Jon Bentley tests: Price comparison sites

Jon and his testers delve into the world of online comparison sites to find the best one out there.

Back when I was a lad, comparing the price of a product you were about to purchase was a distinctly laborious affair. The first stage was a trudge up and down the local High Street, peering in shop windows, chatting to sales staff, and writing figures down in your red Silvine Exercise Book.  Then you returned home, pulled out the telephone directory, readied your dialing finger for the rotary phone dial, and got talking to as many retailers as possible to see what was on offer farther afield. 

When you’d exhausted your appetite for research, you reviewed your by now extensive notes, selected the best offer, and travelled to the shop or phoned again to complete your purchase. If you still had the energy, that is.

Fast forward a few decades and I think it’s brilliant that there are now so many ways to compare prices conveniently online. My tech testers compared three different methods in this week’s show.

First up were price tracking websites like PriceZombie, CheapShark and CamelCamelCamel. These help you find when it’s cheapest to buy. They continuously monitor the price of a vast range of items and can even notify you by email when prices fall below a certain level. Rather like a trader in currency or shares you study the graphs and use your judgement to decide when you think a price has reached its lowest level. Then you pounce and grab what you hope is a bargain,

But Gavin, one of the tech testers, wasn't immediately impressed by the potential savings on offer, and others didn’t warm to the effort required in choosing the moment to buy, so the sites didn't get a complete thumbs up.

Another technique is to buy a grey import. This is a product which is cheaper in another country and put up for sale here by a third party seller at a discount rate. The savings can be huge but after sales service can be uncertain and, as you're strictly speaking the importer, you can find yourself liable for VAT, import duty and admin fees.

Personally, I’ve secured some great deals this way and modern gadgets are so reliable that none of the items I've bought have ever needed any warranty repairs. I’ve never been caught out by unexpected extra duties or VAT either.  At least, not with gadgets. I did have to pay import duty, and a sobering administration charge from customs, on a grey import accessory I bought for Mrs. Bentley’s saxophone.

My tech testers favourite method however was using so-called shopbot websites like PriceRunner, Google Shopping and MegaShopBot. These search for the best price on an item by comparing a vast range of sellers, and allow you to click directly through to the sellers' websites to make your purchase. On our basket of items the price savings were the biggest by this method, and there's very little input required from you.

But amidst all this enthusiasm I would like to suggest a reality check. I surprised myself on a major purchase recently. Having exhaustively tried all the online techniques I popped into my local retailer (an independent outfit who’s been in business since the 1960s) and asked whether they could beat the best online price. No problem, they said, and we’ll deliver it this afternoon. A cheaper price and no need to wait. Maybe things haven’t advanced so much after all.