The Soft Sell Thanks to low prices, lots of choices and a few freebies, software is a Web bestseller.
By Rob Turner

(MONEY Magazine) – Of all the products you can buy on the Internet today, few are as natural a fit as software. After all, if you're shopping online, it's a pretty safe bet that you own a computer and need new software from time to time. Plus, along with the usual Web shopping advantages--steep discounts, a wider selection than in most local stores and the convenience of shopping from home--buying software online offers a unique twist: You can download some software--saving both shipping costs and time. So it should come as no surprise that, according to Forrester Research, software trails only travel and computer hardware in online sales.

Naturally there are dozens of online software retailers, including small ones that specialize in everything from games to education. After looking at a dozen or so sites, though, I can see why and have become two of the biggest. In terms of price, selection and shopping perks, there's no reason to bookmark any others.

Right off the bat, I will tell you that it's hard to pick one clear favorite because different features are important to different Web shoppers. If, like many consumers, price is your only concern, is hard to beat. When I used the price comparison website to search for the best price on two dozen software titles--ranging from games to desktop had the lowest price about two-thirds of the time, more than any other software retailer. In April, for example, was selling Quicken Deluxe 99, which retails for $59.95, for $47.95 and Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia 99, which lists for $39.99, for $26.95. (If you know exactly what you want, start at a comparison site that searches dozens of Web retailers for the best price. Both and are good for software, although neither includes

A low price isn't always what I look for in a website, however. When it comes to amenities, such as the site recognizing you each time you visit or letting you include a card when you send software as a gift,, which is the largest online software retailer, comes out on top. Here's more on both sites.

THE PRICE LEADER: WWW.BUYSOFT.COM is part of a larger online retailer called Buy.Com, which sells everything from computers to videos to software. Again, the prices are hard to beat. In fact, the site guarantees that its prices are at least 10% cheaper than's. When I looked for a Mac version of Broderbund's Family Tree Maker Deluxe, which has a list price of $99.95, I found it for only $66.95 (a 30% savings) at I bought a copy as a birthday present for my grandmother, but since doesn't let you include a card or note with the item, it took her a few days to realize the software was from me.

What I did like is that BuySoft displays the shipping costs before you've filled out the order form (annoyingly, makes you report a bunch of information first). What I didn't like is that BuySoft charges more than double what charges for shipping (about $10 vs. $4.95 for UPS ground). Yet my experience with BuySoft's customer service was excellent. Wondering if Family Tree Maker had been delivered yet, I clicked on the customer service icon and sent a note. Approximately 30 minutes later, I got an e-mail with the UPS tracking number. By logging on to the UPS site, I was able to see when the gift had arrived. I'll use BuySoft again--but probably not for a birthday present.

BEYOND PRICE: WWW.BEYOND.COM's prices are often 10% to 20% higher than's. It was charging $79.45 for the Family Tree Maker, for example ($12.50 more than but $10 less than my local CompUSA). But this software-only site makes up for the price gap with a better overall shopping experience. And sometimes, after rebates, its prices even come out on top. When I searched for the Berlitz French CD-ROM, I found it for $36.95 at and for $44.95 at But only told me about the $20 manufacturer's rebate from Berlitz, which brought the price down to $24.95.

My experience with the Berlitz CD-ROM also illustrates another way stands out. didn't have a picture or a description of this product., on the other hand, gave me a picture of the package, a full product description, including system requirements, examples of similar software, a customer rating and (if I spent more than $100) the chance to earn frequent-flier miles good on most airlines, including American and United. also came through the night I was doing my income taxes. Unlike BuySoft, allows you to download software--albeit only about 15% of their titles. So I was able to download the $24.45 MacInTax New York State program on April 13, when time was even more important to me than the $5 I saved in shipping costs.

I also liked's virtually free software section, where you can find a handful of titles (mostly kids' software) that are free after rebates. I picked up Dr. Seuss' Reading Games, which is normally $29.99 but cost 1[cent] after a $9.99 manufacturer's rebate and a $19.99 rebate from I had to pay about $5 in shipping and spend a few extra minutes filling out and mailing in the rebate forms, but I knew my nephew Carson would love the games. The best part? gave me five colorful cards to choose from so I could include a note. I was, after all, getting tired of sending anonymous gifts.

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