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Buying electronics: Big-box stores vs. online

/ Source: The Associated Press

In today’s world of mass retailers, it’s easy to assume that a big-box store like Best Buy or Wal-Mart would be the best place to buy consumer electronics.

Guess again.

A Consumer Reports reader survey suggests that shopping online might be the smarter choice.

As a group, online outlets did a better job overall than brick-and-mortar retailers of satisfying customers when it came to their purchases of televisions, digital cameras, DVD/DVR players, camcorders, handheld computers, or audio equipment, according to more than 18,700 readers surveyed in the spring.

The rankings were based on price, product selection, product quality, service, information quality and return policies.

At the top of the list:,,, J&, and

Retailers that sell both on the Web and in-store, such as Costco, Circuit City and Best Buy, scored higher marks on the Internet than at their walk-in locations.

But there are trade-offs either way.

The survey, to be published in the magazine’s December issue, found that while online outlets may have wider selections and lower prices, physical stores — namely local independent stores and smaller chain retailers, such as Tweeter Home Entertainment and Ritz Camera — offer good service.

Mass merchandisers like Target, Wal-Mart and Costco might have decent prices but they rated poorly in service and selection, the survey found.

As the holiday shopping season nears, Consumer Reports offered the following tips:

Do research beforehand. Internet retailers and manufacturer Web sites offer a plethora of product details and specifications — not to mention information that the item you were eyeing may already have its next model out, possibly with more features at only a slightly higher or even a lower price.

If talking to a real person is more your preference, Consumer Reports says you’ll probably be out of luck at places like Target or Wal-Mart, where sales staffing is minimal. Places like Tweeter, Ritz Camera, RadioShack and Ultimate Electronics were rated among the best in service.

Narrow your prospects to two to four finalists. Note the model names and numbers and the features you must have.

Shop for the best price once you know which models meet your needs. Many shopping comparison sites scour the Internet for deals, including,, and Specialty magazines for audio, video and photography also carry advertisements from smaller electronics retailers that might be able to quote you a lower price over the phone than what you see in ads.

Note, however, that online retailers don’t always have lower prices, and consumers should factor in shipping and handling costs of buying or returning an item.

Some brick-and-mortar retailers, such as Costco, have very liberal return policies.

Also, membership fees should be counted when it comes to wholesalers, like BJ’s Wholesale and Costco.

Visit a few stores to touch and examine the products first hand, but save time by calling ahead first to make sure they carry the brands and models you seek. While on the phone, ask for the price, too.

There are other factors to consider.

For delivery and installation services, walk-in stores have the edge, especially for large-screen projection TVs and wall-mount plasma or LCD screens.

If you want something immediately, you may be able to walk out with a product when you buy from a nearby store. With online retailers, you have to wait days or pay more for rush delivery.

If you’re not in a rush to buy, shop when the electronics you want tend to go on sale.

The best deals on digital cameras and camcorders are in the spring, and camcorders tend to also go on sale in winter.

You’ll find lower prices for DVD players in April and July, and lower prices on TV sets in July, November, and January, pre- and post-Super Bowl.