Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Getting Sales Advice From Your Cellphone

At one time or another, all of us have been handed a Christmas or birthday gift list that includes seemingly simple items such as “coffee maker,” “luggage,” or the most dreaded item of all, “TV.” But choosing the right one is no easy task. Once you’re actually in the store, surrounded by options, it’s easy to buy the worst brand of coffee maker, or the luggage that is infamous for wearing out too soon, or the overly expensive television set.

Wouldn’t it be easier if you had some independent help, right there in the store, to make the best choice and resist the often bad information provided by salespeople?

Consumer Reports certainly thinks so. This week, it introduced a cellphone application, ShopSmart, that allows you to carry the magazine’s famous product comparisons and ratings with you while shopping, right on your mobile phone. Available for Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel customers just in time for the holiday shopping season, this new service costs $3.99 a month. Cingular will start carrying ShopSmart next month.

Screen Shot
ShopSmart is simply organized.

The idea is that, while you’re in a store, dazed by a row of similar-looking products like digital cameras, you can just whip out your cellphone, launch ShopSmart, and see which camera Consumer Reports recommends, or how it rates the particular camera you’re holding.

We love and trust Consumer Reports, which runs a very successful and useful paid Web site in addition to its legendary print magazine. But we were dubious. How well would a cellphone handle such an application? Would it be easy for last-minute shoppers to rapidly receive, read and use the data provided by ShopSmart? So, we tested this new application using a Verizon LG VX8100 cellphone — a newer phone that runs on Verizon’s ultrafast EV-DO network, which downloads data at about the speed of a low-end home DSL connection.

(Consumer Reports has a content-sharing relationship with The Wall Street Journal Online. See some recent reports from Consumer Reports at Journal.)

Overall, we were impressed by ShopSmart’s straightforward and easy-to-use approach. Each screen was simple to read at a glance, and browsing from one screen to the next took just a couple of seconds. We especially liked the program’s ability to add certain products to a “Favorites” list, for accessing later, and a feature that lets you email the ShopSmart data to yourself, or anyone else, for later perusal.

There are a couple of downsides. For now, ShopSmart covers only three categories of products — electronics, appliances, and home and garden. It omits important categories Consumer Reports covers in print and online, including cars, personal finance, food and travel. So it won’t help you to buy that luggage, even though the magazine reviewed it. And people who already subscribe to the magazine and/or the Web site don’t get it free. Like everyone else, they have to pay the $3.99 monthly fee.

Also, while performance was very good on our test phone running on the fast EV-DO network, the product-information downloads would be much, much slower at the typical network speeds most people use.

The program is updated weekly. It uses Yahoo Shopping to provide up-to-date price ranges for each product, listing prices from online stores as well as retail chains, so you can find where each product is sold for the lowest cost.

After downloading ShopSmart through your phone carrier’s built-in online store — our phone used Verizon’s Get It Now — it can be opened by pressing just a few keys. This might be particularly useful for shoppers who use this program only once in a while, so they don’t easily forget how to get started.

To make the best use of the phone’s small display, ShopSmart is simply organized into different sections using five tabs labeled Ratings, Search, Favorites, Articles and About. The products themselves are divided into three main categories: Appliances, Electronics, and Home and Garden. Product types are listed alphabetically within each category, 10 per screen. Under the Search tab, we found that the Appliances category included 20 different types, starting with air conditioners and ending with washing machines, including coffee makers and gas ranges along the way.

Phone photo
The ShopSmart cellphone program costs $3.99 per month.

Still within Search, we took a look at the “Canister Vacuum Cleaners,” finding 21 different brands listed. Three Hoover vacuums were reviewed in ShopSmart, two receiving scores of 65 and 64. These scores were listed in red print directly to the right of the product name and model number.

More information can be found by selecting a particular model; we chose the Hoover WindTunnel Plus S3639 and saw a clearly labeled list including price range ($136 to $319), overall score (65), cleaning carpet, cleaning bare floors, cleaning with tools, noise, emissions, ease of use, bag (yes) and brush on/off (yes).

One of five color-coded symbols appears next to each of the features rated by Consumer Reports, such as how well the vacuum did cleaning carpet or bare floors. By selecting each category, you can read a brief description of how each rating was determined, and what each symbol means on a scale of excellent to poor.

We selected the price-range category and saw where the vacuum was being sold for only $136 — at a place called Dmart2000 — and where it was selling for $229 — at Ace Hardware. (An option to show only retail chains is also available.) We had never heard of Dmart2000, but found that we could send an email to ourselves containing information on the retailer, provided by Yahoo Shopping.

Sure enough, this email hit our accounts in a matter of seconds, and we learned that Dmart2000 is an online discount department store. Yahoo also provided details about the store’s customer-care contact information and methods of payment.

Even more important, this email contained the full Consumer Reports rating charts on the product category, in color, as opposed to the smaller selection of ratings that appears on the ShopSmart phone program. This more detailed chart could be useful for people who want to continue their research back home at a computer, or who want to call from the store to discuss the purchase with somebody sitting at a computer. You could potentially view this email on your phone, though most phones have lousy email software, making this difficult to do.

Another nice feature of ShopSmart allows you to quickly get back to information about particular products. If you check a “Favorites” icon while reading about products, you can revisit those products directly from ShopSmart’s home screen by simply selecting the “Favorites” tab.

A section labeled “Articles” included short reads about good deals on appliances, High Definition TV and computerized paint color. These aren’t just fluffy pieces — they’re articles detailing the experiences that Consumer Reports has had while trying out various products. Though they may require a little more time to read, even in their short version, they are usually highly useful.

This holiday season, keep in mind that while it’s true that it’s the thought that counts, getting the right gift is a good idea as well. And having Consumer Reports on your phone can make that task a lot easier.

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