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The National Consumer Agency Price Comparison Website – RIP – and just as well

It’s some time ago that the NCA admitted that they had to give up on trying to build a grocery price comparison website in order to replace their fairly pointless half years shopping exercise around the country.

In a very weak moment, I did express support in this exercise from an organisation that I have mostly very little faith in, and unfortunately, I guess I should have know that my faith was misplaced.

I’m quite keen on the potential that there exists in Ireland for a grocery price comparison website – I’ve even gone as far as developing what I suppose is effectively a “business requirements document” for what could be achieved with such a site given current web 2.0 type available functions and application.

However, as was indicated by the NCA when they announced their ending of their efforts, any grocery price comparison website needs to get the full co-operation of all of the grocery players in Ireland – a level of co-operation that effectively means them handing over a computer data file of all of their prices countrywide every morning.

There’s no point in having a price comparison website if the prices aren’t as bang up to date as possible.

I had thought that the NCA may have been in a better position to get this co-operation than me so I sent them my ideas in case anything could be made of them.

And very kindly, the NCA did give me a couple of hours towards the end of last year to discuss my thinking on the kind of site and functionality required.

We had some relatively indepth conversations regarding how price information could be gathered and classified – particularly to classify products to allow comparison between branded and non-branded items (e.g. 1l of branded milk compared to 1l of non-branded milk).

In my own professional line of work, I work with applications where daily pricing updates are received every day from multiple external data sources where products are categorised to up to 5 or 6 levels to allow cross-comparisons.

Those that I spoke to were particularly interested in that line of conversation. At the end, while promising to keep in touch and keep me updated on their work, they – at the time – gave me a very positive update on where they were in their own efforts.

Three weeks later, they cancelled the project.

I’m writing about this now because I came across a presentation given by the Chief Executive of the NCA, Ms. Ann Fitzgerald, to something called the Eurostat Conference back in October 2009. At this conference, Ms. Fitzgerald gave some inkling as to how the NCA’s thinking was actually progressing with regards to their price comparison website efforts:

The Agency is currently engaged with retailers in an initiative designed to increase the level and frequency of the information provided to consumers.

The Agency is working to develop a system of frequent surveys, covering each of the main retail groups, which will track the prices of commonly purchased basic food and household products.

This would be delivered through each retail group providing us with the prices that they charge for a pre-agreed list of goods at regular intervals. The prices would be compiled and placed on the Agency’s website so that consumers could compare prices and make informed shopping choices on an ongoing basis. In addition, in order to facilitate consumers who may not have Internet access, versions for newspaper and other media outlets would be made available, so that they could also benefit from the information.

If “frequent surveys” was the way they were intending on developing a price comparison website, then it’s probably just as well they didn’t proceed.

“Frequent surveys” would have been about as useful as their 6 monthly surveys – the data would be out of date almost as soon as it was collected, never mind when the information is eventually published.

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