Online shoppers intent on getting the lowest price may want to make themselves comfortable: Shopping around is easier than ever, but it still takes some patience, and a visit to more than a few sites.
Price-comparison sites have long been consumers' go-to resource for checking prices online, and related apps have made it easy for pavement pounders to perform a quick buy-or-not calculation while in stores. Some 55% of online shoppers always check for competitive prices before buying, according to Forrester Research. And when shoppers are buying a big-ticket item or something that has a reputation for variable pricing, they're even more apt to compare, says Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It's a way to arm yourself with the most data possible," she says.
But experts say price-comparison engines have slowly become less useful for bargain hunters. Google recently redesigned its Google Shopping engine to include listings only from companies that pay to be included. On the plus side, that is likely to weed out suspect vendors and outdated prices. But it also means small businesses are less likely to get a mention, says Jack Vonder Heide, chief executive of research group Technology Briefing Centers. Nor will they see listings from Amazon -- the retail giant has removed its Google Shopping listings. A Google spokeswoman says the changes are about providing more accurate results for shoppers. "We truly believe that when merchants have a financial stake in the shopping experience, they will send us better product data," she says. And Google isn't alone. Other engines may also stick to paid listings, says Vonder Heide, or only include major retailers.
Then there's the dynamic-pricing problem. Web retailers like Amazon and Best Buy have begun changing their prices multiple times throughout the course of the day. Many of the price comparison sites, however, update their own records just once a day so the prices they're showing you are wrong, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "Yesterday's price won't do you any good," he says.
Shoppers' best bet is to have not just one, but several price-comparison sites bookmarked, experts say. Ideally, that results in a wider selection of retailers and a more complete view of sales and price variations, Mulpuru says.
Here are five that the experts say are worth bookmarking:
If you're browsing models before hunting down the best prices, Bing offers a "compare" feature and virtual shopping lists that can be helpful in making a decision, says Michelle Madhok, chief executive of shopping site SheFinds.com. Price-check results include a price history over six months, and reviews and specs on the product when applicable. But there's no rating system for merchant reliability, and the listings aren't always accurate. A hunt for the novel "Gone Girl," brought up a cheap price, but it was from an expired auction, while a search for the Canon PowerShot D20 delivered a lowest listing of $247, but clicking on the link led to a U.K.-based site that actually wanted 247, or $397. A Bing spokeswoman says a site team approves merchants before adding the free product listings and offers guidelines to merchants to make listings more accurate.
One of the better sites at capturing price fluctuations, Decide.com compares price data against factors like a new model's launch date to help shoppers decide whether to buy or wait, says Mulpuru. Ratings also point out when consumers can "do better" -- that is, when there are comparable items with more favorable reviews and similar pricing. There's no way to sort listings by best total price with tax and shipping, however, so it can take time to review. Users can't search for everything, either. Decide.com currently covers a few dozen items within broader categories such as electronics and appliances. A spokesman says the site, which debuted last year, continues to add new categories and capabilities.
Even with the changes, it's still a more-than-worthy engine, says Vonder Heide. "You're going to have the safest buying experience," he says. The recent redesign also included larger images with search listings, so it's easier to see at a glance if those are say, the model of Ray Ban sunglasses you want. Listings show which local stores list an item in stock, as well as those that accept Google Wallet mobile payments. Web options often include eBay stores and current auction listings (used condition noted). But of course, with the shift to only paid listings, shoppers won't see as wide a selection of businesses as in the past, he says. A Google spokeswoman says the redesign will still list products by relevancy, regardless of what advertisers pay to be listed. Nonpaying merchants will also continue to be included in the listings for a short time, she says.
A price history tracks the average and lowest prices over time, and shoppers can also set price alerts to get an email when the item drops below a set dollar amount. Listings include big retailers as well as eBay sales and smaller specialty stores. Results initially separate merchants into "featured sellers" (those that paid) and "more sellers" (that didn't), but it takes just one click to sort by total price and mix the two together into one list. A spokesman says that functionality makes it clear for consumers that some retailers have paid to be featured, without compromising their ability to find the best deal. But finding some good deals requires a look through the whole list -- on a Whirlpool dishwasher, one of the lowest prices got pushed to the bottom of the page because shipping and tax couldn't be calculated. Those instances are rare, and usually stem from incomplete data passed from a retailer, says a spokesman.
Users can refine product searches by category to weed out unwanted items, like the accessories for a particular smartphone instead of the handset itself, says Madhok. Search results also allow winnowing by category-specific attributes like the color of a digital camera, or liquid versus cream foundation in makeup. There's a page of details on each merchant, including which credit cards they accept and where they charge sales tax, but there are no reliability ratings. Most listings do not note shipping price, either, except when it's free. Pronto.com did not respond to requests for comment.