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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/10/2007 1:38:28 PM ET 2007-10-10T17:38:28

Here’s some good news for everyone who has electronics on their holiday shopping list. Chances are you’ll have a pleasant experience looking for that MP3 player, flat screen television, or computer – especially if you shop online.

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In its November issue, Consumer Reports says shoppers are “very satisfied” buying electronics, “more so than for most other services we regularly cover.” For most electronics purchases shopping online rated higher than going to a brick and mortar store.

The results are based on responses from more than 20,000 Consumer Reports readers who recently bought a TV, digital camera, camcorder, DVD machine, PDA, or audio equipment.

Anthony Giorgianni, the magazine’s associate finance editor, tells me he was surprised that so many readers preferred shopping online for electronics.

“We thought that people might have concerns about delivery when it came to things like big screen TVs. And believe it or not, they didn’t,” Giorgianni says. “It means that you really can shop online and get satisfaction.”

Why buy electronics online?
Other than books, Todd Farrar of Seattle normally doesn’t buy a lot of things online. But he recently ordered two keyboards from Costco.com and was glad he did. Farrar says the price was “great” and the site was “easy to use.”

Millions of people are now buying electronics online. And based on Consumer Reports survey, most of them are happy they shopped this way. Why?

Because the Web offers something no walk-in store can match – price, selection, service, and detailed product information. It’s just so easy to research products and comparison shop online.

Plus, at a virtual store you won’t have to put up with what Consumer Reports calls “a prime irritant” of in-store electronics shopping: the pitch to buy an extended warranty.

Giorgianni tells me you are three times more likely to buy an extended warranty if you shop at a walk-in store. He says that indicates “the kind of pressure” often used to push these service contracts. Consumer experts recommend against buying extended warranties for most products.

And the winners are
Both of the top-rated electronics stores in the Consumer Reports survey are e-tailers: Crutchfield.com and Amazon.com. Costco.com, which was number three, rated average for customer service.

Amazon was the online price leader. Crutchfield rated higher for service; something it actively promotes. You can e-mail questions to Crutchfield’s customer support team or call a toll-free number to talk to a sales advisor. The site is loaded with great information, including how-to installation videos and hundreds of “learn about” articles on everything from home theater to satellite radio.

Both Crutchfield and Amazon get high marks for the quality of their sites, the selection of merchandise, and their customer-friendly return policies. Consumer Reports notes that Amazon is one of the few top-scoring Web sites that will let you return any computer it sells. Remember: the third-party merchants that sell on Amazon have their own return policies, which may be less impressive.

For walk-in stores, local independent retailers rated the highest. They offer great customer service, but their prices tend to be higher and the selection may be a bit limited.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing and you need some assistance, that’s probably the place to go,” Giorgianni says.

The top-rated chain, Tweeter, has 100 stores in 17 states, mostly along the east coast. Costco was next. While Costco got top marks for price, it rated well-below average for selection and customer service.

The selection of electronics at Costco is “sort of dismal compared to everyone else,” Giorgianni points out, “but the prices were great.” No surprise to anyone who shops this warehouse store.

“If you get in there and they have what you need, you’ll do great by shopping at Costco from a price standpoint,” he says.

Be a smart shopper
Whether you shop online or at a retail store, you need to do your homework. You want to be sure that you are buying a reliable product at a good price from a reputable merchant.

Take the time to check product reviews. Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, is a big believer in online reviews because they let you find out if people who bought the item like it.

“These product reviews from past purchasers are often more helpful in making your buying decision than a professional review would be,” Dworsky says.

You need to look carefully to see exactly what you are getting. If the price is unusually low, it could be a used, refurbished, or gray market product.

Gray market goods are not meant to be sold in the U.S. and therefore are not covered under the manufacturer’s warranty.

Refurbished (or reconditioned) products may have a shorter warranty than a new item. “Some reconditioned products only come with a 30-day or 90-day warranty,” Dworsky says, “which for a major purchase may not be enough to give you some reassurance if you have a problem.”

WARNING: Beware of ridiculously low prices. Some disreputable online merchants advertise super-low prices that are only available if you buy costly add-ons, such as a camera case or video cables, things that are normally included in the original price at other retailers.

My two cents
For some things, such as televisions and audio equipment, you might feel more comfortable going to a store to see and hear various models. I know I do. I like talking to a knowledgeable salesperson who can help me compare products and features.

Retailers tell me many people do this and then buy the product online from another store. In my book, that’s wrong. If the store’s price is significantly higher than what you could get online, you should at least ask the salesperson if that price is negotiable.

About a third of the shoppers taking part in Consumer Reports survey said they’d haggled on the price of an electronics item in the last three years. Most reported they were successful at getting a lower price at least once.

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