The highest-rated electronics retailers in our annual reader survey are Web sites. Two of the chart toppers have been perennial standouts in our retailer Ratings (available to subscribers): Amazon.com and Crutchfield.com. One, B&H.com, is a newcomer.
On average, readers who bought online rated their overall satisfaction at 90 out of 100—higher than for those who bought in a store. Still, in our survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, only about one in five respondents bought online.
The reluctance to buy online might be due in part to concerns about the cost of shipping a large, heavy item or worry that delicate electronics might be damaged in transit. But many Web merchants offer free shipping, even on TVs, so you don’t have to struggle to fit a bulky carton in your car or pay a local store for delivery. And very few readers in our survey complained about shipping damage, even with big purchases.
Retailers may push high-priced accessories such as premium video cables for a TV or ultra-high-speed memory cards for a simple point-and-shoot camera. As a rule, choose regular alternatives. Those fancy versions can cost twice or more as much as standard items but aren’t likely to give you much performance benefit.
It looks like consumers will be buying fewer warranties this year to extend coverage on electronics items beyond the manufacturer’s standard term. That’s partly because of the growing awareness of just how reliable many electronics products are, said a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group.
Our repair histories confirm that repair rates are low overall, though some brands have a worse reliability record than others. But even in the unlikely event that a repair is required after the manufacturer’s warranty expires, the bill for the repair is often comparable with the typical cost of an extended warranty, our survey respondents report.
Our advice applies equally to some new extended warranties with innovative twists, including Best Buy’s Premium Black Tie plans, which add extras such as tech support and free online backup of your images with a digital-camera plan. We think you’d be better off buying those extras à la carte as you need them.
If you use certain credit cards, including American Express cards and some gold and platinum cards from other companies, you can double the manufacturer’s warranty at no cost. Some retailers might extend a warranty as well. Costco, for example, extends the manufacturer’s warranty on TVs and computers to two years from the purchase date, at no cost to you.
We’ve generally found that the lowest prices of the holiday season on flat-panel TVs and more have been offered on Black Friday and the other frantic shopping days after Thanksgiving.
But you might not want to brave the crowds to snag those bargains. Use our Ratings (available to subscribers) to help find stores that offer the best prices throughout the year.
If you do shop early for an item and the price drops later in the season, check to see whether the retailer offers a price guarantee that entitles you to a refund of the difference. Several major chains do.
It can be worth buying a “pre-owned” item if you can save 30 percent or more over buying new. Refurbs are generally items that have been returned and supposedly restored to good-as-new condition by the manufacturer, then resold by the manufacturer or through a retailer. An open-box item is a return that a retailer supposedly inspects, confirms is in working order, and then resells.
To minimize the risks, buy from a manufacturer or retailer you trust. Some well-known Web sites, including several in our Ratings (available to subscribers), now offer refurbs and open-box items. Crutchfield.com, WarehouseDeals.com, and Amazon’s “used and refurbished” Web site are among them. You might not get a warranty, especially on refurbs, but the return policy can be the same as for new items.
Though dickering over price may be more often associated with buying a car, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that about a third of shoppers tried to negotiate the price of an electronics item within the past three years. Most succeeded at least once in their efforts, and savings from their most fruitful haggling was $50 or more in most instances.
Retailers often carve out a niche that emphasizes low price, broad selection, convenience, or ultimate hand-holding, but no single merchant has it all. Minimize your frustration by shopping at a store that plays to your priorities.
In our Ratings (available to subscribers), warehouse stores such as Costco and BJ’s Wholesale stood out solely for price, so don’t shop there if you want lots of service or a wide selection. Mass merchandisers, including Wal-Mart and Sears, were middling in price, and their shopping ease and service varied from average to well below. Independent electronics stores and the best chains, all regionals, plus a manufacturer’s outlet were standouts for service but tended to be below average in price satisfaction. Office-supply chains, though respectable performers in many ways, were among the worst for their selection of items.
So once you’ve decided on your shopping priorities—low price or best selection, for example—head to the nearest retailer of that type, whether down the street or online, rather than worrying about modest differences among similar retailers.
Ads and in-store sales pitches often imply a direct relationship between high resolution and high image quality. Some top-performing TVs boast 1080p resolution, the current gold standard among high-definition video formats, and many highly rated cameras have 10 or more megapixels of resolution.
But resolution isn’t everything. Our Ratings (available to subscribers) include some high-def TVs and high-megapixel cameras that fall short in other respects, such as contrast or color. Conversely, there are models with lower resolution that manage fine performance because they ace those other attributes. So don’t buy based solely on specs.
You won’t go wrong if you buy a model that scored well in our full tests. But what about a model that isn’t in our Ratings?
Our test results can give you some guidance. Products similar to high-rated models, such as those within the same brand line, often turn out to be fine performers. For that reason, our recommendations for TVs, digital cameras, and laptops include mention of some notable newcomers, especially when they’re successors to models we recommend.
We’ve analyzed years of data about TVs to identify brands that have consistently yielded fine performers. If you buy a set from one of the brands that have a good track record, history suggests it should be a good choice.
Some models in our Ratings set a new standard for a particular attribute or for overall performance. But you’ll often pay a premium for those standouts. Models that rank a few positions lower in our Ratings often offer fine performance at a lower price. Don’t choose by rank alone; check the overall score and scores for the attributes that matter most to you.
Our rigorous tests sometimes turn up fairly subtle performance distinctions—say, between very good and excellent performance on an attribute. While those differences are evident in our side-by-side comparisons, they can be less obvious in normal, isolated use. And their importance may vary depending on how you plan to use the product. For example, the nuances that make a TV image excellent rather than very good will be more apparent when you’re watching movies or sports on a large primary set than when watching talk and news shows on a smaller set in the bedroom.