• SHARE

They say this might be the year that online Christmas sales in the U.S. actually live up to past promises of e-commerce’s ascendancy. Hurrahs could be heard when it was reported that online transactions over Thanksgiving were up 10-fold (and groans could be heard as servers started overloading with the traffic). On the other, more sober hand, it’s been pointed out that online vendors will get only 10 percent of the $185 billion retail pie. Still, it’s a start.

Cyberia logo

If you read this column, there’s a good chance that you’ll be one of those pajama-clad online shoppers. (If you aren’t, please, for the sake of starving geeks and would-be moguls, get over your e-commerce phobia soon.) I’m sure you will find more than enough pointers to the online bazaars on these pages and the Web. But let’s throw out a ceremonial caveat emptor, not about security or privacy, but about choice. First-time online shoppers might not be prepared for all the choices: which site do you shop at, which product do you choose. Finding a sweater for Uncle Ed is simple, but what’s the difference between Land’s End, Eddie Bauer and REI? And what about the unexplored aisles of dot.com retailers such as Boo.com?

Coming to the aid of bewildered Net shoppers, Consumer Reports recently unveiled eRatings, benchmarks for online shopping. Although a little late to the game, Consumer Reports has the necessary lab-coat experience and name recognition (at least among U.S. consumers). Who else could ask for an online subscription fee and get away with it? Before handing out an eRating, Consumer Reports does a thorough job of dissecting sites — from browsing appeal to privacy policies and security. It’s a far cry from the “cool site” badges of the past.

Consumer Reports has also aligned with BizRate, a site that compiles public opinions of online retailers. Smart move. When you make a purchase, especially a fairly expensive one, you consult other resources, be they experts in the media or more immediate “experts” — friends, relatives, salespeople. As a rule, the Net lacks the latter, but that’s changing. New sites are giving a voice to the people who really use products outside the test labs.

Not surprisingly, one of the first was Deja.com, a revamp of the newsgroup search site Dejanews.com. Another, perhaps more intriguing, site is Epinions, which is open for business but still in “preview” mode. Thrown up in only 12 weeks by a bunch of Silicon Valley vets (no one over 35, of course), this site already looks like a player. (For a breathless look at the dot.com startup biz, check out the New York Times Magazine’s story about how the company came together, www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19990711mag-tech-startup.html)

Epinions provides expert opinions from off-site sources and, more importantly, what it calls the “Web of Trust” — ordinary reviewers who review products and who are then in turn reviewed by users. When you decide on the product, just click the buy button. If Jim Doolittle’s opinions about lawn mowers are read a lot, his ratings float to the top of the list. He might be a bumbling bank clerk by day, but a dashing product expert by night.

Public product-rating sites are definitely a sign of the times (Amazon.com should be credited with pioneering this), but like any community they live or die by regular and reliable input. Epinions is unique in that it sweetens the deal with eRoyalties — micropayments for popularity. The more users who consult your opinions, the more money you make (unfortunately this only applies to U.S. residents at the moment).

Like Deja.com, Epinions has extended its categories into the more nebulous zone of pop culture and media. What do you think of such and such video or (at Deja) this politician or actress? This is where it starts to get a little too personal for my taste, but different keystrokes for different folks, I guess.

Vendors and corporate PR flacks might lose a bit of sleep over the thought of having their products and brands being ranked by the Noisy Minority (cousins of the Silent Majority). Granted, the Web provides scads of such forums, and most voices drown in the ocean of babble, but sites such as Epinions and BizRate could easily turn the many-to-many broadcast model into a significant and influential e-commerce force.

And there are plenty more such sites. So how do I rate the raters? I’m no expert, but …

The clean and uncluttered interface of Productopia appealed to me immediately. The idea of having editors and experts on board to direct me to new products is also attractive (the gift suggestions at Epinions pale — no, suck — in comparison). Editor’s picks are conveniently divided into quality, style and value. Three clicks into the site, I had found the perfect gift for my sister. One click later, though, I learned I’d have to call the Museum of Modern Art gift store to order it. Another gift suggestion steered me to a site “Under Construction” (written in eight languages, no less). Still, gaffes aside, this one’s a keeper.

Deja.com, an early forerunner, is also impressive and the categories are numerous, but the reviewer “community” felt a little too much Dejanews, i.e., like I was back on the big sprawl. I smelled something fishy when I read a recommendation of PCs by stevejobs@apple.com.

The community of reviewers at Epinions seems more organized and serious, but at the end of the day I was too conscious of the whole reviewer rat race: Who’s the popular reviewer, who’s the most prolific?

BizRate is slick and offers the extra perk of rebates (which vendors kick back to BizRate for bringing shoppers to their sites). However, at times I felt like I was being guided by a bot that could spit out ratings (which all seemed to be around 4 1/2 stars anyway) but couldn’t compute the meaning of quality.

MySimon.com has a similar database though they’ve tried to bring a little warmth to the comparison-shopping experience with a cartoon guide (who looks like a relative of “Toy Story’s” Woody). If you’re simply looking for a bargain, try here or eSmarts.com.

ConsumerReviews appears quite expansive and resembles About.com in its well-defined categories, which appear like separate Web sites, offering user-submitted reviews as well as plenty of supplementary information. However, user activity seemed to concentrate much more toward sports than, say, computers.

The critical-mass approach is still young, but it could easily redefine the market. Hurray for the common consumer. I do hope, though, that the men in white lab coats, oblivious to branding campaigns and being ranked themselves, stick around. We need them too.

So where are the Japanese Epinions or Productopia? Or maybe the question is, anybody interested in a cool new startup? Time’s a wastin’.