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Don't get zapped in wallet when shopping for electronics

Consumer Reports regularly survey its readers on their satisfaction with various consumer-related things. While cell phone service and computer manufacturers' technical support generally do poorly in these polls, a spring 2005 survey showed readers' satisfaction with electronics stores is comparatively high.

That's not surprising, considering the unending parade of sexy new products plus price deflation that have become the rule for this business.

But the electronics world is changing. Specialty superstores such as Best Buy and Circuit City, which became the place to buy electronics for their sweeping selection in the 1980s and 1990s, are now facing increasing competition from mass merchandisers including Target, Wal-Mart and Costco, where low price trumps service. And brand is becoming less critical, as technological improvements have enabled manufacturers to churn out low-priced copies of commodity products.

The Internet, meanwhile, has given consumers instant access to lower prices, plus all the model-specific details, specs and other info they desire. So far, though, consumers are tapping the Web primarily as a research tool, but making most of their purchases at walk-in stores.

All of this spells potential opportunity for consumers.

Here, to help you seize that opportunity, are some tips on shopping for electronics, developed from our experiences and those of CR readers:

* Research product and price. CR survey respondents did lots of research. Yet 17 percent said they had trouble finding sales help at walk-in retailers, and some 80 percent barely leaned on salespeople or leaned not at all.

While some electronics stores CR readers visited did excel in sales help -- notably, local independents, Tweeter Home Entertainment, Ritz Camera, Ultimate Electronics, RadioShack and H.H. Gregg -- Consumer Reports suggests shoppers gather product information from the Internet, by phone and in the press before setting out to shop on foot.

Shoppers are advised to narrow their prospects to two to four finalists. Jot down the brand and model names and numbers, and each one's must-have features. Then shop for price. Internet shopping "bots," which gather prices from a number of online retailers, can be a good tool. Popular bots include MySimon.com, BizRate.com, Shopping.com, NexTag.com, PriceScan.com and Shopper.cnet.com.

* Hit the pavement. More than half of all purchases by survey respondents involved browsing first at three to six walk-in and online retailers. You can save time with walk-ins by calling ahead to ask if they carry the models you seek.

While on the phone, ask for the price. Most electronics stores, mass retailers and warehouse clubs won't negotiate price, although Best Buy (among others) will match a brick-and-mortar competitor, and Circuit City will beat a local competitor by 10 percent -- assuming you can find a lower advertised price. (Most retailers charge the same minimum advertised price and offer the same manufacturer rebates.)

Walk-in stores usually won't compete with lower prices available online, though Circuit City will honor a lower price available on CircuitCity.com, which you can search right on the sales floor.

* Make the purchase. Weigh the pros and cons of buying at a walk-in vs. buying online. CR's survey respondents found greater overall satisfaction with Internet retailers than with walk-in stores. But expect trade-offs: Only two Internet outlets (Amazon.com and JR.com) received top scores for price and product selection. Warehouse clubs Costco and BJ's Wholesale received highest scores for price among walk-ins (remember to factor in membership fees), but were among the lowest scorers for selection, service and checkout speed.

Walk-in retailers have the edge in delivery and installation, CR found, especially for bulky big-screen TVs. They also offer get-it-now convenience. With online retailers, you must consider shipping and handling costs, and often wait days for delivery -- or pay more for rush.

By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.

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