Large sites and stores scored high on our poll in offering customers the lowest prices. Costco.com, auction site eBay, NewEgg, Buy.com, and TigerDirect had the best online deals while most respondents got offline bargains at Fry's and at megastores like Sam's Club, Costco, and Wal-Mart. (Although eBay is often regarded as an auction site first, many merchants also use it as a base for conventional retail sales; eBay exerts some oversight on its merchants, too, which is why we included it here.)
Online or off, respondents said price was their most important consideration in choosing where to purchase a product. Readers had divergent opinions about how to find the best deal, however. Many said they began online with a Froogle search and then compared those prices with the tags at local stores. Because offline stores hold sales without much notice and on an unpredictable selection of items, many readers said that spending a little time checking a few brick-and-mortar shops was worth their while, particularly when shopping for big-ticket products. (This reporter, a dedicated online purchaser, found an amazing deal on a new PC by scouring the superstores during the course of researching this article, snagging a machine costing several hundred dollars less than a similarly configured rig online.)
In the absence of a big dads-and-grads sale, though, respondents overall said that online shopping netted slightly better prices. The why for that may simply come down to there being many more retailers fighting it out on the Internet than in the physical realm. Again, some readers we spoke with happened to find the best price on a product at a smaller Web-based retailer, and many noted that, though sometimes frustrating, buying from such out-of-the-way stores was usually worth it.
You do need to approach an unfamiliar online retailer with some caution, they advise, and, as always, you should be on the lookout for prices that appear too good to be true. Also, respondents warn of some shady dealers that tack on exorbitant handling fees or attempt to "upsell" you to more expensive models or accessories you don't need. If anything seems at all suspicious, leaving a lowball Web site and paying a little more money to receive service from another site that you can trust is the best idea.
Respondents weren't all that impressed with the information they could get about products, either online or off. Online edged ahead a bit with 30 percent of respondents giving the Web high marks for the buying information available, versus 24 percent of offline shoppers. Most sites and stores earned average ratings, with only NewEgg receiving an above-average score for the product information it put at shoppers' fingertips. On the other hand, several sites and stores disappointed with their below-average ratings in product information: Costco.com, Wal-Mart, CompUSA.com, BestBuy.com, Staples.com, and eBay.
Salespeople weren't much help in the brick-and-mortar world. Wal-Mart in particular received low scores for the product and category knowledge of its sales staff, and only Fry's managed to garner a high rating from more than 50 percent of its customers on its salespeople's knowledge of product categories.
Reader comments echo these results. Gail Robb, a Boise, Idaho, great-grandmother and the family computer pro, puts it politely, saying sales clerks are "really hit-and-miss. Some are really good and some don't know all that much." John Dear, an engineer in Mullica Hill, New Jersey, concurs. "Sometimes I feel like the salespeople are more of a hindrance than a help."
Online, a few sites offer easy, convenient ways to contact a customer representative for sales help. NewEgg, TigerDirect, Dell, and HP all had a majority of their shoppers praise the accessibility of live help. NewEgg and TigerDirect customers also awarded those sites high marks for the knowledgeability of the service representative they spoke with.
If you're a rank novice when it comes to a specific product category--say, in choosing among an LCD, plasma, or rear-projection HDTV--most respondents recommend you do research online. Start with trustworthy sources and then branch out to category-specific review sites for additional detail. Many lesser-known sources have loads of information that might be impossible to obtain elsewhere. For example, several readers mentioned Steve's Digicams as an invaluable source for camera details.
If these sources together can't supply the info you want on a product category, it probably doesn't exist. Still, some online retailers do a decent job of providing detailed info for prospective buyers. Top-rated NewEgg, for instance, supplies a plethora of product photographs--often showing every angle of each model--plus complete spec sheets and extensive user-written product reviews. Another nice feature: its "compatible products" link, which lets shoppers find appropriate accessories without a lot of searching.
For buying offline, Mike Radway offers one strategy for success: He prints out professional and user reviews from a variety of online stores, then takes them along with him to brick-and-mortar shops when he wants to make a purchase. This way he can compare what a sales clerk tells him with real-world experiences.