Give Me Choices
When readers picked their top online stores for product selection, NewEgg came out on top, with TigerDirect and Amazon trailing closely; these stores also scored well on the immediate availability of products shoppers were looking for. When it came to shopping offline, the marks for product selection were considerably lower all around, but Fry's outpaced the rest of the pack by a mile and had good product availability, too; CompUSA (which also owns The Good Guys stores) and Circuit City took secondary honors in this noticeably weaker field.
Respondents overwhelmingly told us that they consider online retailers the better bet for a wide-ranging selection of goods--satisfaction with online stores' selection was twice that of brick-and-mortar stores. The logic is obvious: Stores in the real world have only so much shelf space, and that space is devoted to the products with the highest profit margins and the biggest customer demand. If you're looking for an obscure part or a lesser-known brand, you are more likely to find it on the Internet.
Offline stores have one major benefit over online ones: They let you physically touch the gear you're shopping for. This can be invaluable if you're comparison shopping and don't know exactly what model you want. Says Mike Radway, "If a product is a commodity (like flash memory) or something that's easy to understand, I purchase online. But if I'm trying to decide between one item or another, I always go to the store." (We did not have sufficient responses to rate the product-trial experiences for individual stores, but 88 percent of respondents gave stores positive marks overall.) Another plus for shopping offline is immediate availability. Online stores do generally tell you early on when they can ship a product to you, though: About 47 percent of respondents said they got a shipping estimate either on the product page or when they put an item in the shopping cart. However, 60 percent of CompUSA shoppers said they saw no shipping estimate at all, versus the average of 15 percent.
Of course, online shoppers have the benefit of accessing both general search engines and specialized shopping engines (or "shopping bots") like Froogle and PriceGrabber, which all but guarantee the widest product selection you can find. For uncommon items, such as an obscure camera battery, search engines can turn what might once have been a frustrating trip through the Yellow Pages into a relatively simple point-and-click affair. Many readers told us that they frequently ended up at small retailers for such hard-to-find items, thanks to the advice of shopping engines, and that in general these one-time purchases turned out just fine.
Another bonus of shopping bots is that such Web sites typically locate several sources for an item and point you to the best available price. Some engines also rate the trustworthiness of listed e-tailers, which can give you more confidence in a significant purchase. For more information on shopping engines, check out "Deal Finders" in our December 2005 issue.
For the occasions when shopping engines don't pan out in the search for an obscure component or accessory, surveyed readers recommended a straightforward solution: Just click over to the equipment vendor's Web site. Most manufacturers include a page on their site that lists retail outlets, both online and offline, where you can purchase their products. Sometimes the sites offer the information by region, as well: Simply type in your zip code, for example, and a list of nearby stores is revealed.