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Tools to make online shopping easier

Free downloads aim to help you find better deals. Do they work?

By Karen Datko Apr 5, 2010 10:40AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Sarah Morgan at partner site SmartMoney.

 

Buying an iPod should be easy, right? That’s what Robin Landy thought when he started shopping for one online a couple of years ago. But as the Londoner tried searching for the best price on the specific iPod he wanted, he kept turning up irrelevant results: the wrong color, the older model, and so on. “All I could think was, it should be easier than this,” says Landy, 30.

 

“All this stuff comes to me on the Internet,” he asked himself, “so why should I have to go out and search for the best prices?” The upshot: Landy launched InvisibleHand, one of a handful of free browser add-ons now available that aim to simplify online shopping by comparing prices and alerting consumers to better deals.

We all want to save time and money, but be sure you check out any new software before downloading it. If a free download claims to have been well-reviewed, for example, check to make sure those positive reviews actually exist, says Maxim Weinstein, executive director of StopBadware, a nonprofit organization supported by Google, PayPal and Mozilla that tracks malicious and misleading software. Unfortunately, no anti-virus software can catch everything, so it’s important to do your own research, Weinstein says.

 

Even if a program isn’t malicious, it could still raise privacy concerns. In order to work, online shopping tools have to gather some information on your shopping habits. The question is, what do they do with that data once they have it? If you’re like most Internet users, you don’t bother to read the fine print in privacy policies before downloading new software, says Ryan Calo, who runs the consumer privacy project at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

 

“A majority of people see the words ‘privacy policy’ and they believe it means that the company has a policy of privacy,” Calo says. In reality, he adds, most privacy policies are written to give companies broad leeway in what they can do with any data they collect on you. The Stanford Center has developed a Web site, WhatApp.org, where experts and users can review online and mobile apps for privacy and security concerns.

 

You may decide you’re comfortable giving up a little privacy in exchange for some extra cash. InvisibleHand, for example, claims to have identified more than $52 million in savings for U.S. shoppers since it launched in 2009. SmartMoney test-drove three online shopping add-ons to see how much they can really help you save:

 

InvisibleHand. This browser add-on, just launched for Internet Explorer and also available for Firefox and Chrome, is designed to protect you from buyer’s remorse by doing your comparison shopping for you. While looking at a Sony Cyber-Shot 12.1 megapixel digital camera on BestBuy.com, for example, InvisibleHand alerted us that the camera was available for $10.99 less on Buy.com -- and also showed us five other sites selling the same product.

 

But the app has limitations. It’s not as effective if your search is broad -- say, “digital camera” rather than something specific, like “Sony Cyber-Shot.” InvisibleHand also only supports certain products and retailers, so it won’t work for everything. Founder Landy says  that later this year InvisibleHand will add more “fuzzy matching” -- the capacity to compare prices on products, like flights or hotel reservations, that are comparable but not precisely the same.

 

PriceStalker. This comparison-shopping Web site offers a free Internet Explorer add-on. Highlight a product’s name, right-click on it and you can pull up a list of similar products available on other sites. The best results, however, come from the site itself, not the add-on tool. Right-clicking on that same Sony Cyber-Shot camera, for example, turned up more expensive options, but clicking through to the Web site found several offers that would save about $36 off the BestBuy.com price.

 

Bing Shopping. Microsoft’s new search engine offers another free Internet Explorer add-on that connects with its shopping search function. It works much like the PriceStalker tool -- right-click on a product’s name to see sample Bing Shopping search results. As with the PriceStalker tool, the best results were found by clicking through to Bing itself. The right-click option turned up a Sony Cyber-Shot for $46 more than the BestBuy.com price, but a Bing search beat Best Buy’s price by about the same amount.

Bing’s other lure: cash back. With a Bing Cashback account, you could get 10% back on a $107.99 Sony Cyber-Shot from CompUSA.com. The Cashback program works with well-known retailers like Barnes & Noble or Sephora, but in many cases you can’t take advantage of it if you’re using a coupon or shopping a sale.

 

Related reading at SmartMoney:

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