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November 16, 2000|ROBERT BURNS,

Oh sure, you can go online for the new U2 CD, but what about Sparky? It's time to get your face out of and start surfing for animals. Since announced it was closing its virtual doors this month, there are only two big players, Petopia ( and Petsmart ( Both have a bigger selection than even the big-box bricks-and-mortar pet shops and prices are a little cheaper, but usually only if you don't count shipping charges. The best deal online for pets seems to be medicine.

Best site to shop: We're going to have to go with Petopia, but we'll probably end up using any site that's left after the "dot-com" meltdown. Both Petopia and Petsmart offer a lot of advice on a variety of animals. Like, how to teach your ferret tricks. Or which gerbil species are overly aggressive.

Best site to buy: If you're looking for variety, try the online experience. If you're buying basics, go to your local pet shop. You'll probably pay less and might see some puppies if there's an adoption fair going on.

Convenience: You can have items shipped by subscription, so you get, say your dog food, on a regular basis. At Petopia it's called the Bottomless Bowl.

Customer service: Both have the same rating at @Plan Institute for Online Commerce. Each got three stars, which means customers evaluated the site as "excellent" 30% of the time. Not encouraging.

Shipping and return policy: Standard shipping (four to 10 business days) at Petopia is $4.99 for up to 10 pounds; $6.99 for 11 to 25; $8.99 for 26 to 45 pounds and on up. Petopia says unsatisfactory merchandise may be returned within 30 days for a refund (minus shipping charges, unless the error is Petopia's).

How it compares with offline: You can find a bigger variety online, but may end up paying more for common stuff. A 4-pound bag of Science Diet Feline Light cat food is at first cheaper online at $7.19 a bag (that's the Petopia price), but when you add shipping, the cost hits $12.18, more than $2 higher than you'd pay at a pet store, even with sales tax. On the other hand, there were more kitty condos than you'd ever find at one pet store, including some we've never seen.

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