If you're buying anything from a tablet to a big-screen TV this holiday season, your best bet might be shopping online. In recent years, the Consumer Reports readers we've surveyed who shopped online were more satisfied overall than those who shopped at a walk-in store. In fact, websites as a whole outdid walk-in stores for quality, selection, and price in this year's poll, based on more than 42,000 electronics shopping experiences at 20 walk-in stores, 14 online retailers, independent stores, and websites.
Even so, you're likely to hit the mall for many electronics purchases if you're anything like the 27,000-plus consumers we surveyed. More than 60 percent of the electronics purchases in our survey were made at walk-in stores, and customers were very satisfied with the experience overall. In fact, the best scores scored as well as the top websites.
Use the following information to help you decide where to shop this season:
Most online retailers have a wide selection of products and attractive prices, and you don't have to put up with crowded aisles and long checkout lines, as you might at a walk-in store. Four online retailers earned favorable marks across the board for the third time in the past four years: B&H, Crutchfield, Amazon.com (which accounted for four out of 10 online purchases made by the readers surveyed) and Newegg. B&H was the only e-tailers to get a top score on all factors, including service, selection, and price. The Apple, Costco, and Sam's Clubs websites were all near the top of the Ratings, but Apple got a below-average rating for price, and Costco and Sam's were judged below average for product selection.
Best walk-in stores
Two of the stores that scored highest are available only to certain shoppers: Go, Navy! The Navy Exchange and The Army & Air Force Exchange. Abt Electronics, a major retailer with one store in the Chicago area, also earned high marks across the board. Two widely available retailers, Costco and Apple, were near the top, but like their online siblings, each had one below-average score--Costco for selection and Apple for price, not surprising given its focus on the premium-priced Apple brand. With Costco and other warehouse clubs, the annual membership fee, generally around $50, could offset savings unless you regularly shop there.
Bargaining pays off
Whether you're clicking around the Web or roaming through a store, it's worth asking for a lower price when you're ready to check out. Only 15 percent of in-store shoppers surveyed tried to negotiate, but the majority of those who did were successful--59 percent got a price reduction averaging $72. Readers were especially willing to go to the mat on TVs, with 21 percent of TV buyers asking for a discount, and close to 70 percent of them getting one, saving an average of $94 on a set. Few online shoppers negotiated, but most of those who did succeeded, using phone, online chat, or e-mail. You don't have to do anything crazy to get a deal. Simply asking for a lower price paid off more than half of the time for survey respondents who tried it. If that doesn't work, threaten to shop elsewhere, a tactic that proved highly effective for in-store hagglers. One piece of advice: Come armed with prices from competitors. Retailers will often match the best price you've found.
Don't get the warranty
Retailers make a lot of profit on extended warranties, so brace yourself for a sales pitch. Almost three out of four in-store shoppers were pushed to buy an extended warranty, and 16 percent of them bought one, as did 12 percent of online buyers. Don't bite. Our reader surveys have shown time and again that extended warranties are not a good deal for most consumers. Many products are reliable and don't break during the period covered, and the plans cost as much as you'd pay for a repair that might never be required. One exception: It's worth considering Apple's extended warranty/service plan if you want phone or online support for more than the standard 90 days. Apple consistently stands out in our surveys for offering the best computer tech support in the business.