With the possible exception of the Thomas Register, the best-known print directories of products and services (such as the ABC Hotel & Motel Guides, or the Official Airline Guide) typically have not been placed on the ready-reference shelves because — among other reasons — they took up so much space. In the digital world, product and service directories are among the most often consulted reference sources by consumers. The various digital yellow and white pages have been among the best selling CD-ROM products, and they have been doing very well on the Web. Directories of hotels and other travel-related services are the most visited Web sites. The free online version of the Thomas Register runs circles around the print edition in functionality and utility.
There are several excellent Web sites that provide informative evaluations, ratings and other types of guidance for consumers on a variety of products and services. The fee-based Consumer Reports has reviews for everything from air cleaners to windshield wipers. ConsumerReviews, based solely on owners' reviews, covers audio devices to video gadgets. And the free and brainy ConsumerSearch site, which aggregates and synthesizes editorial reviews, covers everything from answering machines to washing machines. I reviewed that site last December for the holiday season. This year I have picked another excellent consumer advisory reference site for the same reason: to help librarians, and patrons find the best deals for the most typical holiday gifts.
CNET Shopper has a more focused scope than the other consumer advisory sites mentioned above, but, apart from neckties-for-pop and blenders-for-mom, its product range represents the most popular gift items: the largest variety of consumer-level products predominantly related to our increasingly digital world. Largest variety applies in this case not only to the product lines and the brands, but also to the price categories. There is information and buying guidance for products below $10 and above $3,000. Junior on a paltry pocket-change budget can find a $6.99 iPod-matching headphone Y-splitter for mom and dad to share their gadget (and to kill two presents with one purchase), while his parents can regale him with a near-$4,000 IBM ThinkPad notebook to make sure that no child of theirs is left behind those of their neighbors.
As for the product line variety, suffice it to say that for noise-canceling headphones alone there are more than 200 products listed (if you search it smartly, as discussed in the software section below) from dozens of manufacturers. The items' technical specifications are presented in a consistent format, facilitating quick scanning of the features. Even better, with the click of a button a chart can be displayed comparing competitors' products by a dozen of those features.
A weak point of this option is that products of the broad category are compared (such as "headphones") instead of the specific subcategory ("noise canceling headphones"), so products in different leagues may be included in the comparison charts. However, you may choose the competitors you want to see compared, by selecting them from the result list of your search.
The manufacturer information portion includes not only the standard elements (name, address, Web site), but also provides a link to a list of all the products at CNET Shopper from that manufacturer.
The most useful part is often the review by a CNET editor, who also grades the products. This lets you put into perspective a score of 8 out of 10 when seeing that a competing brand got only 6.5 or 7. The narrative parts of the reviews are informative and seem to be objective. Only the most remarkable, most-well-known and/or most disappointing products have editorial reviews, but there are user opinions for almost every product.
However, you must approach these with a grain of salt as sometimes they can present a badly distorted picture, as the customer may be incompetent or just a "hired hand" to write a positive or negative review. In one of my test cases, the first two users' reviews were negative, but then the enthusiastic reviews rolled in. If there is a substantial number of reviews, the global scores can be quite indicative.
In the test search about the Sennheiser PXC 250 headphone, for example, it received 51 users' reviews with 81% positive or very positive. Together with the editor's opinion and grade, it is fairly easy to reach a conclusion — especially if you can get the product from a shop that offers a good price, as well as an acceptable return policy and decent warranty. Which leads to the next content feature: the price comparison.
Although price comparison is a common feature on many other consumer guidance sites, CNET does it very well. There is good reason for this — CNET Shopper uses the AskSimon shopping agent, which has been one of the best in this software genre. AskSimon was so good that CNET acquired it and now provides it as a seamless module.
The agent gathers price information from a large number of online stores and puts the price information along with the stores' name, rating and the product's availability in to a grid. The grid can be resorted by any of the data elements, including the price information, which at this stage is the most important. It is very helpful that the complete price of getting the product (including shipping and handling) can be calculated if you provide your ZIP code. It is no surprise that the store with the cheapest price does not always have the product, but through the direct link you at least have the chance to go to the store's Web site and haggle for a rain check.
The total price, however, is not always reliable because ground shipping is assumed, which is appropriate from mainland vendors to mainland customers, but not for buyers in Hawaii or Alaska. Customers from Hawaii, for example, are penalized by most of the stores with the addition of an unreasonably high ($20 or more) shipping cost for 2nd day air (which always turns out to be three or four days). Such surcharges may make the cheapest option more expensive than, say, buying the product from Amazon.com with its free shipping and (in my experience) utterly reliable and in every regard impeccable service. For customers in or close to a major city, there is also an option to look up the price and availability at a store within a 15, 30 or 45 mile radius.
CNET has many other assets that have the best domain names you can imagine, such as mp3.com, download.com and search.com. These can very well complement the shopper.com site. The plethora of buyers' guides, video demonstrations and tutorials can make the same difference in educated, well-informed choices as buying at, say, Sharper Image versus one of the stores around Times Square that always claim to have special "going out of business" sales, but never seem to close (thus giving up their lucrative tourist-spot locations).
Most of the major Web sites that want to sell you something try to make the process as painless and smooth as possible. CNET Shopper does it with aplomb. The interface always makes it clear where you are and where you can go. The options are clear and self-explanatory, with a few exceptions.
Products can be browsed by product line categories and subcategories, and in some cases by special categories, such as temporary deals and clearance. There are product lists by predefined categories. Sometimes the options become a bit excessive, such as when offering categories for Him, Her, Kids, Parents and Friends. Which one do you choose for a friend who happens to be female? And your kid's male friend? Of course, at the time of the review the biggest shopping season was just starting, so Holiday specials and cliché imagery were overwhelming. No wonder that there was also a more refined guide to help you buy for Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Husband, Wife, Family and Zany Uncle.
You can search by category, product name, manufacturer and universal product code. You may filter the search results by price ranges and sort the result by every feasible criteria. You can browse and search for editorially reviewed products, which could only be better if it were offered as a filter.
The only weakness in the software is the lack of the equivalent to Google's "Did You Mean?" help system when you misspell a word, or use the correct but less common spelling. That could make a big difference in some cases.
For example, if you search for "noise cancelling headphones" (spelled with double L) you only find nine items. But, if you search for "noise canceling headphones" (with single L) you will find 235 products . One or two of the products may appear in the result list of both searches, but the user may pay dearly for it, literally, as the much smaller result set may not include the shops that sell the product at the best price and/or may not have editorial or even user reviews, as was the case for one of my tests.
Overall, CNET Shopper is an especially content-rich and informative site that helps you make an educated and financially smart choice without any of the sales pressure experienced in many of the large, traditional brick-and-mortar shops that sell similar merchandise at almost always higher prices.