Not so long ago, tracking down the best price was something of a challenge for even the most determined European bargain hunters. Penny-pinchers' efforts were thwarted by national retailing restrictions, geographical inconvenience and just plain absence of choice. But for a growing number of shoppers, the Internet provides a way to leapfrog those obstacles. With more Europeans surfing the World Wide Web than ever before and online shopping sites sprouting at a dizzying pace, the right price may now be just a click away. E-commerce experts Jupiter Communications estimate that by 2003 online shopping in Western Europe will generate $19.7 billion, compared with $718.4 million in 1998. Observers expect this holiday season to mark a turning point for Europe's Web merchants.
Not all Europeans are suddenly logging on to fill their shopping baskets. The number of online consu-mers as a proportion of the total population is still relatively small. According to Jupiter, in Scandinavia, which boasts Europe's most mature Internet economy, only 2.5% bought anything via the Internet last year. The numbers may not be impressive yet, but the demographics are alluring. Predominantly young and affluent, Europe's Internet shoppers are among the most coveted of consumers. Even stodgy retailers are waking up and scrambling to launch online incarnations to compete with the Internet interlopers. So with such a sudden wealth of online options from which to choose, how can price-conscious Europeans use the Web to their best bargain-hunting advantage? The following are just a few of the more useful sites:
Price comparison sites such as DealPilot (www.dealpilot.com) and StreetPrices (europe.streetprices.com) make the most of the Internet's far-ranging capabilities by scouring the Web for the best deal on a given item. Since this requires that the products be widely available, these sites work best for comparison shopping on mass-distributed goods like books or CDs. A Finnish shopper using DealPilot to look for Mariah Carey's latest album would find a low of $18.54 at U.S.-based www.barnesandnoble.com (including delivery via regular post, which can take up to 71 days) and a whopping $58.01 from www.borders.com with costly express mail delivery.
Online auction sites like QXL (www.qxl.com) and Germany's AndSold (www.andsold.de) are hoping to emulate the success of Internet auction pioneer and powerhouse eBay (www.ebay.com). Bidders from all over the world compete for an array of products, including airline tickets, Beanie Babies and one-of-a-kind collectibles. The Internet allows bidders the convenience of setting a confidential bid ceiling and not having constantly to monitor the proceedings. Delivery costs are usually factored in separately.
Cooperative buying, in which a group of consumers pool their resources to buy in bulk at the lowest possible price, may sound reminiscent of '60s communal-living culture, but it is one of the Internet's newest and hottest purchasing paradigms. LetsBuyIt (www.letsbuyit.com), which operates in Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K., takes a 5% commission on each transaction, but subscribers still rack up significant savings. U.K.-based Adabra (www.adabra.com) works along a similar model, with the price of an item declining as the number of buyers increases.
E-commerce trailblazer Amazon.com still sets the online book selling standard, and with the recent launch of CD sales on its U.K. and German sites (www.amazon. co.uk and www.amazon.de), looks poised to dominate even more of the European online marketplace. By logging onto the U.K. site, German shoppers can find books for as little as half of what they would pay at their own site, which is governed by national price-fixing regulations. German publishing giant Bertelsmann's www.bol.com and the U.K.'s www.waterstones.com are also making inroads.
Travel sites yield some of the Internet's best deals. Lastminute.com, which operates in the U.K. and Germany, is among the best, offering not just travel bargains but low prices on time-sensitive items like concert tickets. Many airlines now discount tickets that are booked through their homepages rather than by phone. Jupiter estimates that by 2003 travel will become the biggest-selling online product, with 35% of the Internet marketplace.
Not everyone goes online intent on a specific purchase. But even for a Web window-shopper, there is a wealth of tantalizing possibilities. ChateauOnline (www.chateauonline.com) sells fine wines at a discount and its informative and easily navigable site posts links to locales like www.fromages.com, which delivers worldwide and bills itself as "France's best-loved cheese Website."
So many people now go online to shop for cars in the U.S. that it has driven down sticker prices. Whether the same occurs across Europe remains to be seen, but the success of sites like Belgium's Auto3000 (www.auto3000.com) and U.S.-based Autobytel (www.autobytel. com) has helped pressure manufacturers like Vauxhall and Ford into offering online ordering directly to customers.