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.
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.
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.