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Mon, Nov 20 2006

The best places to buy stuff

Before you go shopping, here are our readers’ picks for the top sellers of home electronics, appliances, books, and more

 One of Consumer Reports’ greatest strengths is the ability to tap into experiences of hundreds of thousands of serious shoppers on subjects as diverse as restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and theme parks. Year after year, our Annual Questionnaire provides fodder for some of the best-read stories in the magazine and on our Web site, in which we rate the stores and services people rely on day-in and day-out.

Whether your priority is quality, impeccable service, rock-bottom prices, or a combination of the three, our surveys identify the merchants that that did the best job of satisfying our readers’ needs. Chances are, you’ll be happy with these, too. In most instances, the results may make you wonder why almost anyone bothers to battle traffic and crowds by driving to a mall.

For home electronics

Readers who bought electronics products online were happier than those who bought at stores.  That was the case for every product category we have data about. It proved especially true for digital cameras, audio gear, camcorders, DVD players, and digital video recorders. The top overall e-tailer was Crutchfield, closely followed by Costco.com, BuyDig.com, Amazon, Buy.com, and JR.com.  Among the brick-and-mortar stores, readers gave the nod to locally run independents, but also praised Costco, Ritz Camera, Tweeter, Ultimate Electronics, and H.H. Gregg. Each, however, had particular advantages.

• Low-price leaders: Costco.com (and Costco stores), BuyDig.com, Amazon, Buy.com, and BJ’s Wholesale.

• Widest selection: Crutchfield, BuyDig.com, Amazon, Buy.com, JR.com.

• Best stores for service and selection: Ritz Camera, Tweeter, Ultimate Electronics.

For computers

Again, Web-based retailers tended to have better prices. Amazon was the only seller to earn the highest possible rating for its prices; PC/Mac Connection, PC/Mac Mall, and TigerDirect had the broadest selection and scored better-than-average on price.

A key limitation of independent online retailers such as these is that you may not have a lot of flexibility in customizing. The best place to do that is at a manufacturer’s own Web site. Among those, Apple rated tops in our survey, with superior selection and service. Lenovo (IBM) ranked among the highest overall for Windows PCs, though Dell earned top marks for selection. Our survey respondents were less satisfied overall buying at retail stores. Most of those stores offered average prices at best and few earned high marks for their service or selection. Two exceptions: Apple’s retail stores and Micro Center.

For retailers with both Web-based and physical stores, you’re better off going online. Costco and Circuit City Web sites, for example, offered a bit better selection than their stores. One advantage of dealing with a retailer/e-tailer: You can buy the system online, then pick it up almost immediately from the store. If you’re dissatisfied with your purchase, you can also return it to the store rather than shipping it back.

For small appliances

If you’re shopping for a vacuum cleaner, blender, toaster, or food processor, you’re probably better off skipping the stores entirely and clicking on Amazon, which won praise as the single best source for small appliances, even better than independent merchants. Shopping online eliminated many of our survey respondents’ complaints about regular retailers, such as finding good help and the lack of clearly marked prices. Amazon’s prices were unbeatable, and selection and product quality top-notch.

For bargain hunters

Who can resist a bargain? At manufacturers’ outlet stores, you can realistically expect to save between 30 and 50 percent off the everyday price of clothes, leather goods, housewares, china, and other merchandise sold elsewhere. Our tests confirmed that the goods are, in fact, quite good, even if they’re not always identical to what you’ll find at department stores and boutiques. And while prices are low, they’re not always rockbottom.

The outlets that offered the best combination of value, quality, service and selection: L.L. Bean (clothes, footwear, outdoor supplies), Jockey (apparel and intimates), Lenox, Pfaltzgraff and Mikasa (tableware and housewares), Carter’s and Osh Kosh B’gosh (children’s apparel).

For books

In a recent price study, pitting major booksellers Borders and Barnes & Noble against each other as well as Amazon, Jeff Bezos' megastore was the clear winner. Amazon discounted 21 of the 23 titles we checked – including hardcovers and paperbacks, bestsellers, and lesser-known works – for total savings of 36 percent off list. Barnes & Noble’s online store, BN.com, discounted 18 titles for savings of 19 percent.  The stores themselves discounted only a few new releases and bestsellers; savings were minimal, around 5 percent. If you order through borders.com, you’ll be redirected to Amazon (which processes the orders) and pay the lower Amazon price. This time of year, book chains frequently waive shipping fees. Gift-wrapping is often free in stores, but may cost extra if you buy online. Gift cards from Borders and Barnes & Noble never expire and don’t have hidden fees. Amazon’s gift certificates become worthless after two years. In a sweeping story on buying bookstores we did several years ago, readers lauded independent sellers, largely on their strength of their knowledgeable and solicitous service. So if you need assistance, consider your local dealer.

 

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About this blog

As the holidays approach, we hope you’ll check out the Consumer Reports Shopping blog for time- and money-saving tips, and other need-to-know advice to make the season more enjoyable. The blog enables us to zero in on the latest product information, news, trends, and sales figures, and reveal what retailers and e-tailers are doing to win your business. We’ll keep you posted on critical information to help you get the best deals, and reveal key findings from our series of unique national polls on consumer shopping behavior.

About the author

Tod Marks is a senior editor at Consumer Reports, where he specializes in the retailing sector, both online and brick-and-mortar. Marks is considered Consumer Reports’ shopping “guru” -- having reported on hotels, supermarkets, bookstores, restaurants, warehouse clubs, department stores, home centers, mail order, pharmacies, Internet auctions, theme parks, and other venues. He recently wrote the magazine’s investigative report on factory outlet stores, "The Truth About Outlet Shopping,” as well as its first-ever report on hard-to-open product packaging, the “Oyster Awards.” A former newspaper reporter and editor, Marks has been with Consumer Reports for more than 17 years. During his tenure, he has written extensively about product safety, as well as everyday goods, including electronics equipment, appliances, food, and children’s products.

 

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