UPDATE: Juxtaviews is down these days, but you can read my Ben Chui interview below.
If a deal isn’t listed on Ben’s Bargains, is it actually a deal at all? Ben Chui, frugal shopper and president of BensBargains.net LLC, took some time off from scouring the Internet for deals (those Dell coupons don’t stack themselves you know) and maintaining his popular bargain hunting site to chat with us about the art of the “deal”, his latest Web 2.0 venture, and why you might not want to name your next site after yourself.
Name, job title, when you sleep at night what do you dream about?
Ben Chui, President, BensBargains.net LLC. Funny you should ask,because I don’t sleep very much and I rarely remember any dreams. I do recall one about being chased by zombies…
Please name some sites that you must visit every day.
Cnn.com, msnbc.com, digg.com, Slashdot.org, and of course our numerous merchant partners where we scour for deals.
You started the site in 2000, when did you realize this could become a full time job and not just a hobby?
What I usually tell people is that BensBargains.net was not started as a business. In fact, my first realization of potential profitability was a rather pedestrian moment where I thought to myself “Hey, I could buy a hot dog with this money.” Keep in mind I was a college sophomore at the time, just trying to save money. It took about two years beforeI started thinking about going at it full time as opposed to pursuing the career that I had always envisioned prior to BensBargains.net.
How do you decide what’s a deal and what’s not a deal?
It’s a combination of factors, and there definitely isn’t any set formula in the mathematical sense. Of course the price has to be lower than elsewhere, but I also take into account the merchant reputability, the overall desire or buzz surrounding a product, and factors such as shipping costs and taxes.
I can’t remember exactly when I stumbled on your site, but suffice to say it was more than a few years ago. What was the greatest obstacle in getting people to visit your site and what types of methods did you use in gathering users?
That’s another interesting story… how we came to be popular. I can tell you right away that it was not an overnight success story like some of the superstars started in the past few years. Through most of our seven year history, the only form of advertising has been word of mouth. We recently started to dabble in AdWords and so forth, but really our base traffic has grown completely organically and represents a very stable core of interested viewers.
If you can, discuss the pros and cons with working with the various affiliate programs (linkshare, amazon, commission junction, etc.)
The main players these days seem to be LinkShare, ValueClick / CJ,Performics, ShareASale, and then there are the independent programs such as Amazon.com. LinkShare and ValueClick / CJ have been the best to work with in terms of timely communications and also their commitment to the industry in holding Symposia, Conferences, what have you. Amazon’s Associates Program used to be very good, but over the past year they have given the axe to coupons and deals affiliates such as myself.
At times it can be daunting with the amount of deals/sales, etc. coming down the pipe. How do you manage? Is the process manual or automated? What’s been the biggest challenge about maintaining the site?
The way we deal with deal overload is to tighten the reigns a bit and be more selective about what we choose to publish. I try to assess the value of a particular deal as quickly as possible to decide whether or not to make a post, or to move on. The process is completely manual interns of selection and composition of each posting that we make.
The biggest challenge [about maintaining the site] has been keeping the servers happy as our user base grows. We’ve moved from co-hosting all the way up to several dedicated servers. It did not all go smoothly.
How many users are you getting daily? What are your user demographics?
I can say that we get several million users per month. The core demographic is male, college educated (or currently enrolled), 17 – 35 years of age.
What’s the best deal you ever got personally? Do you think you make more online purchases because you know about so many deals?
The best deal I ever got was way back in 2000 when Microsoft flubbed the terms of their MSN Internet rebate offer. I managed to get $400 credit from that with no obligation, which I used to purchase a PalmVx.
I actually am not a shopaholic. Remember that frugality is what drove me to start the site, so I’m quite picky about what I buy. My strategy is to keep tabs on what I need, and to simply wait around for a deal to present itself on that item. That would be the polar opposite of the person who buys simply because it is a hot deal, and not because they particularly need the item.
What was the impetus behind the switch from v. 2.0 to v. 3.0 and were there any adjustments you had to make to the back end? What is the current set up for the back end?
V2.0 was coded during Spring Break of 2000, and it was based on aPerl/CGI free script called NewsPro (now long defunct). Back then it was just what I needed to run a small site with a somewhat customized content management system. I’m surprised that it lasted as long as it did, because V3.0 is so much better in every aspect. V3.0 has moved to the classic PHP/MySQL combo and it is fully customized to my specifications. It allows complete forum integration with PHPBB,persistent logins, and a vast array of administrative features that were simply unfathomable with the 2.0 system.
How much time a day do you personally spend searching for bargains? Do you also have some deal hunters working for you?
I’m at the computer about 12 hours each day, seven days a week. It varies seasonally, with the hours being extended greatly during the holidays. We currently have two additional employees, and their duties are in part to help me scour the web for deals.
Have you ever gotten any nasty emails or letter from retailers complaining about exposing their price mistakes? At the opposite end of the spectrum, do retailers ever contact you to make bargains available exclusively at your site? For instance, I notice you seem to get a lot of Dell coupon codes, are those exclusive to your users?
Yes, we have received many of the so-called “cease and desist” letters from merchants throughout the years. Usually it is an e-mail, but sometimes we do get the full treatment with a certified mail delivery.Our policy is usually to comply with those since for the most part,they come far too late to affect our site experience (days to weeks after the posting). We definitely do work with merchants to be able to bring exclusive offers that otherwise would not be available. You’ll often see these in the form of branded coupons such as”BENSBARGAINS15? and such. In that way, it really is an advantage for users to shop through us because they’re getting discounts that aren’t available anywhere else.
Do you ever check out the other “deal” sites (fatwallet, xpbargains,etc.)? Are there any unwritten rules of etiquette amongst the competing bargain sites?
Of course we do check on our competitors to make sure we haven’t missed anything. In my experience, there are two types of sites: Those that contribute original content to the deal community at large, and those that recycle or copy that content from others without contributing anything new. The latter type of site runs the risk of being prosecuted for copyright infringement.The Internet has created a niche where copyright infringement can be taken to a whole new level.Take regular print newspapers for example. If you were to copy competitor’s newspaper, you’d be a day late, so there isn’t much of a point there. However with the Internet, copy sites often update in real time either by manual or automatic means. That allows them to be competitive on a temporal basis with the original source of the information.
What advice would you have to first time Internet shoppers?
Stay with well-known Internet retailers. Check out the popular shopping sites to get a sense of what’s available, and always look for a coupon before completing your purchase. Keep in mind that shipping fees can be a hidden cost, so merchants that are up front about their shipping policies are preferable over those that keep shipping costs hidden until the end of the checkout process.
What do you think the future holds for brick and mortar electronics stores?
Regular retail stores will have to offer integration with their online divisions in order to remain competitive. Right now much of that integration is still far from ideal, with the online sites seemingly sitting on the back burner. Integration would mean that you can order online (with coupons) for in-store pickup, and you can return items to any store. Furthermore these online/B&M stores need to step up their promotions in order to compete with online-only stores.
You already have Bensbargains.net under your belt, what was your motivation behind starting dealspl.us?
I was approached by my former graduate student instructor about starting a new Web 2.0 AJAX site. He was entirely new to affiliate marketing and such, so I offered to help him break into the market.He’s a brilliant guy and he was able to get dealspl.us together in about two months! BensBargians.net is more of an editorial type site,which definitely has its place in the scheme of things; but with the hotness of Web 2.0 and user driven content, we felt like we had a winning idea with dealspl.us. So far, our projections have been spot on!
What’s the most interesting thing you have learned about psychology and/or human nature since starting bensbargains.net and dealspl.us?
When your domain name has an actual name in it, people are much more likely to target you for personal attack. I suppose it has to do with the personification of the site “entity” which, for the lay person, is easier to take offense to than some unspecified non proper noun type of domain.
What is the best time of the year to look for a deal? Do you think the amount of deals out there is generally increasing or decreasing?
The best day of the year is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.It’s a great day to wake up early and wait in line to get those doorbuster specials. If you’d rather not do that, one strategy is to buy the product days in advance and then get a price adjustment on the sale day. The end of each month is also typically the best time, as you’ll find the most coupon codes and rebates that are simultaneously valid to get you a great deal.
You’re background is engineering, did you write all the code forbensbargains.net yourself?
I wrote 2.x myself. 3.0 was the collaborative work of the three of us here, and it took about a year to put together (part-time). I guess I would say that I’m the chief design architect of the site, since I brought six years of experience coming into the development process.
Do you have any future innovations planned for bensbargains.net or dealspl.us that we should know about?
BensBargains.net is having a 7th Anniversary giveaway starting on November 6th through December 22nd, 2006. We’ll be giving away, among other things, a PS3 system. Other than that, nothing that you should know about…