Online purchases of major electronic items have surged dramatically among respondents to our Annual Questionnaire, and they awarded top scores to the best Web retailers. Yet in our most recent survey, about twice as many readers bought in walk-in stores as on the Internet. Shopping at walk-in stores still has its place, notably for those who like to see products up close before they buy. And some of the better retailers in our Ratings are walk-in stores, although those standouts are mostly general retailers rather than chains that specialize in electronics.
The retailer types in this report are listed in the order in which we think most people should consider buying from them.
No other category of store can match this one for pleasing customers in almost every respect, including selection, prices, and buying ease.
The more innovative websites find ways to provide personal advice similar to what you'd get at a great walk-in store or from a chat with friends and family. Crutchfield.com, for example, includes access to advisers whom you can select by background to assist you with your order, via phone or online chat. Amazon.com offers among the largest number of user reviews for electronics products, all well organized. Several other dedicated electronics Web sites also received high scores in our Ratings.
Mom-and-pop independent stores should be your first stop if you need handholding for a major electronics purchase. With the exception of price, independents were above par in every respect.
Prices were only average at independent stores, readers said. But try negotiating; readers were more successful in getting price reductions or extras at those stores than at big chain retailers.
Don't expect a lot of selection in electronics products at a warehouse store, or much in the way of service. But prices can be right and the quality of products just fine.
Costco and Costco.com allows returns for 90 days, with few restrictions, a policy that's among the best of all the stores we rated. Both also offer free technical support on your electronics purchases.
However, unless you plan to shop there for other items throughout the year, any savings on an electronics purchase will be offset by the warehouse's annual membership fee, which is generally $50.
Major electronics chains
Electronics chains are probably still your best option when you can't wait to buy an electronics item such as an accessory. Yet our readers found the major national names to be no better than middling in most respects.
Some regional chains, however, scored better than average on most attributes.
Check prices online and try haggling to have them matched before you make a big purchase. Indeed, Best Buy has now pledged to match online prices for the 2012 holiday season, excepting November 18-26. Check return policies, which can vary a lot from store and store, and may also be longer during the holiday season than at other times.
Tip: Some chains, including Best Buy, Walmart, and Staples, allow you to order online and pick up at a store; shipping charges are then waived.
Buying major electronics at a department store or discount chain no longer necessarily requires settling for a budget brand and enduring a sales rep who doesn't know a gigabyte from a glue gun.
In recent years, electronics selection and service scores have been generally on the rise. Prices are average in satisfaction, according to readers. Target has pledged to match the prices of online competitors in November and through mid-December.
Although they're more than adequate, the chains offer little that makes them worthy of first consideration. But it might be worth a stop in their electronics department if you're already in the store shopping for other items.
Apple stores, which total more than 250 in the U.S. and Canada, emphasize customer service and sell only Apple's (generally premium-priced) products. The stylish stores do double duty as advice and support centers for Apple products and service, in which they've scored highly in our other surveys.
You might be surprised at how many electronics products are sold at chains like Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max chains. And they're generally competent, though hardly outstanding, in doing so, according to readers.
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