Questioning if price is everything: The moral low-ground of price comparison.

So, uSwitch are in a bit of trouble. It appears that there may have been an attempt to encourage users of their site to switch providers by artificially presenting the results. To me this highlights a a growing concern about comparison engines and aggregators which is that they are not providing the sort of philanthropic experience to which they allude, and may actually produce inaccurate quotes/cover. These sites encourage you to compare primarily on price, they have commoditised - particularly in the insurance aggregator market - bespoke products. They encourage customers to compare apples with oranges and don't seem to take into account the all-important ancilliary factors such as customer experience, product features and loyalty discounts. By fueling a market where everyone switches all the time to the cheapest provider all that happens is that prices fall and margins are squeezed tighter and tighter to the point where the service you could have expected to receive in the past now resides in a poorly trained off-shore call centres, costs £s per minute to call and is increasingly unsympathetic to your individual needs.

Users and customers seem to be forgetting that sites like uSwitch, moneysupermarket and Confused have to make money. They make money when people switch and comission gets paid. Companies are rapidly wising up to this fact and are paring back their loyalty discounts and long-standing service standards to hack money off at the front-end and encourage more footfall through the front door.

Analogous to this have been the supermarkets. You can go into Tesco and see the price of an item compared to the equivalent in Sainsburys and Asda. The price transparency is thus designed to show how great they are at providing value for money. But once again this price-led marketing ignores the human at the heart of the shopping experience. Humans are not calculators and choose to buy a product through a subtle blend of price, product and emotion. Focussing all the attention on price leaves us all the poorer in terms of product and emotion. Take the current TV promotion for Iceland's frozen Christmas food range (feat. Kerry Catona). Touted as a cheap alternative to the traditional Christmas experience the marketing encourages us to spend less and indulge in a christmas of re-heating re-constituted meat and preservative-laden deserts, insisting that this must be better than the wholesome creation of a well-cooked dinner full of natural, fresh well tended meat, vegetables, sauces, spices and so on.

There's no doubt about it, premium insurance products, traditional utility products and organic food are all over-priced products that could do with having a tighter squeeze on them. The problem lies in the mass-market, middle-england purchases for which price transparency serves only to blinker the customer into considering short term financial gain and not lifetime value.

Emerging on the horizon to provide an alternative to this approach is a site called Wesabe. Wesabe is a community-based site for the review and dissemination of advice around personal financial services (read the Wesabe FAQ). A site that takes customer generated content to provide appreciable human comparisons of such products without dwelling on price, price price. Currently a touch US-centric, an increasing number of British and European visitors will bolster the relevance of the advice and experience for the rest of us. To me, these are some of the most encouraging uses of Web 2.0 thinking and I only hope that they gain traction and compete amongst the emotionally impoverished comparison engines.

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