Walt Mossberg

Online Shopping on the Side

Online shopping is quick and easy if you know what you’re looking for, or only have to decide between a couple of products. But it can get tedious and time-consuming if you’re making a purchase that requires lots of comparisons over multiple sites.

So, I’ve been testing Digital Folio, a new, free software product to be announced next week. It’s a browser add-on that lets you save and view potential product choices in a single place, and quickly see how their prices compare among some major online retailers.

You just drag links to products that interest you into a sidebar right alongside your Web browser. This module stays with you regardless of what website you’re viewing, and its contents can be shared with friends.

Best of all, for certain kinds of products from certain merchants, the sidebar will almost instantly show price comparisons for the same item from other online stores—even if you aren’t viewing the other stores’ websites. If you decide to buy an item, you just click on its link in the sidebar, and you’ll be taken to the retailer’s site, where you can place your order as you normally would.

Digital Folio is labeled as a beta, or test, version. But, in my tests, I found that, despite some limitations and rough edges, it’s a powerful piece of software that I believe could save shoppers both time and money.

Its maker, a small startup from Denver of the same name, has been showing and testing Digital Folio for awhile, but finally feels it’s ready for wide use. You can try it now at digitalfolio.com. The company makes money by getting a small cut of purchases made by Digital Folio users at partner online merchants.

Before getting into the details, it’s important to lay out three key limitations of Digital Folio today. First, while it can save potential choices for any kind of product from any site, Digital Folio only generates automatic price comparisons when you save product listings from its five online retail partners, which it calls “Smart Retailers.” These are Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and Sears.

Second, even at the partner retail sites, Digital Folio’s price comparison feature works for only 13 categories of items, all of them electronic products or appliances. These include cameras, computers, TVs, printers, refrigerators, dishwashers and microwaves. Oddly, two of the hottest such product categories—smartphones and tablets—aren’t included now in the price-comparison feature, but the company is planning to add more products.

Third, it only works with the two most popular Web browsers: Internet Explorer on Windows and Firefox on either Windows or Macintosh. And you’ll need relatively recent versions of the browsers and the computers’ operating systems. I tested it using the latest versions of the two browsers on the latest versions of Windows and the Mac OS.

Mobile versions are planned in the coming months for Windows Phones and Apple mobile devices, with an Android version coming later.

There are other comparison-shopping products, but none that work like this.

Digital Folio’s sidebar has two main sections, marked by tabs at the top. One called My Folios stores your lists of possible purchases. These can be divided into sections, or folios, for different products. For instance, in my tests, I set up folios for cameras, laptops and TVs. Each folio can also have sections, like laptops with screens in a certain size range.

The second tab is called Compare, and it provides the varying prices at the five partner merchants, though these prices don’t yet include shipping and handling costs.

PTECH

Digital Folio shows you the best price among its partner stores for any given item.

Here’s an example of how it worked for me in my tests. While shopping for a pocket-size digital camera, I noticed on Amazon a certain Canon Powershot model. So I dragged its link into the Digital Folio sidebar. It was $129 on Amazon, but Digital Folio immediately advised me that Sears had it for about $113, and Wal-Mart for $119. It also listed higher prices at other of its partner merchants.

An even more interesting thing happens when you go to a retailer’s page that lists many items in a category, say a page at Amazon that lists TVs. The Compare tab starts pulsating and, in seconds, it generates a list of all the items on the page, along with prices at the other partner merchants.

In my tests, this allowed me to see that a certain Samsung model was cheapest at Amazon, but a Vizio model that also caught my eye was a lot less at Wal-Mart.

Unlike items you’ve deliberately dragged into Digital Folio, these instant comparisons at list pages don’t stay in the sidebar. They disappear when you navigate away from the page. But they’re amazingly dynamic. For instance, if you narrow down the selection on the list page by, say, brand, size or price, the Digital Folio list with price comparison changes along with it.

So what are those rough edges I was talking about? Well, I found setup to be clumsy on Internet Explorer, requiring multiple steps. I also much preferred using the product on Firefox, because, when you click on an item in the sidebar to revisit its original page, that page opens in a tab. By contrast, in Internet Explorer, it opens a new window and has to slowly reload the Digital Folio sidebar.

Also, you can’t drag an item directly into a folio in the sidebar. Instead, you have to wade through a dialog box to choose the folio where it should reside. And you can’t automatically, or rapidly, set up a new folio for a new category of item you find on a site; you have to first manually establish a new folio.

The product also doesn’t automatically refresh itself on one computer, if you’ve made changes to your folios on another. And it crashed Firefox repeatedly on one of my test Macs, though not on another.

Still, despite its early limits and design drawbacks, I believe Digital Folio is a good start toward making complicated online buying decisions simpler.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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