Where is ComparetheComparethemarket when you need it?

Is this too much to ask for?

Once upon a time life was easy. If you wanted to do something mundane like buy insurance, you’d get in touch with a broker. They’d be a youngish man in a cheap suit sitting in an office nearby. They might even come over to your house to talk over the options. You wouldn’t know if you had got a great deal, but the whole thing wouldn’t take very long and you could get back to doing something more interesting. The same guy would call you up when renewal time came round and would help you out if you needed to make a claim.

In the run up to the couple of exciting weeks in the year when you might go away on holiday, you would go to the travel agents in your local High Street. There, the travel agent, a person of surprising exoticism who gave the impression they had possibly even travelled to a few of the tantalising Mediterranean destinations you clutched in the shiny brochure you’d picked up while waiting, would go through what you wanted, stare intently at a flickering screen of green or even amber text and find you something that was not quite exactly different from what you had initially thought you wanted. But you’d be happy with it. Of course they weren’t infallible and it helped to go to someone who had been recommended. Retrospectivelly I’m still mildly annoyed at the travel agent who chortled at my mum inquiring about flights to Chicago in the mid 80s and said “why would anyone want to go there?”. She obviously hadn’t seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or listened to my mum when she said we were planning on visiting relatives. We ended up on the holiday from hell in Tunisia that summer.

Then, along came the internet. Well, OK, there was a brief interlude well described by Peter Kay, when you might have watched the Teletext holiday bargains listing and scrambled to press STOP when something good came up.

Hmm, wonder if they’re still going

The internet promised something new and amazing. No more lurking suspicion that the spotty youth at the travel agency had hardly done more than a week in Torremolinos with their mum and dad and was just telling you stuff from their manager’s last sales conference in Wigan. Now you could bypass all that tedious mucking around and just go direct to the airlines and hotels to make up exactly the holiday you wanted. You also couldn’t get ripped off because all the prices and other terms were transparent – no point in anyone making silly claims because it was the matter of a few moments clicking away in your lunch break and you’d find the real bargains. It was helpful that some sites, like Expedia and Lastminute.com brought together a lot of the information to save having your PC overheat at trying to keep a load of windows open. Aye son, we had none of that fancy dan tabbed browsing in my day. What’s more, it really worked. I booked a long weekend in New York with flights and (admittedly rather ropey) accommodation for barely over £250. We arranged complex multi-destination holidays travelling round the Rockies. I booked a 12 day Californian road trip with 3 great boutique hotels and a couple of nights in a Yosemite cabin for our honeymoon for less than a week in Sandals. How marvellous!

Unfortunately, all good things seem to have to come to an end. The rot started to set in with the rise of the price comparison sites. I always had a sneaking suspicion that the very existence of competing price comparison sites meant that the final destination was going to be a need for price comparison comparison sites to tell you which price comparison site was the most reliable. Then comparison comparison comparison sites to tell you which comparison comparison sites told the real truth about comparison sites. Aaaaargh!
And so it has turned out. Sites like Trivago compare travel comparison sites. Some services distinguish themselves by saying their prices are not available on comparison sites at all – DirectLine being the leader in this, followed by Aviva (who cheekily provide comparisons while not submitting their own products to the comparison sites). The only ways to distinguish between the comparison sites are through personal experience and, most obviously, branding. It is no coincidence that some of the most catchy and irritating branding exercises of recent times has been for comparison sites – those blasted meerkats and the opera singer. The product of comparing prices of products has become so commoditised as to be as dependent on distinctive branding as the travel agents were in the past.
All that branding costs money. Someone has to pay. That someone is us. The orthodox economic theory would be that internet price transparency means the consumer gets the best deal – not only does everyone have perfect access to information but also all the keenly competing providers of the services know exactly what prices their competitors are using to entice customers and where they need to set their prices to keep or win that business. Unfortunately, too much information means that the costs of searching it and being confident in the outcome of the search has gone up. I suspect that a lot of the profits that used to go to travel agencies have merely been reallocated to the price comparison businesses.
After spending far too much time typing and retyping in my requirements for a late deal for the August Bank Holiday weekend, I’m admitting that the internet has lost one of the things it was briefly so good for. It still has a use – I found some nice, independently managed cottages in Cornwall and booked one instead, but without any care for whether it was being marketed at the going rate. For the first time in a decade, when looking to book a little bit of sun in half-term to make up for not having had a summer holiday this year, I’m tempted to just go to a travel agent and let them sort it out.

5 thoughts on “Where is ComparetheComparethemarket when you need it?

  1. Interesting. I came here from Tim Worstall’s Eoin Clarke blog post.

    As a web developer, I’m currently looking at the possibility of setting up a high discernment gift website. The internet should have made gift shopping easy but it still takes a surprisingly long time to find a good gift. The idea is that you garner repeat business by assuring customers that you don’t put rubbish on your site. It would naturally have slightly higher costs but that extra amount should be less than your opportunity costs of going to find the same thing cheaper elsewhere. I guess the same could be applied to a whole range of industries – tourism, insurance, gifts etc.

    What do you think?

    • If it can be done to work properly it might be a good idea. However, you’ll be unsurprised to hear I’m mildly sceptical. The problem for me would be in getting adequate pseudo-intelligence into the site to return search results that are appropriate. Amazon can do this by geting a lot of data about your preferences (although it isn’t perfect, I get rather too many children’s books appearing on my recommendation list because I have bought some in the past – I didn’t want to tick “do not use for recommendations” because I may still buy children’s books for my son, but they shouldn’t crowd out my own purchases).

      It might be part of a broader concierge type service, but is there really a demand for these services other than when they are provided by a specific trusted individual? For example, I’d be quite happy for Kirstie and Phil to find me a house but wouldn’t consider using an unknown professional house search agent. Building trust about something as subjective as taste and discernment is difficult enough for a human being face to face. Doing it online and impersonally would be exceptionally tough unless you had a very strong brand (eg if it was part of Harvey Nicholls’ personal shopping service a user might trust the people and systems behind it).

      Your site could be useful for corporate gift-buyers, although the practice of giving business gifts is one that was waning even before things like the Bribery Act added a legal compliance issue to it.

  2. Pingback: Berlin – 1. Prenzlauer Berg | botzarelli

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