The Internet should have weaned me off Sunday newspaper circulars by now, but I still find their Web counterparts to be pale imitations of the print ads I pore over obsessively each week.
Several Web sites are trying to change that by experimenting with new ways to make online comparisons of offline sale prices, including dishing up sales data for milk, bread, ice cream and other mundane household products.
A site called Cairo (www.cairo.com) released a "grocery saver" option for the Washington area this week that adds the region's grocers to the 70 or so national retailers for which it provides weekly sale prices. The goal is to let people search online and learn which local stores have Tide and Budweiser on sale at the lowest prices.
I have been testing Cairo and its rival, ShopLocal (www.shoplocal.com), and find that both have limitations as well as utility. While each has helped me find and compare discounts in local stores, I am not likely to make either a part of my routine until they display regular prices alongside what's on sale.
True bargain-hunters, on the other hand, may love the ability to pinpoint items on sale in stores and to receive e-mail alerts when prices drop.
Moreover, these services offer a glimpse of how the Internet continues to shift power from retailers to shoppers as it provides greater insight into the games retailers play with prices.
While Web history is littered with the corpses of 1990s start-ups that tried to deliver groceries to your door, these fledgling services suggest that the hot Internet market in local retail today is for information rather than products. In addition to newcomers Cairo and ShopLocal, big search engines such as Google and Yahoo also are racing to provide information about what's available in neighborhood stores.
Cairo and ShopLocal.com (a business partner of washingtonpost.com) differ from the big search engines in their focus on weekly specials. They are free for shoppers and work similarly. Each invites people to enter their Zip codes and search for generic items such as butter or particular brands such as Land O'Lakes. They present a matching list of items on sale at various local merchants, along with prices, store names and addresses.
While both cover many kinds of merchandise, such as apparel and sporting goods, Cairo was first to push into groceries. It recently began showing sales information from Giant Food, Safeway, Food Lion, Whole Foods and several major drugstore chains in the Washington region. Since Tuesday, it also has let local users save items to personalized lists they can print in various formats -- showing only stuff on sale at a particular store, for example.
Andy Moss, Cairo's chief executive, said customers can shave 30 percent or more off their monthly food bills with the new service. "Groceries and drugstore items are 30 percent of retail, and for the most part, they aren't for sale on the Internet now," he said.
ShopLocal currently shows grocery specials only from Whole Foods in the D.C. region, but it plans to add Giant Food in a few weeks.
Both sites, however, seem more useful at the moment in other categories. In my hunt for a cheap desktop computer, for example, ShopLocal highlighted a Compaq Presario on sale for $199 (after rebates) at CompUSA that I hadn't noticed before.
While they appear similar to shoppers, in the background Cairo and ShopLocal have different business models and methods of collecting data.
Cairo has no paid relationship with retailers and claims to be more independent. Its software "scrapes" prices from retailers' Web sites, including those of roughly 40 grocery chains and drugstores. When it can't find the data online, the Cairo staff manually scans in print circulars. Cairo aims to support itself by selling ads to product manufacturers and other companies.
ShopLocal is owned by newspaper chains Knight-Ridder Inc., Tribune Co. and Gannett Co. It has revenue-sharing and advertising deals with about 120 national retailers and more local ones. Most retailers provide information directly to ShopLocal, which shows sales data only for those business partners. The company that owns ShopLocal also helps some retailers, including Giant Food and Best Buy, convert their print circulars for display on their own Web sites.
Since Cairo collects data from those retailers' sites, ShopLocal winds up powering some of the detail pages shoppers see when they click through search results on Cairo.
Asked if ShopLocal found it troublesome to have its own Web addresses seen by users of rival Cairo, company spokeswoman Melissa Severin said her company has chosen not to scrape sites without permission, as Cairo does. "We prefer, for accuracy's sake, to work directly with retailers," she said.
Moss acknowledged that Cairo is talking with ShopLocal about that issue. "Our view is the circulars are mass-produced and sent out by those retailers and effectively owned by the retailers," Moss said. No retailers have complained to Cairo about having their sales displayed on Cairo's site, he said.
The part I found most frustrating while testing both services was having no standard way to compare advertised sales with regular store prices. The sites can't tell you the markdowns, of course, because they don't collect regular prices.
Moss, however, said Cairo plans to offer a more analytical view of pricing within a year. "What we hope to be able to show you is how good a price it is, and how frequently this item goes on sale," he said.
And for many shoppers, I suspect that pricing-trend data may turn out to be the most valuable part of these shop-the-sales services.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.