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July is prime TV-buying time — and these tips can help you beat the retailers

July is a terrible time for TV makers and retailers, but that means it's a great time for anyone buying a TV, thanks to high inventories and low store traffic. Seriously, prices on many major brand 55- and 60-inch sets have suddenly dropped a few hundred dollars, and it looks like that pricing will hold at least until the end of the month.

It's been a rough few years for TV makers, and to preserve their ever-shrinking profit margins, they've begun adopting "unilateral pricing policies," setting the absolute lowest price a dealer can sell a TV for. Samsung, Sony, LG, Toshiba and Sharp all went the UPP route, so when you spot a model on Amazon, chances are, you'll see it for the same price at Best Buy or your local independent shop (if it's still in business).

While this pricing scheme does seem to limit your need to shop around, there are lots of tricks and pitfalls that could mean another few hundred dollars of savings — or loss — depending on how you go about your purchase. For starters, there are four ways to save on a unilaterally price-fixed HDTV:

Method 1: The waiting game
The longer you hold out for a particular model, the less expensive it will be. TV manufacturers enact new dealer programs, such as instant rebates, to have lower UPP selling prices. In July and August, these limited time "programs" help them adjust inventories on models not moving as fast as forecast.

The start of the TV selling season officially begins with the opening day of the NFL football season, Sept. 5 this year. Between then and the end of the season, Super Bowl Sunday, this year on Feb. 2, is when most TV sets are sold. Generally, there aren’t as many "huge" deals during this time (with the exception of Black Friday). After the Super Bowl, there's another chance to save, before the newest models roll in and the premium pricing show up again. As long as you can bide your time, and buy during the two times of year when TV supply far exceeds demand — like right now — you can get the best deal.

Method 2: Avoid sales tax (while you still can)
If you buy a TV online from an out-of-state retailer, you generally (but not always) can avoid paying sales tax on your TV. Many states collect sales tax, but have no system for online merchants.

We do know of a few exceptions. Currently Amazon, one of the largest online TV sellers, collects sales taxes in the states of Arizona, California, Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Washington, where it has major corporate operations. Companies with an in-state presence such as Best Buy and Walmart also collect sales tax when you buy from them online. So you may have to go with a smaller retailer when you look to save money this way.

There is a bill sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives that will require collection of sales tax for these type of sales, but it has yet to come up for a vote. The point is, use this advantage while you still can.

Method 3: Check out unauthorized dealers
Yes, those shadier dealers very often promote pricing well below the official unilateral sticker. However, buying from them is fraught with risks, and requires careful attention to detail and an iron will to pull out if the deal isn't working. It doesn't hurt to have a credit card like American Express, which has a consumer protection plan, too.

Maybe you've done this before. You go to the website of an unauthorized dealer and see the hottest selling TVs at or near dealer cost — far below the unilateral pricing seen at Amazon or Best Buy. On top of that, the dealer is offering free shipping! How can these unauthorized dealers make a profit? They can’t. Instead, they try to stick you with up-sell charges like "mandatory" shipping insurance and "enhanced" delivery, because they need to buy the TV from an authorized dealer (perhaps at cost through some shady arrangement), but then make some semblance of a profit.

So why do people do it at all? If an unauthorized dealer beats an authorized dealer by $200 to $300 on a $3,400 TV, the seller will only get a few orders. But, if the price is far lower than any other seller, the dealer will get many orders. When the dealer up-sells, the consumer faces what’s known as "cognitive dissonance." This is a feeling of discomfort caused by holding two conflicting beliefs. On one hand, the buyer wants to save money and get the best price. On the other hand, folks don't like deceptive practices or the feeling of being manipulated by a salesman. Consumers will give in to the up-sell so they can still feel they got a better price than anywhere else. In a number of consumer complaints, one retailer was known to slightly reduce the initial price for upgraded shipping, or throw in an HDMI cable for "free."

Sometimes the harrowing ordeal works out, even for the customer. Because unauthorized dealers aren’t shackled by UPP agreements, they are quite willing to make the sale for less profit. Just make sure you never, ever pay with bank check or money order, even if that's part of the savings. Getting cash back if things fall apart is very challenging, and on the flip side, a credit card will protect you from charges if you never receive the merchandise.

And don't even get us started on return policies, extra-cost extended warranties and the rest.

As you can probably tell, we don't think anybody but professional-level hagglers with ironclad credit security should even bother attempting Method 3. It's mostly here as a cautionary tale, to remind you to be wary. Sometimes, the lowest price is not actually the best deal. (If you want to learn more about what to look out for with particular retailers, have a look at this HD Guru story.)

Method 4: See if you can haggle
Not every authorized retailer is totally happy about this unilateral pricing stuff. A few recent AVSForum posts mentioned select Best Buy stores will match some unauthorized online retailer pricing, while others drop the price at least a bit when confronted with the online alternatives. While some dealers' cash registers are locked out of entering any price lower than the current unified price, it appears that Best Buy’s system is not.

If you don’t want to take the risk of buying from an unauthorized dealer with deceptive practices, it's worth a try at Best Buy, or at a local dealer, to get a price match to an unauthorized dealer's price.

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