With tens of thousands of e-commerce sites peddling everything from audio books to garden shovels to undergarments, navigating them all seems humanly impossible -- unless you're Hillary Mendelsohn. The 38-year-old creator of thepurplebook, which bills itself as "the definitive guide to exceptional online shopping," not only attempted such a feat but has, for the most part, succeeded.
After investigating 25,000 sites, Mendelsohn culled the best 1,600 based on selection, price and ease of use.
She then separated them into 18 shopping categories, presenting them in a well-planned guidebook, much like the popular dining directories compiled by Zagat -- only bigger. Thepurplebook -- which is, for some reason, gray -- is almost 700 pages.
Anyone who has ever used one of the major search engines knows how many results can pop up for seemingly specific requests. Usually there are hundreds. Oftentimes there are thousands. Even the most ambitious shopper rarely gets past the fifth or sixth page.
It was this experience that prompted Mendelsohn to create the guide. During a late-night attempt at Internet shopping, she typed "antique music box" into a search engine and was presented with 367 matches.
"I went through them all just to see, and only two of them were something I would have cared to look at," said Mendelsohn, an Angeleno who used to run her own merchandising and licensing company. "I thought, 'This is a huge waste of time. Who would do this?' "
Understanding that the best results are sometimes buried deep within the search results, after the big-name retailers who've usually paid for prime placement, Mendelsohn started making lists of the sites she'd found and liked.
When her friends found out about them, "They'd call and say, 'Do you know more?' " she said. "It started out very quietly like that."
Expecting to find that such a guide already existed, she went to several bookstores. When she didn't find one, she decided to create one herself.
"I felt there was definitely a need for directing people to great stuff online because you certainly weren't getting it from AOL or Yahoo shopping," said Mendelsohn, who began researching the guide in 2000 and finished compiling it about two years later. "Those were all Sears.com and Gap.com. It was stuff you don't know about that I wanted to discover."
Not that big, online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores aren't listed. Many of them are, e.g., Amazon.com and Wal-Mart.com. But you'll also find virtual unknowns like AbeBooks.com, a site that offers "millions of used, rare, secondhand and out-of-print books," and Boscovs.com, a Pennsylvania department store that, according to the guide, could easily be mistaken for retail behemoth Sears.
Alphabetized by URL, each listing starts with the name of the site, accompanied by the always-difficult-to-find customer service number, a review, a list of categories the site offers and easy-to-understand icons indicating various amenities, e.g., user-friendliness and shipping costs.
Retailers that were automatically eliminated from consideration: any site that asked users to register before allowing them to see its products and any site that couldn't complete a transaction 100% online in one sitting, i.e. without having to receive a confirmation e-mail to seal the deal.
"We're at the stage in technology where if a retailer hasn't taken that step to get a secure transaction on their site, I wasn't willing to put them in the book," she said.
That's not to say that sites that have since conformed to Mendelsohn's standards are permanently barred from inclusion. The final page of each guidebook includes an e-mail address and a faxable feedback form to contact her with comments, complaints and suggestions.
"I really want to know if a consumer has a bad experience ... or if there are sites I've overlooked," said Mendelsohn, who will update the book annually. New editions will be published each October.
With technology research firm Forrester Research estimating that 3,000 to 5,000 new e-commerce sites will pop up every year and many continuously changing, trying to keep up will be a daunting task.
"The Web changes so dynamically that it's hard for me to imagine a book being updated enough on a regular basis to really accurately reflect what's happening online with retailers," said Carrie Johnson, a Forrester retail analyst. "After six months, information like that becomes very stale because these sites innovate at such a rapid pace, adding new features and functionality all the time."
Not only that, but site upgrades, e.g. the ability to buy an item online and pick it up in store, are usually implemented in September or October, "in preparation for the holiday season," she said. "Any book that's released should come out after those key developments, but I'm sure the book needs to be out for Christmas, so it's very difficult."
Even so, Johnson said, the book would be "interesting for mainstream consumers who are just beginning to shop online and may not know where to go, probably not as interesting for regular online shoppers who need more updated information and know where to find it."
As more consumers upgrade their Web connections from dial-up to broadband, according to Forrester, e-commerce in the U.S. is expected to grow almost 20% annually, with online buying accounting for 10% of all retail sales by 2008.
"Some people shop based on price, some on exclusivity of item, some for pure convenience," Mendelsohn said about the appeal of e-commerce. "Shopping has become so homogenous. You walk into a mall and there's the same 10 stores. There's nothing unique anymore. What we've done is broaden the spectrum of what you can buy."
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Here is a sampling of the many icons that guide users through thepurplebook.
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thepurplebook; Editor-founder: Hillary Mendelsohn; Publisher: Bantam Books ($24.95, 672 pp.)
Susan Carpenter can be contacted at email@example.com.