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SHOOTOUT: Onsale's simple, fast-loading site beats First Auction

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Anyone involved with Web commerce knows by now that auction sites are a thriving alternative to more traditional online storefronts. However, just as a country furniture auction is not the same as Christie's, all auction sites are not created equal.

For this month's Marketing Shoot-Out, we asked 98 WebScore panelists to imagine they needed to purchase a laptop computer for business. In an attempt to save some money for their company, participants were asked to shop at two of the leading auction sites: Onsale, the oldest auction site on the Web, and First Auction, a venture of cable TV's Home Shopping Network.

Both sites win high marks

After visiting both sites, our panelists said they would buy a laptop at Onsale by a 59-38 margin, with one person unable to choose. Both sites got high marks for ease of navigation and variety of merchandise available, but the majority of participants preferred Onsale for its simple design, fast-loading pages and easy to understand instructions.

Our panelists were asked which site they felt had the superior design. The result, 58-39 in favor of Onsale, nearly mirrored the vote for best site. Since more of our panelists volunteered more comments about design than about any other aspect of either site, this appears to be the key factor driving overall preference.

Still, panelists were split based on their personal taste in design. A number of respondents who voted for Onsale enjoyed its simple look with few graphics. "Everything is clear and less cluttered," wrote one. "It is easy to find your way around."

By contrast, several who preferred First Auction's design liked the site's volume of graphics, including multiple pictures of products being auctioned.

Faster load time

There is, of course, a connection between layout and loading time. Nine respondents who would rather use the Onsale site cited faster load time as a reason. Several said that while they found First Auction's graphics attractive, they preferred to sacrifice looks and use the Onsale site to get more speed.

A few panelists gave their approval to Onsale's graphical navigation buttons.

Wrote one: "Onsale was easier to navigate. The buttons were big and easy to pick. First Auction had . . . text choices too small and too close together."

On the other hand, some of those who preferred First Auction's design liked the amount of information on the home page. "First Auction actually has pictures and starting prices on the first page," wrote one impressed panelist.

Auctions may be run in many ways, so it is important that bidders know the house rules. By the largest margin of any dimension evaluated (64-34), our panelists voted for Onsale as the site with the easiest rules to understand.

Clearly defined, more thorough and easily available were terms often used to describe Onsale's house rules.

In contrast to design and clarity of rules, nobody has the edge in laptop selection. Our participants said Onsale offers the best selection, but the vote was as close as 52-46.

Difficult to generalize

Note that this result does not apply to every category of product available at auction. Some of our respondents only looked at auctions for laptop computers, so it is difficult to make any generalizations about which site has the best selection in general.

In the final analysis, although Onsale was the winner in every question our panelists were asked, it is hard not to be impressed by the potential inherent in both of these sites. When offered the choice to buy their laptop at Onsale, First Auction or a retail store, 42% of our panelists said they would at least consider one of the two auction sites.

One participant summed it up best: "This is a very good concept. I bookmarked both sites!"

Matthew Weinshenker is an online services analyst for New York-based CLT Research Associates, which offers WebScore. He can be reached at matt@cltresearch.com.

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