There comes a time in all our lives when we have to replace the white goods. It's the ultimate grudge purchase, unless you like paying hundreds of squids to hear the gentle sluicing of the dishwasher or watch your smalls going round in the window. The less you spend, the less it hurts: time to click on to those shopping comparison sites.
The surprise is there's half a dozen of them, all doing slightly different things. Less surprising is that none offered exactly what I wanted, which was a straight answer to the question: where can I get a cheap washing machine that will do the job without bouncing off the walls or flooding the kitchen?
First up, for no better reason than its catchy name, was shopsmart.com. But I couldn't get it to say something along the lines of, 'what you want is the Sudmaster 2000, which you can get for pounds 199 at floggit.com or pounds 210 at your local department store'. To make sure I was doing it correctly, I pressed a button offering a free conversation with that endangered e-world species, a live person. Louise said, chat-room style, that the site had price comparisons for books, videos, music and games, but for other items it directed you to the 'best' net retailers - ie, those with which it has links.
I was faced with trawling through dozens of e-tail sites to make my own comparisons: nein danke. I tried the music comparisons out of curiosity and ended up ordering three Bob Dylan CDs from a cheap e-store called 101CDs - an online impulse buy, I suppose. Then on to kelkoo.com, which is an unfortunate name for quite a good site: simple, fast-moving and upfront, it volunteers the information that its price comparisons involve only its 'valued trading partners' and that it makes money by taking a fee from traders for each sale.
The comparisons included washers and the best deal was a Servis from Comet for pounds 189.95 plus delivery. Then I looked at music and spotted one of those CDs a quid cheaper from Jungle.
I refused to let this upset me and looked at valuemad.com, where a Martian-like icon called a 'compare_bot' pushed a trolley around and came up with a Candy CE84 from EmpireDirect for pounds 206.99. Then there was letsbuyit.com, which makes savings by organising people to club together for bulk purchases and had quite a decent offer on tennis balls (I resisted this time, for fear of finding something cheaper again later on - and that way madness lies).
The wackiest of all was Ybag.com, where you describe what you want and e-tailers are invited to make you offers. I asked for 'cheapest good quality' - the usual impossible dream - and within 24 hours had three responses: Global Power offered the Hoover AC 90 at pounds 299.99, Direct Electricals said ring for prices, and Appliance Online solicited a visit, saying, rather blatantly, that 'German makes are the best quality'.
So where does this afternoon's adventure in the twilight zone of e-shopping leave us? I came away feeling slightly screen-blind, sceptical and confused.
Some of these sites are a bit patchy and peculiar, and you have to wonder whether they'll reach critical mass or just drop down the hole marked 'nice try'.
The comparisons were not of a complete range of sources, there was minimal brochure-type information about the products and no real attempt at impartial evaluation. I found myself longing for that precious commodity that information technology hasn't yet replicated - the ability of an intelligent human to sift, sort, compare, analyse and come up with a conclusion that you can trust.
So the old-fashioned part of me wants to forget all this online stuff, consult a copy of Which? and trail down to Allders at Clapham Junction to play with the knobs and see how nicely the door closes, or not. On the other hand, I've spent quite enough time on this already and can't deny that the Servis is very cheap.
But then again, you get what you pay for and in this case that means not much - really, does it have to be this difficult? Oh well, deep breath, reach for the keyboard, and here goes ...
Stephen Cook is a freelance journalist. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.