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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.

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