All-Star Tech Stores

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Readers' Top Picks

So where are the best places to shop? Topping our survey on the online front was, with coming in a close second. Offline, results were more scattered, with Staples and Office Depot nabbing the highest marks from respondents for overall satisfaction and stores such as Fry's (a regional electronics chain) and Costco earning kudos in specific areas such as product selection, prices, and return policies.

Although most of the respondents we interviewed prefer to shop online, some are finding themselves swinging back toward offline retailers for a number of reasons. Shipping rates have been going up, for instance, and some Web vendors are sitting on orders for days before processing them. And many of these consumers simply want to support local businesses, or they don't want to wait a week to get an important part.

By and large, however, online still rules for our respondents. We talked to virtually no one who said they weren't shopping online more today than they were a few years ago. Product selection and price are key, and a lot of people understandably want to avoid the hard-sell tactics of pushier salespeople. Their preference is borne out by sales figures from stores with both an online and offline presence: Although brick-and-mortar still represents the bulk of sales for retailers such as Circuit City and Costco, those retailers say online sales are growing by 60 to 70 percent annually, while offline sales are growing by about 11 to 12 percent.

Some savvy readers told us that they like to combine online and offline shopping: They compare prices on the Web through shopping engines, then take those prices with them to their local stores. Although most offline stores don't honor online printouts as part of their price-matching guarantees, studying Web prices helps buyers determine whether purchasing a product online might be more cost-effective in the end--after all, despite concerns over shipping costs and merchant reliability, saving hundreds or thousands of dollars can be persuasive. The combination approach can also work the other way: You start at a brick-and-mortar retailer so you can try things out and decide what you want, then you go online to find the best deal.

We've taken the information respondents gave us and split our look at popular tech stores into five sections: product selection, price, product information, returns, and store/site design. In each category we've analyzed whether online or offline is doing a better job, and determined which store tops the others. Plus, we've unearthed a wealth of tips, tricks, and secrets to make your shopping experience as painless as possible.

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