegrabber.com, Ugenie.com, Shopzilla.com. "Comparison engines have made price transparent, and it's affected offline prices as well," says Fulgoni. With the Dealio software, you shop at the site of your favorite retailer-say, Amazon or Targetand the toolbar alerts you when an item is available anywhere else online for less. The downside: "The toolbar is very intrusive and annoys the heck out of me," Mulpuru says. "But it's probably the best solution if you're looking for the cheapest digital camera."
The name says it all: Gifts.com directs shoppers to the best present for anyone, whether a war history buff or a dinosaur-addicted toddler. Follow the prompts that describe the giftee, and you end up with a list of recommendations that sends you to different sites. What sets Gifts.com apart, Mulpuru says, is astute product selection that often uncovers giftsyou might not have found on your own.
Scanning the homepage and seeing a photo of Jessica Simpson sporting a keyhole dress and a box labeled "Today's Obsession," shoppers might think they've accidentally stumbled onto a fashion magazine website. And that's exactly the point. Other shopping sites try to emulate the look of a magazine spread, but Girlshop manages to evoke the ultimate in-the-know aura with its trendy layouts. Customers of Girlshop or its sibling sites Guyshop and Totshop also can take advantage of the site's personal shopping service: Just dial, and the shopper on call will help with accessorizing queries and special orders.
Gap Inc.'s foray into the footwear world just launched a few weeks ago, but it's a stunning example of how to sell products online. Many of its best featuresfree shipping and returnsare also available on Zappos.com, the Web's shoe behemoth. In terms of presentation, Piperlime makes use of a "quick look" feature: With a click, shoppers can get a more detailed picture of a shoe without slowing down to open a whole new page.
An autumn overhaul has made the site a cinch to navigate, never taking more than four clicks from any given point to checkout. That's a critical issue for shoppers, says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "The more clicks it takes, the more a person gets frustrated," he says. New interactive features aren't all hits (the kid's toy wish list might raise parents' eyebrows with its gimme attitude), but positive changes abound. And rollback prices don't hurt.
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.