Even the lowest-rated computer stores pleased most customers, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Apple's website stood out among the manufacturers' websites, but other computer stores also scored highly and are the place to go if you want to customize a particular brand of computer. Return policies vary from store to store and site to site. Restocking fees can also be different from one place to another, but you'll usually pay 15 percent on returns of computers that are not defective.
Computer buying tips
Try to negotiate the price when you're buying a computer. You might be surprised: You can often get a better price just by asking for it. It doesn't hurt to haggle anywhere; but you'll probably have a better chance of getting a price break at an independent store or regional chain than at a major chain store. And even if you're buying online, you should still try haggling for a better deal.
Here are some tips on how to be a successful haggler:
Be patient and be nice. Demanding a discount rarely works. Savvy negotiators know that a smile is more difficult to resist than tough talk.
Time your haggle. Late in the month, when salespeople are trying to meet their quotas, can be a good time to bargain for big-ticket items. Evening or early hours are usually less busy, so clerks have time to talk.
Avoid an audience. Haggle out of earshot of other customers. Sales clerks don't want everyone else in the store asking for a deal too. Keep in mind that at chain stores, salespeople often don't have the power to offer a discount. Try asking a manager or supervisor instead.
Know before you go. Research prices and store policies. Bring Web printouts, flyers, and newspaper ads with you. Mention if a local competitor is selling the item for less. The store might be willing to match your best quote. If you can't get a price discount, ask for free shipping, delivery, or installation.
Learn to read the ticket. Price of inventory tags often contain date stamps that tell how long an item has been in the store, though you might need to ask a salesperson to help you find and decipher the code. Retailers are often more willing to cut the price on merchandise that has been on the sales floor for a long time.
Offer to pay cash. Merchants don't like to pay transaction fees to credit-card companies. Such fees are about 2 percent for larger retailers and as much as 8 percent for small ones.
Be prepared to walk. The most persuasive weapon you have in your haggling arsenal is your ability to walk away and spend your money someplace else.
Just about anyone who has purchased a personal computer has also gotten the pitch for adding an extended warranty. These plans typically cover repairs beyond the standard factory warranty; some also include tech support or coverage for theft or accidental damage.
Buying a computer warranty that extends tech support and repairs might make sense if you or your gift recipient still needs a lot of handholding after the free factory support expires, usually after a year. And a plan that includes theft or accidental damage might be worth considering for a portable computer you'll use a lot on the go.
Those possible exceptions aside, though, we think extended warranties for computers and other electronics items are bad investments. In past surveys, we have found that the vast majority of repairs are made while items are still covered by a factory warranty and that extended warranties typically protect, at relatively high cost, against a very low risk of a catastrophically expensive repair. And bear in mind that buying items with some credit cards extends warranties at no additional cost.
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