Double-Checking 'Smart Buy' Web Site Advice

Many comparison-shopping Web sites note "smart buys" on electronics purchases. They aren't necessarily the lowest price on a product, but they're supposed to be the lowest price from a reputable seller. However, New York Times columnist David Pogue says "gray market" sellers have figured out how to "game" the system.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Monday Business Report focuses on technology. Today we're going to talk about buying technology on the cheap. Thanks to online sites like BizRate and Shopping.com, you can shop for the best price for just about anything. But getting the best price does not mean you're getting the best deal. To explain, we've brought in David Pogue, as we sometimes do. He is the technology columnist at The New York Times.

Good morning again.

Mr. DAVID POGUE (Columnist, The New York Times): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I understand that there have been some problems with some of these sites, which seem great on the surface. You can go and find out different prices in different places for the same electronic product.

Mr. POGUE: Well, right. And when it comes to personal electronics, everybody who's anybody knows that you don't pay suggested list price for electronics. You got to compare on one of these sites. I have, actually, a personal experience to share with you. I wanted to buy a new camcorder for my family's spring break and so I went online and went to one of the price comparison sites and I found this phenomenal price, $400 below list price. And I ordered it for overnight delivery, because we were just about to leave and I wanted one day to get used to it. But instead of getting the package the next morning, I got an e-mail from this company that said, `Call us right away.' And I thought, `Oh, my gosh, credit card declined. What could it be?' I called them up and it was just a chance for the guy to try to up sell me to a carrying case, a lens, and a bigger battery.

INSKEEP: All of which they tried to sell you before they actually packed up the box and shipped it to you?

Mr. POGUE: Yeah, and meanwhile, I paid for overnight delivery. And, of course, now it was overnight and they hadn't even shipped the thing.

INSKEEP: Well, I've got a Web browser open in front of me here. And can you direct me to one of these sites and maybe we can just look and see if we can spot any clues, any warning signs for this kind of problem that might pop up?

Mr. POGUE: Well sure. If you go to shopping.com...

INSKEEP: OK.

Mr. POGUE: It used to be DealTime and Epinions.com. They've merged.

(Soundbite of typing)

INSKEEP: Shopping.com. OK, it's opened up.

Mr. POGUE: And it says, `What are you shopping for?' Let's look for, say, this really, really great digital camera, the Nikon D70.

INSKEEP: OK. N-I-K-O-N D-7-0. There you go. All right.

Mr. POGUE: OK.

INSKEEP: And it found--oh, yeah, we've got a whole bunch of different prices on here.

Mr. POGUE: Shopping.com takes the prices for every item from hundreds of online retailers and lists them for you in order, so you can see who's got the cheapest price.

INSKEEP: And it's got different prices here. I can buy this same camera, supposedly, for 700 bucks or 759 or 900 or 1,230. So what do I do now?

Mr. POGUE: Exactly. Here's the smart thing. I used to tell people, `Don't go for the lowest price because that could be just some gray-market fly-by-night outfit you've never heard from. They'll take your credit card and send you junk. Don't do that.' Instead, the beauty of things like Shopping.com is that people can rate their shopping experience after the fact, and you get the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. So if you scroll down, you'll see that every store listed here has a rating, from zero to five checkmarks in this case, and one of them the company has thoughtfully highlighted in blue with a `smart buy' logo. And what they're saying is, this is not the lowest price, but it's the lowest price from a store with a high rating.

INSKEEP: OK. Now you said you used to give the advice of going to these ratings, which--I can see there's a link on here I can click and get to the ratings of people's experiences. You used to give that advice.

Mr. POGUE: What's happened, unfortunately, is these fly-by-night gray-market places are starting to game the system. What happened after I bought my camcorder was, I got another e-mail that said, `We'll give you a discount off your next purchase if you will go to the following sites: BizRate.com; Shopping.com; PriceGrabber.com, and give us a review.'

INSKEEP: Oh.

Mr. POGUE: `We'll give you up to 30 bucks off.' So, in essence, they're hiring people to go and give them good reviews. So this `smart buy' logo is becoming less trustworthy. And, by the way, I don't mind saying that the outfit that I bought from was called Abes of Maine, which is neither honest like Honest Abe, nor is this place in Maine; it's in Brooklyn.

INSKEEP: Well, at least your money stayed there in New York City where you live. So you have Web sites that are designed to help you find the best deal. You have companies that are now taking advantage of that. What are you supposed to do?

Mr. POGUE: When it says, as it does for Abes of Maine, 2,801 store reviews, I suggest go ahead and clicking that. They don't bribe you to post a good review. I should say that. Abes did not say, `We'll give you 30 bucks off your next order if you give us a rave review.' So look at the bad ones. See just how ripped off people have been from this store. And my second piece of advice is, once you find a place that isn't gaming the system, that did give you a good transaction, stick with it.

INSKEEP: David Pogue is a technology columnist and his advice is available for a low, low price at The New York Times. David, thanks very much.

Mr. POGUE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.