Do you think it's best to buy a cell phone directly from the carrier at one of its walk-in stores? Not necessarily, according to a survey of almost 11,000 of our online subscribers conducted last year by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
People who bought a phone at some retailers unaffiliated with a carrier were at least as satisfied on average as those who bought from the carrier itself. And those who bought online at the carrier's Web site were generally at least as satisfied as those who bought at one of its stores.
Respondents gave the top-rated Apple Store especially high marks for activation and checkout, though that store sells only the iPhone, Apple's smart phone. Best Buy, the huge national electronics retailer, received top marks for phone selection and above-average scores for price and customer service. Costco and Walmart stood out for price. Costco was also praised for customer service. Satisfaction with buying from carriers tracked with what Consumer Reports online subscribers have told us in annual surveys about service from carriers. VerizonWireless.com was a standout.
Wherever you shop, you should be able to buy a phone at full price if you don't sign a service contract or at a discount if you do. We suggest buying the phone with service, since service costs the same with or without the phone discount—even though carriers dedicate a portion of each monthly bill to paying the cost of the phone.
Overall satisfaction with buying a cell phone was a bit lower than the levels our surveys have found for buying other major electronic devices. Leading complaints were long waits for help, confusing pricing, and a limited selection of phones. A reader score of 100 would mean all respondents were completely satisfied. Differences of fewer than 4 points aren't meaningful. Under Survey results, (available to subscribers) each score shows how the retailer compared with the average.