Imagine going to the mall in search of a new pair of black leather gloves. But this time, rather than starting the search by going straight to your favorite stores, which look familiar and carry recognizable merchandise at expected prices, you must walk to the center of the mall and sort through a giant bucket of gloves with few identifying marks other than price.
Wacky as this scenario sounds, it’s the way many people shop online every day. They look for specific items by searching Web sites like Amazon.com (AMZN) and eBay.com (EBAY), where results are displayed in big lists without much association to stores. That means all the details a customer knows about a store—its ambiance, prices, style, quality and variety—aren’t put to use.
This week, I shopped online with Flit.com, a free Web site owned by San Francisco-area company enterONCE LLC that encourages people to shop using the same method they use at the mall: Start inside familiar stores, not in a giant bucket of products. It’s designed so people will enter a search item once and receive multiple suggestions of places where the item might be sold. As shoppers “flit” off to those stores, Flit.com serves as a home base, remembering the original search so shoppers can flit back, choose different stores and shop from there again and again.
I used Flit.com to shop online for black high heels, a digital camera, the iPad (not yet available), a robe, running sneakers and black leather gloves. I found that using it saved me from having to manually enter multiple URLs, and I liked how it helped me shop from store to store, since I already associate certain styles with each.
Select from the list of stores carrying black dresses. The store’s Web site opens to reveal all the black dresses carried there.
A male colleague of mine explained that he doesn’t naturally shop according to stores, so it’s worth noting that Flit.com may appeal to women more than men. I wish Flit.com had a way of combining its store shopping with side-by-side comparisons of the same product; the company plans to add this in March.
The Flit.com shopping process works as follows: Type in a search item, such as “red dress,” then choose to search in Value or Premium stores and press the Enter key. This returns a list of stores from a pool of more than 300 that carry red dresses; store categories can be selected to return more accurate results. Select one store, and its Web site opens to reveal all the red dresses carried there. Search results include stores like Target, Best Buy (BBY), Bloomingdales, Sam’s Club and J. Crew, as well as popular shopping sites like Amazon, NexTag, Buy.com and eBay.
The value behind Flit.com’s method of flitting you out to individual store sites is twofold. First, you still get to shop on a store’s own Web page, many of which were designed to uniquely reflect the store’s spirit and style. Lots of shoppers have saved shipping and credit card information with a store Web site, or they have coupon codes or gift certificates to use there. Shopping on each store’s page rather than on a general shopping site lets them tap into that data.
Second, after you flit off to a store Web site, an orange button remains in a Flit.com toolbar at the top of the page; click there to return back to home base before flitting off to yet another shopping site. Flit.com will keep a breadcrumb trail of where you have gone in your shopping session, using store icons to represent each site that was visited. You can place a check mark beside sites to remember them.
Flit.com’s search results are only as good as each individual store’s search engine, so if a store doesn’t do a good job of querying its own inventory, you’re out of luck.
The Flit.com home page would benefit from offering more ways to sort stores, such as by price range rather than just by using Value, Premium or alphabetical order—especially because “value” and “premium” mean different things to different people. The company’s CEO says Flit.com will likely add sorting by price and other categories by this spring.
In a hunt for a robe using Flit.com, I was surprised to see that of the 12 top stores that appeared at the top of the list, seven of them didn’t carry robes, according to what the store sites told me when I linked out to them. I asked Flit.com’s CEO about this and he said that search returns don’t filter out some stores that may have limited or no selections, and that this is valuable because it shows shoppers that a certain store doesn’t carry an item—just like physical shopping. I had hoped that one advantage to Flit.com would be less virtual wandering in stores that don’t carry what I am looking for.
Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy Web sites, all owned by the same company, didn’t display the orange toolbar button that returns shoppers to Flit.com because they use their own toolbar at the top of their pages.
It’s too bad that Flit.com’s breadcrumb trail, which tracks where a user has shopped, doesn’t hold specific items. For example, I found the same pair of running sneakers in my size after digging into Web sites for Road Runner Sports and Zappos, but I couldn’t save the shoes anywhere. Flit.com’s CEO says capturing individual products and merging them into the search trail will be offered in March.
Snipi.com, a free shopping site I reviewed last spring, uses a toolbar for holding items that are dragged and dropped into it so they can be remembered and revisited for buying at a later time. Flit searches can be saved or shared with others with the “save your shopping session” button. It prompts the user to enter an email address for sending a Web link of the saved session.
Flit.com is currently funding its operating costs from an original private investment and doesn’t have any formal relationships with the stores where it sends users. The site’s CEO says the company hopes to negotiate a system where it gets paid by the stores, or by third parties, for any business it generates.
After doing a lot of flitting, I noticed a screen between the Flit.com search results page and the store page that asked if I wanted to share Flit with friends, and offered to let me do so through email or a social-networking site like Twitter or Facebook. This screen pops up roughly every 25 flits, according to the company, but it includes a step to skip this and continue to the store’s Web page.
The people working at Flit.com seem to know what the site needs to improve, thus preventing it from being just another fleeting online shopping site. Its shopping trail needs a little help, as do its result categorizations, but the way it lets users shop online starting with familiar stores makes Web shopping comfortable and easy, much like visiting physical stores.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.
Write to Katherine Boehret at email@example.com