If You Can Beat BeatThat.com’s Prices, They’ll Pay You

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at the least scrupulous e-retailers. “Like it or not, in consumer electronics there are a number of web stores that are not fully on the up-and-up,” says Parker. Digital Advisor didn’t want to screen these companies out entirely, since they have some of the lowest prices. But it wanted to help consumers make informed decisions about whether to buy from them.

The company’s solution was a simple system of color codes. Every Web merchant featured on BeatThat carries a green, yellow, or red flag. A green flag mean there have been no reports of problems with purchases from that retailer. A yellow flag means that a few people have reported problems, but that most customers have had a satisfactory experience. A red flag is just what it sounds like—a sign that a company either has a record of problems such as bait-and-switch offers or poor customer service, or that it has no record at all, meaning it’s so new that it could be a fly-by-night operation.

“If you see that on our site, it means we’re encouraging consumers to think twice before they take advantage of that deal,” says Parker. “They can research the merchant on our own site, where we have collected reviews from around the Web, so they know what kinds of tactics that merchant employs and they can go in with their eyes wide open.”

Yesterday’s public opening of BeatThat.com came after several months of private beta testing. For now, the site covers only 500 products, mostly the latest releases from big-name manufacturers such as Canon, Samsung, Garmin, Olympus, Panasonic, TomTom, and Toshiba. The prices listed for these items are, in fact, very low: the Canon Powershot S5 IS camera that I recently bought at Amazon for $314.30, for example, was listed yesterday at BeatThat.com for $219. (However, the merchant offering that price, shopdigitaldirect.com, bears a red flag as an “unknown merchant,” meaning BeatThat hasn’t found any reviews pertaining to the company.)

Five hundred products is a small fraction of the total number of new gadgets released by consumer electronics makers every year. But Parker says that Digital Advisor learned through experience that it’s not worthwhile to maintain a larger database. “We tried to set up a digital camera site with every SKU [stock keeping unit] ever released, and it was incredibly hard to maintain, and it turned out that very few people went outside the top 200 products,” he says. “In general, there are only about 100 products within each category that people are really looking for—the ones with the latest doo-dads.”

Digital Advisor chose the initial six product categories for BeatThat because they were familiar with them from working on the company’s other websites, Parker says. Over time, the company may add new categories, and it may go deeper into each category. “But we feel confident that even though we’ve only got 130 printers, you will be able to find a very good printer,” he says. And a very cheap one—guaranteed.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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