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Retail stores

Retail store buying guide

Last updated: November 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Meijer, a retailer with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., is generally credited with opening the first one-stop shopping supercenter in 1962, 26 years ahead of Walmart. Today Meijer stores sell auto supplies, clothing, electronics, furniture, groceries, sporting goods, and just about everything else.

By now, so many superstores, department stores, warehouse clubs, and online counterparts offer the same goods that it's hard to know where to shop.

To help you decide, the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed subscribers, who told us about 55,108 shopping experiences buying a range of products at Costco, JCPenney, Kmart, Kohl's, Macy's, Meijer (pronounced MY-er), Sam's Club, Sears, Target, and Walmart. For the first time, some shoppers also told us about their experiences at many of those retailers' online stores.

Whatever store you choose, try its website, too. Our respondents said the quality, selection, and value of the goods online equaled or surpassed those of store-bought purchases. Although in-person interaction is impossible on the Web, 63 percent of the online shoppers said the service they received was excellent or very good; only 47 percent of in-store shoppers rated the quality of sales help that high.

"Smart merchants not only make it easy to find products on their websites, they also provide help by phone, e-mail, or online chats," Will Ander, a senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago retail consulting company, said. All the stores in our overall satisfaction Ratings have customer service available by phone. Sears and Kmart offer website links to online customer-service chats; Macy's offers a chat link at checkout.

Readers also said that buying was easier online than in stores. Among shoppers who rated walk-in and online experiences, 81 percent said the ease of checking out online was excellent or very good; just 46 percent said the same about the speed of store checkouts. "Go into a big department store around 8 o'clock at night, and it can be difficult to find someone to check you out," Jack Abelson, a retail consultant in Leawood, Kan., said. "But you can buy online at that time, and it's quick and convenient."

The most prevalent problems walk-in customers said they faced were long checkout lines, a lack of sales help, and out-of-stock items. Twenty-nine percent said checkouts were jammed. And no chain stood out for customer service.

Shopping tips

Use bots to compare online prices

Sites like Bizrate, DealTime, MySimon, PriceGrabber, and Shopping.com spare you from having to go to dozens of stores to collect prices. They scour the Web or their own huge databases for the items you want, and then provide a list of prices and places to buy. They'll even let you set alerts that reveal when the price of an item drops. We've found that no one bot always sniffs out the best deal; check at least two. Factor in shipping costs before buying. (PriceGrabber includes shipping in its results.)

Work your apps

Some free smart-phone apps help you compare deals while you're in a store. For example, Red Laser (redlaser.com; Android, iPhones and Windows) scans barcodes and searches for the best deals online and at stores near you. Price Check by Amazon (for iPhone and Android) scans barcodes in stores and shows the Amazon price for goods sold on its site, along with customer reviews.

Red Laser and the ScanLife app (scanlife.com; for IPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows) also scan QR codes. Retailers and manufacturers use the codes for giveaways and special coupon deals. But the Better Business Bureau warns that scammers have been covering legitimate QR codes with stickers bearing codes that lead to malware sites. Before scanning a QR code, look closely to make sure it's the original.

Check daily deals

Hundreds of daily-deal sites, including Groupon and Living Social, offer discounts on goods and local services. Kohl's, Target, Meijer, and Sears also offer daily deals on their sites. Google has jumped in with Google Offers. Sign up to be notified of deals if you live in one of its metro regions, or to find out when your area is added, at google.com/offers. Warning: Don't nab more deals than you need, or you'll waste money instead of saving it. As many as one in five daily deals purchased is never used, according to the industry trackers Daily Deal Media and Yipit.

Get free shipping

If you order online, shop on sites that offer free shipping with no minimum purchase, including L.L.Bean, Nordstrom, and Zappos.com. Other chains will ship most purchases to any local store free. Find more free-shipping offers at--where else?--freeshipping.org.

   

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