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Online Shopper

Comparing Prices, With No Wires Attached

February 01, 2001|JENNIFER LOWE | jennifer.lowe@latimes.com

I felt like a spy.

My friend Sharon and I were hunched over my cell phone in the Circuit City store in Glendale, comparing the store's prices against those of online merchants.

That Sony digital camera? We punched the model number into our phone's keypad, and by using a wireless Web connection, we got a list of prices and e-tailers on the phone's tiny screen.

The wireless Web is bringing about a bricks-and-mortar store's worst fear: Customers can price check--and eventually purchase--via their mobile phones and personal digital assistants in a store's aisles.

Why would anyone want to do this? I asked myself that question as I looked at DVD players, computers, stereo systems and the other hot new stuff in the store. Why not buy it here? Why not compare prices at home, using a search engine or Internet price-comparison site, then buy it where the price was best, online or the store?

We did feel a sense of empowerment--information at our fingertips--as we studied shelf prices and decided whether the store seemed overpriced or not. But even if we had found a good price online while at the store, the technology is not in place to actually order over the wireless Web (making credit card numbers secure is the problem). So we still would have had to go home, fire up the computer and wait for the item we'd just touched and played with to be delivered.

Shoot, why not just bring it home from Circuit City for some instant gratification?

No doubt mobile price-comparing appeals to hard-core techie shoppers--those outfitted with the latest equipment to surf wirelessly and spend freely at the same time. But we found it to have its drawbacks. For one thing, staring at a tiny phone screen showing four or five lines of type at a time and having to hit the scroll button constantly to read more was a pain.

It also took some effort to master all the keystrokes. Though we had bookmarked PriceGrabber.com, a comparison-shopping site, on our Sprint PCS phone, we had to punch more than half a dozen buttons before we could begin any kind of product search. Then, to search by a product number, we had to enter letters and numbers. Letters on a phone pad, of course, mean that you have to punch the "7" key four times if you want the letter "S."

But most disappointing of all were the Internet prices we found. We price-checked five items at Circuit City. If we did find an e-tailer selling the item for less, it usually was one we hadn't heard of.

"I don't buy from places I don't know. You hear so many stories from people who did," Sharon said.

And e-tailers that had a digital camera or DVD player for less than Circuit City often charged over-the-top shipping fees. ("They're crooks!" Sharon exclaimed.) Those charges brought the prices up to Circuit City's.

We started our wireless shopping trip by looking at digital cameras. We punched "Canon G1" into the PriceGrabber site for the Canon PowerShot G1 3.3 mega-pixel camera, which Circuit City had for $699.99.

"$749 from Technet something," Sharon said, squinting to read the tiny print. Another push of the keypad showed the camera would cost $26.75 to ship.

We tried our next camera, a Nikon Coolpix 990; Circuit City's price: $999.99. Sharon had the phone and was getting the hang of keying in products. "It's easy but tedious," she said. The first few prices were cheaper--starting at $749, "but who knows who these people are--CompuSavers? Camera Zone?" Sharon said, scrolling through more names and prices to reach one she recognized. Finally, Buy.com, which we both knew, showed up at $826. Shipping was $5.95.

To order, the screen said to call customer service and gave us the toll-free phone number. Using the same phone, I called and got Angie, a friendly customer service representative, who told me that yes, she could take my order over the phone, but that she would have to manually enter my order on the Buy.com Web site. I'd rather buy it from my home computer than read my credit card number aloud in the store.

That camera seemed like a deal, but our last searches weren't too successful. Circuit City had the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-S70 camera for $799.99; the first e-tailer on our price check we'd heard of, Microwarehouse.com, had it for the same price.

Over in front of the DVD players, we compared Circuit City's $399.99 price on a Sony DVD/CD player (DVP-S570D) with Web retailers and found some cheaper but with whopping shipping charges.

Finally, after an hour in the store and nothing to show for it, Sharon grew weak in front of a nifty little Sony Micro Component System CD player (CMT-EX1) for $299.99. "Everyday low price, guaranteed," the store sign said. A site called Etronics.com had it for $279, but shipping was $35. Outpost.com, from which Sharon had ordered in the past, showed a price of $299.

We grabbed a salesman. Would they match prices with the Web sites we'd found? "No, Web sites are different. Another store, yes, but Web sites are different," the salesman explained.

But he did say Sharon could put this on her Circuit City credit card and spread payments out over a year without accruing interest.

"But on Outpost I wouldn't pay tax or [overnight] shipping," she said.

We stood there, the phone in hand, the Internet on, the thrill of the hunt waning.

"Maybe," Sharon said, unable to take her eyes off the stereo system, "I need one of these!"

*

Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.

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