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Who's at the Webmalls

Forget the Saturday afternoon crush: Shopping portals are quick, convenient, and changing the way we shop

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It’s 3 A.M. in a Manhattan apartment, and a young man is desperately searching for a pair of discontinued Puma sneakers. He’s visited local stores, called shops throughout the country, even tried the search engines. No luck. Most people would have stopped there. But unlike most people, he’s writing about how portal sites — including Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, and AOL — are launching an arsenal of new features that may change the way we shop. Yes, it’s a whole new mall game. And I may just find those shoes after all.

It’s not enough for these portals to aggregate merchants the way they organize websites; now they want a bigger piece of the e-commerce pie. To that end, they’re redesigning their shopping ”channels,” signing on new merchants (like J. Crew and Crate & Barrel), and offering auction and classified results with every search. Each portal has something new to boast about: Yahoo! Shopping has already signed on more than 6,000 stores. Lycos is incorporating bot technology that provides detailed Consumer Reports-like search results. AOL has added shopping aids like ”Quick Checkout” online wallets and ”Buying Guides” to its redesigned Shop@AOL channel. Excite has a ”Valet Shopper” feature that automatically searches the site’s newly relaunched shopping areas to find the specific brand/make/price/whatever. Even Amazon.com is jumping on the mall bandwagon; in September the site started selling thousands of products from merchants large and small in a new shopping area called ”zShops.”

Three of the five — Lycos, Yahoo!, and AOL — are also adding universal shopping carts. ”Imagine walking through a huge mall with a gigantic shopping cart, just throwing everything in,” says John Briggs, director of production/e-commerce at Yahoo! ”At any store, your checkout is streamlined—we already know who you are.” It may sound Big Brother scary, but it’s handy; consumers can add items to a cart while at work, take a break, go home, and resume shopping with all the items still in the cart.

Are the portals diving into e-commerce at the expense of delivering unbiased Web searches? Not exactly. These sites do point to merchants outside of their shopping sections if they can’t find your product at their partner stores. The best price Yahoo! could recently find for Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Coercion was spotted at competitor Amazon.com.

Aggressive as they are, though, most portals won’t be offering sound clips with every CD or recommending toys for toddlers anytime soon, because that’s what niche-market sites (and the portal’s primary partners) already do quite well. But don’t be surprised to see serious feature wars this holiday season—and perhaps a few more evolutionary steps for interactive shopping. I just hope the footprints reveal a Puma sole.