Finding 'off brand' bargains

Many consumers like buying well-known brands because quality is - usually - guaranteed. But with a little online research, you can find cheaper, lesser-known products that often work as well. And you can find them at really good prices.

Step 1: Identify quality goods. For in-depth independent reviews of consumer goods, you can't go wrong with Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org). The site covers everything from dishwashers to dairy products. Visitors can read selected articles and consumer tips without charge. To get actual product ratings, though, you'll have to subscribe ($24 a year online; $19 for magazine).

Another approach: Find out what your fellow consumers think about products. Epinions (www.epinions.com) and ConsumerReview (www.consumerreview.com) offer free reviews of thousands of products and services by ordinary consumers. Opinions vary wildly - consumers have different tastes, after all. Epinions includes a nice feature that automatically pushes registered users toward those reviewers they trust the most.

Specialty online sites can also guide decisions on specific products. J.D. Power and Associates (www.jdpa.com) is best known for its car ratings, but also publishes ratings on energy, communications, financial, travel, and even a few home-building companies. For a comprehensive look at personal-computing products, try PC Magazine (www.zdnet.com/pcmag). Car buyers should look up Kelley

Blue Book (www.kbb.com) or New Car Test Drive (www.newcartestdrive.com).

Step 2: Track down sellers. Now that you know what to buy, the Internet offers several comparison-shopping sites to try to nail down the best store (or e-tailer) and the best price. Two well-known sites, DealTime (www.dealtime.com) and BizRate.com (www.bizrate.com), use customer feedback to rate stores on a variety of measures, including price and customer service.

DealTime has more complete information; BizRate offers promotions that can help save money.

Outfits such as Deja.com (www.deja.com) and Productopia (www.productopia.com) offer an all-in-one service: guidance by experts, ratings by consumers, and a price-comparisons. Newcomer BESTeDEAL.com (www.bestedeal.com) currently seeks out the best prices for books, music, and videos and plans to expand its offerings soon.

These search engines aren't for everybody. "A comparison shopping experience is a little bit of an adventure and it requires a certain adventurous consumer spirit," says David Carroll, chief financial officer of BESTeDEAL.com, based in New York. But "most people, if given the chance, will be interested in finding something for the lowest price."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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