Walt Mossberg

Comparison Shopping

While the online shopping business continues to attract new customers, few shoppers are about to completely forgo trips to the mall anytime soon. But shopping online has one advantage that physical shopping has lacked: With a few keystrokes, prices on one retail Web site can be compared with the sale prices on another. When you shop at bricks-and-mortar stores, you have to manually compare prices in ads, or rely on tips from friends about good deals.

But the Net’s comparison shopping power now is being extended to the physical world as well.

Cairo.com and Shoplocal.com let users search for real world deals at local stores.
Cairo.com and Shoplocal.com let users search for real world deals at local stores.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested two Web sites that enable consumers to search for items that are on sale in physical stores, making it much easier for price-driven shoppers to find the best deals. The sites that we tested, Cairo.com and ShopLocal.com, helped us find plenty of things on sale at our neighborhood stores, without so much as leafing through a Sunday circular.

Cairo.com, which is owned by Cairo Inc., San Francisco, offers a variety of items from stores in your local area, including multiple grocery stores.

ShopLocal.com is a slightly larger Chicago company that is owned by newspaper companies — specifically Tribune Co., Gannett Co. and Knight Ridder Inc. — and it, too, offers details on sales in your area. However, because of its ties to newspapers, it focuses its comparisons on stores that advertise in the newspapers. ShopLocal says it doesn’t promote items only from companies that have ads in the papers, and that it had relationships with various companies prior to its newspaper relations.

Our tests yielded a clear winner: Cairo. In almost every case, its search results were better and more accurate than ShopLocal’s, and it offered personalization and special features that ShopLocal couldn’t match.

Katie and I tested Cairo and ShopLocal by searching for various items — including groceries, printer cartridges, Martha Stewart brand products and even my favorite SmartPhone, Palm’s Treo. Our searches almost always produced results — some of which were a little off base, like a search for “water” on ShopLocal that notified us of a sale-priced Yankee Candle with an Ocean Water scent.

Cairo offered to personalize our Web searches much more than ShopLocal. Because of this, getting started with Cairo took a little longer, as we were asked to enter our ZIP Code and email, then to create a password. A special page labeled “My Account” displayed personal settings, like which retailers we wanted to search for and a set distance within which our result stores had to be located. But the extra set-up time was worth it, yielding much more useful results.

At the top left of Cairo’s homepage were two straightforward boxes: one for entering a search term and another for our ZIP Code (ours was already entered after registering). If you don’t know the exact term to enter into the search box, a section below lets you browse through 14 general categories of sale items. You also can search by retailer or brand.

We liked three special features that Cairo offers — Sales Alert, Price Match and Grocery Saver. Sales Alert allows you to simply select an icon next to a listed item so that you will be alerted via email if the price on that particular product ever drops. Or, if you enter a specific desired price range, the site will email you only if the price dips into that range.

Cairo’s Price Match can save you money after you buy something by helping you take advantage of many stores’ offers to match prices from their competitors. The service is like having a computerized research assistant who will continuously check to see if the flat-screen television you just bought is available for less anywhere else. You enter your product’s model number, date of purchase, name and location of the retailer and the price before sales tax. If the product does go on sale for less, Cairo offers specific, printable instructions detailing how to receive a refund of the difference between the price you paid and the sale price. But that only works if the store’s policy allows this kind of reimbursement.

Grocery Saver allowed us to make a list of items that we normally get at the grocery store — including milk, orange juice, fruit, Coca-Cola soda and salad. This list is constantly checked by Cairo’s system so that you can see when and where those everyday items are on sale. A list of the items, their sale prices and stores can be easily printed out.

Also, Cairo lets you compare physical store prices to those at stores online. It checks Amazon.com, Shopping.com, Froogle and Nextag.

ShopLocal doesn’t offer price matching or the ability to create a running shopping list that is regularly checked for sales like Cairo’s Grocery Saver. You can set up Sales Alerts by entering a keyword and or selecting a category, but this system alerts you only if a product goes on sale, not if the product’s price drops or falls within a certain range.

ShopLocal’s Web site can’t be personalized like Cairo’s. If you have cookies enabled, the site will remember your ZIP Code, but that is where personalization ends. Its home page also offers a search box at the top, then lists retailers below so that you can search by store name. On the far left of the home page, ShopLocal lists 25 different product categories.

As we entered various search terms using ShopLocal and Cairo, we noticed that Cairo’s results returned more data with fewer steps than did ShopLocal; it also gave us more accurate results. For example, our search for Hewlett-Packard inkjet cartridges for a 5850 printer took four steps using both Web sites. Cairo’s results clearly displayed more details, including the product number, brand name, store name and location.

Another search for “apples” — as in the edible kind — returned a sale price of $1.49 a pound for extra large Braeburn apples at Giant Foods (a large grocery store in our home base of Washington, D.C.) on Cairo. ShopLocal’s search returned 67 results, but none of them were actual apples. Instead, we saw various Apple Computer products and an apple-cider-scented Yankee Candle.

Katie tested brand name searching by looking for Martha Stewart’s brand, which is sold by Kmart. She found two products from Martha’s Everyday line on Cairo, but ShopLocal couldn’t find any.

Our search for “Treo” was one of few that resulted in ShopLocal’s favor; it found three Treos for sale at Best Buy and Ritz Camera; Cairo found only the on-sale Treo at Ritz.

Both services use advertising, but the ads weren’t especially intrusive. Still, Cairo’s ads were much subtler. Cairo uses Google’s ad service, which simply places text ads tied to search terms in a clearly marked strip on the right side of the screen. ShopLocal uses larger banner ads at the top of each page and sometimes also at the bottom.

Overall, Cairo is a smart Web site that makes it easy to compare prices at retail stores, and its added features that do some extra legwork for you take the hassle out of finding good sales. Until ShopLocal.com steps up and adds more personalization and accurate search results, the better Web site for deal comparisons is Cairo.com.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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