How to save money shopping online
Price-comparison websites can save a lot of shoe leather when looking for bargains, but not all such sites are the same. So shop around for the one that suits your needs, writes John Cradden
WE are always being told to shop around -- and now more than ever. But thanks to the proliferation of price-comparison websites, you no longer have to hike from shop to shop in order to compare prices.
As well as independent websites owned and run by state agencies such as telecoms regulator Comreg (callcosts.ie), the Financial Regulator (itsyourmoney.ie), and the Health Insurance Authority (hia.ie), there are a number of well-established commercial price-comparison websites, such as compare.ie, moneyfish.ie, smartshopper.ie and mycash.ie.
These commercial sites will often compare prices for a variety of products or services, including insurance, electronic items, financial products, and grocery shopping.
There are a variety of other specialist websites or blogs that aim to give you more finely tuned information in certain areas, such as food and travel. Examples include cheapeats.ie and tripadvisor.ie.
However, they may not compare products side by side so much as offer a range of choices, along with advice and tips in order to help you make up your own mind. So, in other words, there is no such thing as a typical price-comparison website.
The question of which one is best for you depends very much on what you are looking for and how much research you want to do, or have time to do.
In terms of independence or objectivity, it might seem better to rely on non-commercial sites where possible, such as callcosts.ie, itsyourmoney.ie, or hia.ie as they are government sites and therefore cannot be seen to favour or even highlight one supplier over another.
There were nearly 700,000 unique visitors to itsyourmoney.ie during 2009, while callcosts.ie received about 400 visits a day in January 2010.
Since it launched its new health insurance price comparison feature last December, the Health Insurance Authority says it has had more than 20,000 visitors to its site.
The way in which the commercial websites compare prices depends on their revenue models, but does that mean that they are likely to be truly independent if they accept advertising of any kind?
"The vast majority of price-comparison sites seem to focus on finding the cheapest product for the consumer, regardless of any commercial relationships they may have," says Hugh Durkin, of compare.ie, which also focuses on the cheapest product first.
"Some retailers pay a commission to us when we refer sales to them, but those relationships do not affect our search results.
"On pages where prices are listed from, let's say six retailers for one product, the cheapest price is always shown first, regardless of the relationship we have with the merchant."
Those behind commercial sites say price accuracy is just as important to them.
"Your content has to be bang on and exact," says Peter Connor of moneyfish.ie, a site that compares financial products.
In the UK, one of the most reputable consumer websites is Which?, the UK consumer association. Which? is funded almost entirely by a membership fee and offers 'best-buy' ratings for nearly all the products and services it tests.
Like other consumer associations in the EU, it makes a point of running independent consumer tests and doesn't accept commercial advertising on its website or magazines.
The same is true for the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI). It publishes a monthly magazine for its members called Consumer Choice, which is produced by a team of researchers.
It runs independent consumer product tests and from that produces a shortlist of recommended or 'Choice Buys', with details on prices and specifications. However, these product tests are not yet available as content on its website.