E-tailers top ratings for selling electronics

Electronics items are now as likely to be bought online as in walk-in stores, according to the latest Consumer Reports Annual Electronics Buying Survey. And for the third year in a row, websites received many of the top scores in CR’s Ratings of electronics retailers.
High-scoring sites included BHPhotoVideo.com, Crutchfield.com, Amazon and Newegg.com.
The top-scoring websites in the survey stood out mostly for their price and product selection. Amazon.com and Newegg.com were noted for how easy their websites were to use. The latter also received a top score on price, but charges a 15 percent restocking fee on all returned major purchases if the box is opened. BHPhotoVideo.com is worth considering for price, but it has one of the shortest return periods of any site in CR’s Ratings. Though Crutchfield.com was only average for price, it received top marks for selection and offered a strong combination of customer service and buying ease.
Independent retailers out-scored most national and regional chain stores and had especially high marks for in-person service. Among retailer chains, Apple, Ultimate Electronics and HHGregg all received top marks for customer service but were undistinguished at best when it came to price.
Whether buying online or in-store, here are tips for buying electronics items this holiday season:
— Discounting may start early. Although seasonal price-cutting on gear may have already begun, the deepest price cuts may be still to come. Last year’s best sales were on the weekend after Black Friday.
If you do buy early, check return and price-matching policies in case the price drops further or if they see something better for less later. And if you dread the crush in stores, look for deals online. Also note that respondents to CR’s Black Friday poll last year said they were just as likely to shop throughout the weekend as on the Friday.
— Weigh Web and walk-in stores. According to CR’s Annual Electronics Buying Survey, electronics items are now as likely to be bought online as in walk-in stores. Websites dominated the high-scoring retailers in its Ratings of places to buy major electronics and computers.
But the main advantage of many of the higher-rated walk-in stores — fine customer service — may be more important than ever this holiday season. The hottest products include relatively new and unfamiliar categories (tablets, smart phones, e-book readers) and technologies (3D images, touch screens) that cry out to be seen and used before purchase, preferably with some expert guidance. Retailers are ramping up demos of 3D TV displays and expanding their selection of smart phones, including models once found only in the wireless carriers’ own stores, and of devices like the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad, once available only directly from their respective manufacturers.
— Haggling works, even online. Hagglers may have a better chance of getting a break at an independent store or at a regional chain than they would at a national retailer. In CR’s survey, of those customers who asked for a better price, more than half were successful overall. Average savings were $165 for TVs and $105 for computers. Though only 2 percent of respondents dickered online, those who did were just as successful overall as the in-store negotiators.
— Warranty pitches continue. As a rule, CR thinks extended warranties are poor buys. Two of every three in-store shoppers reported efforts by sales staff to sell them an extended warranty. Overall, about one in eight in-store shoppers actually bought a warranty. However, a computer plan that extends tech support and coverage for repairs beyond the standard factory warranty may be worth considering; 30 percent of respondents who bought a computer said they also bought the extended warranty.

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