Consumer advice

Best Places to Buy Tech Products--Now and Post-Holidays

Illustration: Harry Campbell
Given a choice, Jay Gorman would rather shop online for tech gear. An IBM employee who works amid whirring mainframes in Lake Katrine, New York, Gorman estimates that he buys 90 percent of his gear online, including camcorders, computers, and MP3 players.

He's not opposed to brick-and-mortar stores--he frequents Best Buy, too--but he thinks sites such as Buy.com typically offer better prices--and more convenience. Says Gorman: "I live out in the boonies, and the only two places close by are Best Buy and Circuit City."

The appeal of online shopping is growing. Between August 2006 and the same month a year later, 14 percent of the $159 billion that U.S. shoppers spent on consumer electronics was spent online, up from 5 percent a year earlier, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Yet brick-and-mortar stores--including consumer electronics emporiums Best Buy and Circuit City, discount retailers Target and Wal-Mart, and warehouse clubs Costco and Sam's Club--clearly aren't going away anytime soon.

Add online vendors to the mix, and it's evident that retail competition for tech customers is as fierce as ever, which is good news for savvy shoppers. The Web's selection of vendors is particularly deep. You'll find popular online-only shopping sites like Amazon, Newegg and TigerDirect, as well as the Web counterparts of brick-and-mortar stores, and vendor-specific sites for Apple, Dell, HP, and others. And don't forget auction sites such as eBay and uBid, which can be good sources for tech-gear bargains.

Which stores on the Web or in the city or town where you live offer the best prices, service, and selection? Is online shopping better than offline, or vice versa? To find out, we polled thousands of PC World readers, most of whom shop both on the Web and at brick-and-mortar stores.  

Other Parts of This Story

Brick-and-Mortar Stores: Real-World Bargains

Our survey identified the Apple Store as the best brick-and-mortar retailer overall; finishing closest behind it were Costco and Staples (though the latter received below-average scores in two areas). 

The lowest-rated brick-and-mortar shops were discounters Target and Wal-Mart, and electronics retailer Circuit City. All three received low grades in buying advice and overall satisfaction. Readers also said that Circuit City's prices were too high, Target and Wal-Mart's product selection was poor, and Wal-Mart's store design needed help. Wal-Mart did get high marks for its low prices, however.

The Top-Scoring Stores

The Apple Store, the boutique retailer for all things Apple, now has more than 200 stores worldwide. Our survey takers gave it high marks for its buying advice, store design, product information, and selection. Readers rated the Apple Store below average on price, however, possibly because Apple products tend to cost more than their PC counterparts.

Readers gave Costco above-average grades for its prices and return policies. Its customer satisfaction scores were impressive, too. But readers were not nearly as enamored with the membership warehouse's product selection and buying advice. As for Staples, readers liked the office supplier's store design and return polices, but weren't thrilled with its prices or product selection.

Apple's Good Service

Apple Store fan Andy Odom recently switched from a Windows PC to a Mac, which he calls "more intuitive" and easier to use. Odom, a Webinar trainer in Denton, Texas, bought his MacBook laptop at an Apple Store in Dallas, using a student discount to knock $100 off the $1299 price. He was impressed with the retailer's well-trained staff: "They came across as really knowledgeable, and it seems they work a lot with people who are new converts. They're able to explain things pretty well."

One Apple Store disadvantage, however, "is the slight premium that customers pay in price," writes Apple Store customer Jason Syth in an e-mail interview. "I think that Apple's market share would grow at a much faster rate if it priced its products more competitively."

Good Prices or Good Service?

Not surprisingly, our survey suggests that low prices and great selection and service seldom mix. Discount retailers and warehouse clubs such as Costco, Sam's Club, and Wal-Mart offer great prices but tend to skimp in other areas, our survey takers say. Target received low marks for its service, too, and readers rate its prices as just average.

It's not too bad. It's just that the people there aren't exactly what I would call technology-savvy.  a??Sam Lamp of Bennington, Vermont, on her local Staples
Photograph: Alden Pellett

Sam Lamp of Bennington, Vermont, shops at Wal-Mart because it's one of the few brick-and-mortar retailers in her area. The prices there are good, she says, but the selection isn't--a circumstance that she attributes to her local Wal-Mart's small size. "It doesn't really have a lot of electronic items" but is fine for office supplies, DVDs, and CDs, according to Lamp, a professional photographer who does computer repair and Web design in her spare time.

Lamp says that she frequents Staples, as well. "It's not too bad. It's just that the people there aren't exactly what I would call technology-savvy. If you have a question, you're better off just saving it for somebody else," she laughs.

But not all brick-and-mortar sales reps are similarly clueless. When Bill Ellis of London, Ontario, Canada, visited Costco last year, he was impressed with the technical know-how of the representative who helped him.

"I spoke with him about two things. One was about a computer we were looking at upgrading, and the other had to do with an LCD TV," says Ellis, a health care worker. "He was very knowledgeable in both respects. I expected him to regurgitate what I could read on the [product] boxes and [shelf] cards, but he went a little deeper than that. He was able to answer all my questions."

Despite that positive experience, Ellis gave Costco an average grade overall because of its limited product selection. "Every time I go in there, it's more of the same. For the size of store they are, and for the amount of products they push through there, they would do well to diversify a little more," he says.

Price, not service, matters most to warehouse patrons, many of whom don't even seek a salesperson's help. About 40 percent of the Costco and Sam's Club shoppers who took our survey said they bypass store employees and simply grab the products they want.

Electronics Emporiums

It's a very different story at big-box electronics retailers. More than 80 percent of the Best Buy and Circuit City shoppers in our survey said they avail themselves of the hired help--not surprising, since you can't buy many big-ticket items, such as a computer or a television, without a staffer's assistance.

Big-box stores encompass not only consumer-oriented outlets such as Best Buy and Circuit City but also business-focused stores such as Office Depot and Office Max. These vendors, which earned average marks overall, set prices between the highs charged at specialty boutiques (the Apple and Sony stores, for example) and the lows of the discounters. Big-box shoppers expect both low prices and a knowledgeable sales staff--a combination that can be hard to find in today's cutthroat retail landscape. For instance, Circuit City last year fired 3400 highly paid, experienced employees, and replaced them with new, lower-paid staffers. But while such cost-cutting moves may look perfectly good on a balance sheet, they can backfire.

San Diego resident Lee Cain, who shops at Circuit City, isn't thrilled with the retailer's recent downsizing. The biggest problem: "Fewer employees, and they got rid of the established ones," says Cain, an in-home elder-care provider. "And they've cut down on their stock too. It's all very annoying." Cain still shops at Circuit City, but he says that he's now just as likely to shop somewhere else: "More and more, I assume I won't find what I want at this particular store." If he needs PC or Mac software, or an add-in card, he says, he goes to Fry's instead.

Online Outlets: The Net Never Closes

The top online retailers, as assessed by our survey participants, were Newegg.com and TigerDirect.com. Both of these vendors earned better-than-average scores on each of our six satisfaction measures, including prices, site design, and product selection.

Amazon finished close behind, garnering top marks in every area except product information and buying advice, where readers rated it average. Apple.com fared reasonably well, though not as well as its offline Apple Store sibling.

Among online sellers, BestBuy.com and Walmart.com finished at the bottom. BestBuy.com earned subpar marks across the board, while Walmart.com rated below average in nearly every category except price, where it was average. 

Standing Out on the Web

What makes a site special? Low prices are obviously relevant, but easy navigation and good product selection are essential, too. Another factor is the "shopping cart experience," meaning the ease with which you can see the items in your cart, fill out payment information and save it for future purchases, and find the final price--including shipping and taxes--early in the process.

Online vendors may vary in price, selection, and ease of use, readers report, but they do a good job of keeping customers in the loop after a purchase. Overall, 97 percent of online shoppers reported getting a confirmation e-mail after buying an item. Also, 92 percent received a notice once their product shipped, and 86 percent were able to track their packages online.

Subtle it isn't, but shoppers don't seem to mind much. TigerDirect.com earned high marks for its low prices, its generous assortment of products, and even (gulp) its site design.
Newegg, TigerDirect, and Amazon--the top three shopping sites--share a penchant for no-frills design. They may be efficient, but they're not pretty. Newegg's home page, for instance, has long lists of clickable categories of tech gear, but not many aesthetically pleasing graphics or other artistic touches. TigerDirect's garish, busy design, like its print catalog, shouts "Bargains!" with the subtlety of a swap-meet barker.

One Word: Price

But that's okay as long as prices are low, our readers say. They listed price as the most important criterion they consider when deciding where to buy. Product selection came in a distant second, followed by security and site layout.

TigerDirect.com's low prices keep Lamp of Bennington, Vermont, coming back. "I always shop there when I can. You get good deals," she says.

Cain of San Diego visits Newegg.com for several reasons. "Great selection, intuitive Web site order, good experience," he says. "I recommend them."

Odom of Denton, Texas, prefers the Apple Store offline but goes to Amazon online. "For price. They have a pretty good deal on things," he says. "If they're not right at the level of other online retailers, they're a little bit less." Amazon was one of six online vendors whose prices got a better-than-average rating.

Ellis, who usually shops at brick-and-mortar stores Costco and Future Shop in London, Ontario, is another fan of Amazon. He purchased a pair of noise-cancellation headphones from Amazon for $68--a product that cost $158 at his local Costco store. "Same model, same brand, not refurbished," he says.

BestBuy.com got slammed by readers in nearly every category, but some people did like the site's rewards club.
Price is not the only thing that lures shoppers online. Odom, for instance, also shops at BestBuy.com, which readers rated below-average on price. "I'm in the Rewards Zone--the frequent shopper club. Sometimes I'll decide to purchase there to build up points."

In general, however, PC World readers didn't find very many reasons to shop at BestBuy.com; that site, along with Walmart.com, fared the worst among Web-based retailers in our survey. Lamp expresses a low opinion of Wal-Mart's online store: "I don't really care for it. It doesn't give you as much product information as I would like."

Bricks or Clicks?

Like most other consumers, Lamp and Cain shop at both online and real-world outlets. In our survey, about 70 percent of participants who described themselves as customers of brick-and-mortar shops said that they frequented Web retailers too. But how do you decide between the two? In Cain's view, a physical store is usually better. "I get to look at the product a little more closely and ask questions. If it's something new and different, I'd want a brick-and-mortar store," he says. But "if I absolutely know what I want, like swapping a part, I'd probably go online."

Says Lamp: "I prefer shopping online if I can get a good deal. But a lot of times the shipping can be more outrageous than the price." (Sites sometimes offer free shipping, however.)

R. Cantu, a federal employee from Germantown, Maryland, says he would rather buy tech gear from the comfort of his PC. "I prefer online if I know my product," says Cantu, who appreciates the detailed product specs that good shopping sites often provide. Nevertheless, he says, he'll sometimes walk into a store. "There's only one dynamic at play--do I need it now, or can I wait a couple days?" Cantu says. In other words, you can't beat brick-and-mortar stores for immediate gratification.

Haggling for Bargains

Over 90 percent of shoppers who tried to negotiate a better deal got one, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey. Richard Doble, editor of Savvy-Discounts.com, an online guide for frugal shoppers, says that he once haggled the price of a $700 digital camera down to only $50. The unit was a floor model that the retailer had initially discounted to $200. Sensing an incredible bargain, Doble had driven to the store (an hour's journey away) but found less than he had hoped for. Besides missing a few minor items, including the retail box and a polishing cloth, the camera didn't work. "I then tried the tactic of not saying much but looking very disappointed," writes Doble on his site.

The store manager cut the price to $50, tossed in a one-year warranty and a free AC adapter, and told Doble to send the camera to the manufacturer's repair shop. The store even agreed to give Doble a full refund if the camera still didn't work. "I thought, gosh, how can I lose with that?" says Doble, who sent the camera in for repairs. It turned out that the camera needed only a new fuse--an easy fix--and it now works perfectly.

The key to successful haggling is to be prepared. "I tell people, don't just throw out numbers," says Doble. "When you suggest a number, actually have a reason." Don't focus exclusively on price, either, he advises. "Let's say you buy an HDTV and you need cables. You say, 'Well, I'm spending $800 for this, how about throwing in some cables?'" Similarly, if you're buying a digital camera, ask for a memory card to go with it. And if you're buying a big-screen HDTV or home-theater system, ask the retailer to deliver it for free.

Surf for Sales

The Internet is a great shopper's tool even if you don't buy online. Pricing engines such as PC World's Product Finder (powered by PriceGrabber.com), Bottomdollar.com, Dealtime.com, PriceScan.com, and Shopzilla.com all work in pretty much the same way, allowing you to search by product category, vendor name, or another criterion to find the best deal. Some sites, such as PriceScan, even let you enter a target price and will notify you via e-mail, pager, or cell phone when the service locates a price that hits your target.

Of course, online shoppers need to be attuned to bottom-line pricing--the final price after sales tax and shipping fees factor in. About 85 percent of Web shoppers we surveyed said they consider shipping costs an important factor when deciding where to buy online; state and local taxes rank as somewhat less important. To reduce her shipping fees, Sam Lamp sometimes buys multiple items in a single shopping visit.

Coupon codes are a great resource as well. Sites such as CurrentCodes.com, DealTaker.com, Ebates, GottaDeal.com, and RetailMeNot.com maintain lists of discount codes for retail sites. By entering a coupon code at a retailer's site--usually on the shopping cart page--you'll obtain a percentage or dollar amount off the sale price, or perhaps free shipping or another perk. In addition to offering coupon codes, sites such as DealNews list specials from major retailers.

Don't Fear the Refurb

Another way to unearth a bargain is to purchase refurbished equipment from a product vendor's outlet site. It's natural to feel hesitant about buying repaired or returned goods, but these items are generally safe buys.

"When you buy something that's refurbished, a lot of times you're getting a full warranty, and getting [the product] at a third to half off, and it's been thoroughly tested," says Doble, who adds that manufacturers commonly do not test products that are fresh off the assembly line before shipping them.

Avoid extended warranties, however. These usually cover the product during a period when it's least likely to fail--between the first and third years. If you want added peace of mind, buy the product with a credit card that extends the manufacturer's warranty on the carrier's dime. American Express, for instance, will increase the warranty period for many items by up to a year.

If you're shopping at the online incarnation of a brick-and-mortar retailer, you may avoid shipping charges by having the item sent to the retailer's nearest store for you to pick up.

Finally, when shopping online, it's wise to stick with e-tailers you know. If you buy from an unfamiliar vendor at a very low price, you risk ending up with counterfeit goods, waiting for products that never arrive, or becoming the victim of credit card fraud.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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