Image: Televisions for sale
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
Market research company iSuppli predicts that nearly 11.9 million flat panel plasma and LCD HDTVs will sell during the fourth quarter.
By
updated 12/9/2010 7:02:58 PM ET 2010-12-10T00:02:58

Buying a TV is an expensive proposition, and there is nothing worse than knowing that you've gotten a bad deal. And buying online from sites such as Amazon will usually give you the best price.

But for many people, the service angle should be just as important, or more important, than price. Brick-and-mortar stores, such as Best Buy and specialty stores, offer more options for delivery and set up — important considerations if you're not a techie or you want to wall-mount your TV.

And if something doesn't work correctly on your new TV or you simply don't like it when you get it home, which has the better return policy? Nothing will make you madder than knowing that you spent hundreds, if not thousands, on a TV that you don't want, and now you're stuck with it.

So to help give you the confidence to make the right shopping decision, we've made a list of the most important things to consider when deciding where to buy your TV, and tell you who has the advantage — online or brick-and-mortar.

1. Price
Advantage: ONLINE

On-line deals are almost always better than brick-and-mortar store price tags, often by hundreds of dollars. By checking websites like Amazon and PriceGrabber you can compare dozens of etailers' prices instantly. You can also price check many brick-and-mortar stores such as national chains (Best Buy, Wal-Mart etc.) and regional chains that have an online presence. (Their websites usually provide the same prices as in the store.)

2. Selection
Advantage: ONLINE

With the exception of a very few models that are not permitted to be sold online (i.e. Panasonic's VT25 3D TV series), the vast majority of HDTVs can be purchased using a few keystrokes. We don't know of any retailer — online or brick-and-mortar — that has the depth of brands and models like Amazon. It is truly one-stop shopping.

3. Convenience
Advantage: ONLINE

With online TV purchases you don't have to leave your home, a perfect situation for the agoraphobics out there. You also don't have to deal with sales clerks who try to pressure you into buying questionable or overpriced add-ons, such as extended warranties or power conditioners. And you'll also have a bigger selection of peripherals, like HDMI cables, at much lower prices than in stores.

4. Deciding which TV to buy
Advantage: TIE

Whether you're buying online or from a brick-and-mortar, you should read reviews from both expert sites, such as ours, and actual customer ratings on Amazon. You can also go into an actual brick-and-mortar store to look at the sets in person, but there is limited value in doing that. Except in specialty locations, like Best Buy's Magnolia or boutique home theater dealers, the TVs will almost certainly be mis-calibrated and the lighting poorly designed for comparing picture quality. Worse, many of the salespeople in brick-and-mortar stores simply don't know what they're talking about.

So do your research on TVs in both places, but don't let that be the deciding factor of where you're going to ultimately buy.

5. Setting up Your New TV
Advantage: BRICK-AND-MORTAR

If you have never owned an flat-panel HDTV and don't know anyone that knows about stand assembly, connection to sources and configuring picture and network settings, you may find buying one online fraught with challenges.

Often the table stand must be assembled and mounted to the TV. It's not very difficult, typically requiring attaching eight supplied screws, but requires at least two people for a 42-incher and three for a larger flat panel. Do you have people that are available and able to lift and hold the TV to attach it to the stand? If not, you would need special delivery that includes this service or consider a purchase from a brick-and-mortar retailer. And if you're going to be wall-mounting your TV, you better be comfortable using a stud finder and power drill if you're going the online route.

We have a whole article dedicated to connecting a new HDTV to a cable box, satellite receiver, disc player or digital media player. All these sources need an HDMI cable, and you will also need either a wired or wireless Internet connection to take advantage of the apps built into many of the newest TVs. If any of these concepts make you feel uncomfortable, buying from a brick-and-mortar may be for you.

Best Buy has its own Geek Squad. They currently offer Premium Delivery for free (normally $99.99) with a TV purchase greater than $999. It consists of delivery, unpacking, table stand attachment and connection to one source component. And for $149.99 Geek Squad provides "Whole Room Service," which consists of all the above plus connection of up to seven source components, a surround sound system, basic remote control set-up and system operating instructions.

Best Buy's Geek Squad services are also available if you purchased your TV elsewhere, even online, though they may not be as familiar with your equipment if it's not a brand stocked by Best Buy. And if something isn't working, you may get finger pointing between the online seller and your setup service over who is at fault.

Beware of brick-and-mortars that contract with third-parties for set-up services. We've seen poor results and flat-out incompetence from these guys.

Most independent specialty stores offer their own custom installation crews that do it all, from simple to complex installations including custom in-wall wiring. With the selling dealer doing the install, there can be no finger pointing. Discuss and agree upon the cost of installation at the time of purchase, never afterward. Some companies' price out jobs with flat rates by the work involved such as wall mounting an HDTV. Others will give a written estimate for the entire job. The selling dealer should provide a maximum cost within 10 percent of the estimated cost (assuming the you don't make changes).

6. Shipping
Advantage: BRICK-AND-MORTAR

We've seen online retailers charging $200 or more to ship an HDTV. And even then, it may just be "curbside”, which is exactly what it sounds like — they deliver it to the curb and then it's your job to haul it into the house. Though some online retailers, like Amazon, ship for free. On the other hand, Best Buy's free (with the purchase of an HDTV greater than $999) "Premium Delivery” service even includes basic set up.

7. Returns
Advantage: BRICK-AND-MORTAR

Unless the retailer is also setting up your TV, you won't be able to inspect it to ensure it is functioning properly before the driver leaves your home. If not, what happens if there is hidden damage? If the TV will be a gift, and isn't opened until Christmas day, will the seller claim you took too long to report damage? And what if you simply don't like the way the set performs or you realize that it is too small/big for your room?

Circuit City, now an online seller, charges a whopping 25 percent restocking fee, and most online sellers don't allow returns at all unless the TV is defective. Some don't allow returns even if it is defective. Yikes!

Amazon is one of the few online exceptions. It charges nothing on TVs bought directly from them (not another retailer in the Amazon Marketplace) as long as it is returned within 30 days. And for the holidays, you can return it any time before Jan. 31, 2011 if shipped between now and Dec. 31, 2010. Follow the guidelines and you pay nothing  for the return shipping costs either.

Some brick-and-mortars tend to have liberal return policies. Best Buy allows returns within 30 days for any reason on HDTVs. (Note: They deduct a 15 percent restocking charge for opened notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, GPS navigation and in-car video systems.) Costco allows up to 90 days from purchase. You're still responsible for getting the TV back to the store, though.

Wherever you shop, always check the return policies before you buy. And if you're not comfortable with them, shop elsewhere. You can learn how to negotiate with brick-and-mortar stores here.

Have a question for the HD Guru? Send him an e-mail. Or just read some more of his great advice:

© 2012 HDGuru.com. All rights reserved

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments