All-Star Tech Stores

Lay of the (Shopping) Land

While the readers we surveyed generally could find their way around stores both online and in the real world, there's definitely room for improvement, especially over on the brick-and-mortar side. Our respondents were happier with Web site design than they were with physical store design by more than a two-to-one margin (47 percent positive versus 18 percent). Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot scored above-average marks for their physical store design, while NewEgg and TigerDirect fared best among the online retailers for the layout of their Web sites.

Every online shopper has a favorite Web site, and certain design decisions draw rabid fans. While many people love the easy navigation of larger sites such as NewEgg and TigerDirect, Gail Robb points to a tiny online outlet called Cost Central, which she likes for its no-nonsense, index-style layout that makes navigation a breeze.

Although the majority of our survey respondents (52 percent) strongly agreed that comparing products on sites was easy, only 32 percent of Costco.com users felt that way, compared with 73 percent of NewEgg customers. NewEgg and Amazon earned the highest marks for the ease of searching for and finding products, while CompUSA.com and BestBuy.com fared the worst.

In navigating your way around online sites, Dear says it all comes down to practice. "It's all about where you get comfortable," he says. "You just have to get used to where things are. Once you know what you're looking for, it's usually not too hard to find anything." Manning agrees; she shops primarily at Dell, Buy.com, and TigerDirect, because she's familiar with the way those particular sites operate. "These ones work for me, so I'm sticking with them!" she says.

Online definitely trumps brick-and-mortar in another aspect: atmosphere. Manning notes that the loud and oppressive noise that fills electronics merchants like Circuit City and Fry's--which are also busy hawking expensive sound systems and television sets--is what sends her to the Web instead: "If I'm shopping for computer components, I don't want to hear stereos blasting."

In our survey noise level and checkout speed came up needing improvement in general. Just 43 percent of readers strongly agreed that checkout lines moved quickly; 57 percent agreed that stores' noise level was not a problem. Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and Fry's had the biggest problems with noise according to our survey respondents; shoppers at Sam's Club and Wal-Mart gave those stores low marks for speedy checkout.

Worse, though, were buyer impressions of store layouts and the signs meant to guide them to the right products. Just 39 percent strongly agreed that store signs made locating products easy, and only 45 percent strongly agreed that store layout helped them find their way around as they shopped. Costco got the lowest marks for its in-store signs while CompUSA received the worst layout scores.

Overall, technology shopping is improving, both online and offline, and the breadth of choices means that you're likely to find what you want and to get a good price for it. The best advice comes straight from our surveyed readers: Buy things you understand very well online, but consider a local store when you want to see the gear in action before you pull the trigger. And remember: Whether you shop online or off, the deals are out there--all you have to do is hunt them down!

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