Shopping Bots Now A Formidable Force

Of all the roadblocks that e-tailers encounter on their way to success in the new electronic frontier, shopping bots may become the most formidable.

With catchy names like DealTime.com, mySimon.com and RUSure.com, bots are presenting e-tailers with the ultimate challenge — how to keep their customers from clicking off into the great beyond.

Getting Smarter

Bots, or intelligent software agents that root through the Internet for the lowest prices on almost anything, are certainly not new. The technology has been in place for at least a couple of years, which in e-commerce terms is a lifetime. However, they are getting smarter and more refined every day.

This week, Lycos unveiled the expansion of its Lycoshop Product Comparison Service.

Already an efficient shopper’s friend, Lycoshop takes a quick look at more than 150 product categories and offers the consumer information on more than price. In fact, Lycoshop comes back to the consumer with information about the products available, the merchants who sell them and explains it in simple, concise form.

Other bots are still coming back to the customer with hundreds of options, but Lycoshop is cleverly narrowing the search and finding the best value.

How Important Is Price?

Depending on whom you listen to, price emerges as either the ultimate closer in a sale or just one of a list of customer priorities. Jupiter Communications reports that 77 percent of online shoppers who did not buy anything said they would be more likely to make a purchase if they could be convinced that there was a lower price online for the product they desire.

With that concept in mind, some bots are allowing shoppers a first crack at the best deals.

DealTime allows shoppers the opportunity to wait at the “front door” or an e-tailer’s site for prices to come down. The shopper simply indicates what they want and how much they’re willing to pay, and DealTime sends them an e-mail when the time is right.

Even more ominous for e-tailers are bots that wait in the wings as a shopper surfs various sites. As soon as the customer indicates an intention to purchase an item, the bot shifts into high gear and searches other sites for a better deal.

Will Bots Achieve Longevity?

To date, bots have been considered a novelty among shoppers. Still, if they are to truly have an effect on the future of e-commerce, several kinks will have to be worked out.

First, most bots still focus almost exclusively on price. To gain credibility with the customer, bots will have to gather information about site security, shipping, returns and online promotions relating to the customer’s area of interest. E-shoppers are increasingly interested in quality and reliability, as well as price.

Bots will likely have to be able to interact with consumers’ digital wallets, the device that allows consumers to enter personal and credit information just once, rather than at multiple Web sites. If the bot could find the bargain, assure the customer of its quality and then streamline the purchase via the digital wallet, they might become a more respected part of the e-commerce culture.

Finally, bots will have to stake a consistent claim to the e-shopper’s routine. Bots make their money from advertising and transaction fees paid by the merchants. While single purchase transactions are fueling their growth, their ongoing stability in the e-marketplace will have more to do with them becoming identifiable brands that customers call on first, prior to visiting specific e-tail sites.

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