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Electronics stores

Electronics store buying guide

Last updated: October 2013

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Getting started

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 27,000 electronics shopping experiences.

Even so, you're likely to hit the mall for many electronics purchases if you're anything like the 21,000-plus consumers we surveyed, who made almost twice as many purchases at walk-in stores as they did online. That might be because retailers are going all out to keep you from browsing in their stores, then buying online, a practice called showrooming.

Best Buy stores will match prices of major online rivals, and it offers diehard online buyers reasons to stick with Best Buy. "Customers can buy at our website, then pick up in a nearby store," says spokesman Jeff Shelman. That eliminates shipping fees and puts gear in your hands quickly.

At Sears stores, associates use tablets with a shopping app to share product information, demos, and reviews with you and to check inventory. If an item is out of stock at the store, Sears will ship it free to your home. The store can also e-mail coupons, along with an electronic receipt that's much less likely to get lost than a slip of paper.

Use the following information to help you decide where to shop this season:

Online retailers

Most 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. Customer service isn't always a strong suit, though. The only Web retailer to garner a top mark for customer service was Crutchfield, which offers live chat and phone consultations with "personal advisers." Amazon.com, which accounted for three out of five online purchases made by the readers surveyed, offers lots of user reviews.

Independent local stores

For top-notch customer service, it's hard to beat independent walk-in stores, which were above par in every respect except for price, which was average. Don't let that scare you away. Our survey showed that they're more willing to bargain than the Apple Store, Best Buy, and Sears.

Warehouse stores

If it's hand-holding you want, shop elsewhere. BJ's, Costco, and Sam's Club got below-par ratings for customer service and selection. Shoppers gave them high marks for price, but the annual membership fee, generally around $50, could offset savings unless you regularly shop there.

Best Buy

You can expect quality products and average pricing and selection but less willingness to deal than at independent stores. Like some other chains, Best Buy is likely to push an extended warranty, which we think is a poor investment for most buyers.

Mass merchandisers

You shouldn't be disappointed by product quality and prices at Sears and Target, but don't expect a big selection or great customer service. Walmart was middling or worse on all attributes.

Apple stores

Apple was the only one of the 17 walk-in retail chains in the survey to match independents for customer service and product quality. It's also a great choice if you want advice or support for the life of a purchase. But both the stores (253 in the U.S., 29 in Canada) and website were judged average for selection and got the lowest marks for price, not surprising given their focus on the premium-priced Apple brand.

Office-supply chains

Staples and Office Depot were rated middling in most categories but above average for product quality. They have a limited selection of cameras, tablets, and e-readers.

   

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