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Zappos vs. Piperlime: a shoe-shopping cage-match

I am a big and vocal fan of Zappos.com for all things shoe. Huge selection, decent (if not bargain) prices and free shipping. Returns are dead simple, and my love for Zappos has, at times, bordered on actual zealotry.

So, when the Gap Empire introduced Piperlime, I wasn’t buying. It seemed like a Zappos ripoff with a more yuppie-friendly design scheme, and even though I’m a Banana Republic card-holder and Gap Empire devotee, something about Piperlime just didn’t work for me. Plus, they gave me the Website hard-sell — a constant barrage of coupons and insinuations that my BR outfit just wouldn’t be complete without some Piperlime pumps. Feh.

But this weekend, I had a little bit of a Piperlime revelation, thanks to, well, my child. See, he won’t wear shoes. In fact, if you put anything but Robeez on his delicate little tootsies, he shrieks and growls and moonwalks until you remove them and set his soles free. So, a friend told me about See Kai Run shoes, which have a more flexible sole than the standard Old Navy fare, and might be more palatable to Mr. Picky Toes. When I Googled them, Piperlime had them for less than Zappos, with the same free shipping. Plus, checkout was super easy, since I could use my Gap Empire login and get all my saved info, just like I do at Zappos. I got to wondering … could Piperlime be better!? I decided a super-scientific evaluation was the only way to go. Let’s begin:

I found the See Kai Run shoes at Piperlime on sale for $25, down from $38. Zappos had a much bigger collection of See Kai Run shoes, but they were all $42, with nothing on sale at all. These Naturalizer Memento wedges are $59 at Zappos and $55 at Piperlime. A quick scan seems to suggest higher prices at Zappos across the board, and Piperlime has a much more price-conscious presentation — “great finds under $75,” or “Fantastic finds under $100″ under handbags.

Plus, according to recent reports, Zappos no longer matches prices from other retailers, and has stopped offering free overnight shipping. Now, both Piperlime and Zappos offer the same free 4-5 day shipping, although Zappos will often “upgrade” you to two-day shipping. However, the price discussion leads directly to …

Zappos may be more expensive, but it’s also the source for all kinds of designer brands that Piperlime simply can’t match. Piperlime doesn’t carry Badgley Mischka, Cole Haan, Marc by Marc Jacobs or Marc Jacobs, for that matter. There’s no baby phat, no Michael Kors, no Stuart Weitzman, and absolutely no D&G Junior. Then again, that keeps Piperlime’s ratio of $500 shoes vs. $50 shoes on a much more realistic plane than Zappos’.

Even where there is brand crossover, though, Zappos has many more options. There were 27 choices in the aforementioned See Kai Run brand at Zappos, just eight at Piperlime. And while Piperlime also offers handbags, Zappos has taken their shoes-and-bags formula and branched out into accessories, electronics, sunglasses, kids’ clothing, and even watches. Mission creep? Maybe, but Amazon hasn’t gone wrong with their one-stop shopping approach.

Ease of use
Zappos has been on a bit of a marketing spree lately, announcing its rollout of the new categories mentioned above, along with plans for a redesign that will make the site substantially easier to use. They haven’t given a date for that redesign, though, so for now: my GOD is Zappos a pain to navigate. They know it, so I don’t want to go on too much, but it’s just a weird, kludgy, crowded little site that feels a bit like a tiny little boutique crammed with an entire Macy’s worth of goods. You strongly sense that you might stumble upon something fabulous, but you’ve got to be willing to spend a whole Saturday there.

Piperlime, on the other hand, has the clean design of all Gap Empire sites, and once you get past their standard useless splash screen, makes excellent use of the left-hand nav to promote within appealing categories. Choose from “The weekend shoe,” “Fabulous flats,” “Designer favorites,” “Fantastic finds under $75,” or by category or brand. Here, the lack of selection feels more like something you can wrap your head around, and you have the sense that you’ll find what you’re looking for.

But design alone isn’t enough, and Zappos has a killer feature that Piperlime can’t touch: the user reviews. At Piperlime, I can sort by Featured, Price (low to high or high to low), or What’s New. At Zappos, I can start out by determining shoe type, heel height, size, width, and color, or just hit “Sandals,” where I can then drill down by all the previous categories, plus “new,” “name,” “low price,” “high price,” and the Holy Grail: “popularity.” That one click gives me the most highly rated shoes in the category, and they’re rated by the people who actually bought and wore the shoes. BOOM.

I can’t tell you how valuable this one thing has proven to be, over and over, when it comes to ordering shoes online. I’ve ordered shoes half a size too big, thanks to Zappos, and had them fit perfectly. I’ve rejected adorable flats when five people in a row said they were miserably uncomfortable. Anyone who orders shoes or clothes online knows that fit is the ultimate crapshoot, and Zappos’ user reviews take so much guesswork out of the ordering that I’d bet it contributes to a much lower instance of returns overall.

Customer service
Piperlime has matched Zappos on free shipping and free returns, but Zappos has bought the love of women everywhere with the free overnight shipping … that it no longer offers. It’s definitely a blow to the brand to discover that some of their most customer-friendly features, like free overnight shipping and price-matching, are gone. Still, I ordered running shoes from Zappos last week, and they were here within two days. I can’t say much about Piperlime in that respect, as I just placed my first order today. I did, however, get an email that said the shoes should arrive within seven business days. I’ll tell you one thing: if it really takes seven days for those shoes to get here, Piperlime won’t be beating out Zappos anytime soon.

But as I said, Zappos’ best feature is not just their customer service. It’s their actual customers — the ones who take the time to review shoes and offer tips as to sizing, fit, and comfort so you can actually buy with confidence. It’d take a lot of mistakes and mishandling of orders to undue the value of that community.

The verdict
So, winner? Well, I only have four categories in my little head-to-head, and I seem to have ended in a tie. From a purely emotional standpoint, I’m still a Zappos fan, because I think the idea of customer reviews for shoes is sheer, unparalleled genius. But check back with me in a week or so to see how it goes with the kid-shoe adventure. Piperlime is coming up fast from behind.

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My sentiments exactly

So, you know, some fairly big news today: CBS to acquire CNET (with obligatory disclaimer that the deal’s not done and everything). I know only what you know, other than that I am, of course, extremely interested in what’s going to happen over the next several months. But I will say it’s been kind of exciting to see the CNET name being bandied about like crazy today, from Variety to Perez Hilton to the New York Times. And I’m not going to lie: it was kind of exciting to see me in the New York Times (click if you can’t read it at this size) …

NY Times commenter asks the important question: what about BOL?

Thanks for looking out for us, Jimbo.

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Mother’s Day ideas (a.k.a. an interview on ABC.com)

I was interviewed last week for this very extensive piece on buying last-minute Mother’s Day gifts. Check it out if you’re into, you know, reading. It’s kind of fun to be featured alongside editors from In Style and the Oprah magazine! Plus, I got some decent Mother’s Day ideas myself. (Mom, maybe don’t read this article after all … you’re proud anyway, right?) Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what I recommended:

Enjoy, Happy Mother’s Day, and wow, it actually is getting on last-minute, eh? Maybe less recommending and more shopping …

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Batter Blaster spray-on pancake mix: a review

When I first heard about Batter Blaster spray-on pancake mix, I was pretty fired up. And even if tree-huggers think it’s a waste of packaging, the sad truth is that, yes, making pancakes and waffles from scratch (and especially waffles) is a chore, and even making pancakes from a mix is a mess. And also, in terms of food innovations, I think this is genius. Plus, unlike a lot of pancake mixes, it doesn’t contain any transfat, and it’s organic, as in, I recognized most of the ingredients. So, I tried it out. Pardon the obscene length of this video (I just wanted to take Windows Movie Maker for a test-run, and it doesn’t crop).

So, verdict? Yeah, it’s awesome. We made and ate five pancakes in about 15 minutes, and then I just wiped off the griddle with a paper towel and put the BB in the fridge. As I went along, I learned that I don’t need to do the swirly move I did in the video — just point down and spray and the pancake forms itself. I’m excited to try it with my waffle maker, too. Two thumbs up for Batter Blaster. I saved so much time, I’ve decided to go bake some homemade banana bread.

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