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An Introduction to Buying Consumer Electronics

You've put up with it, and put it off, long enough. That old 21 inch TV just has to go. Last night, you were watching "Batman Forever" and the Caped Crusader's Cowl curled left at the top making him look like he'd spent too much time outdoors, enjoying Hurricane Clyde.

So you pull out the daily newspaper and open it to Whacko Willie's Discount Audio/Video ad. And there are hundreds of little pictures describing everything from TV's to bulk floppy disk, but clearly promising you the sun and the moon if you choose to leave a few (and only a few - 'cause they'll beat all the competitors' prices!) dollars in their tills.

It gets worse. You gingerly creep through the anti-shoplifting sensors into Willie's Garden of Bedlam and are faced with walls upon walls of screeching and woofing and tweeting toys. Bells and whistles start going off in your head and a funny look comes over your face.

A salesperson, seeing the telltale look that makes his wallet swell with pride, approaches.

No, it's not the beginning of an Outer Limits episode; it's what happens to a lot of people when they decide to get some new electronic gadget. But it doesn't have to, as long as you do a little homework before you head storeward.

Here, TechnoFILE will give you a few hints on how, and where, to buy.

Pre-purchase Checkout…

When you know what you want, be it CD player, personal computer, TV, or whatever, figure out how much you have to spend. You can get really good bang for your buck these days, fortunately, so a small budget doesn't necessarily mean you'll have to do without. You won't get all the esoteric features, and your unit may be a touch more - shall we say, economically - built than a higher end piece, but you'll be surprised how much you really can afford.

That said, always have a "margin of lust" so you can afford to cough up a little extra cash for that really nice piece you didn't know existed before you visited the store, but which has your name written all over it. Say ten or fifteen percent above or below your budget (below, because thanks to sales and competition you can quite often get more than you thought for your dollars) to give you some elbow room.

Try to figure out the main features you want. Just a guideline, and keep to the major features; you'll probably end up with more stuff than you'll ever use anyway. Not only that, but sometimes salespeople will ping pong you between two virtually identical machines that only have a slight, and probably meaningless, difference between them, like 20 radio presets as compared with 30. That way they keep you thinking about choosing "Receiver A or Receiver B" instead of "Whacky Willie's or the Video Emporium," thereby ensuring their children remain shod.

After all, chances are that once you've been home with your new receiver for a while, you'll discover you only ever use a half dozen of the presets. There's just not that much good programming around…

Check out the individual buyers' guides for a look at some of the most important features.

Okay, you know what you want and how much you'll spend. Where do you go to make your purchase?

Come Into My Parlor…

You can actually have a satisfactory buying experience at any of the various types of retailers, but you should go into the process knowing where their various strengths and weaknesses lie.

  • The Little Guys. These are the small, local stores that are often owned by people who love the stuff they sell (as opposed to those who see customers coming through the turnstile as walking wallets). You may be quoted a higher initial price for the same product, but competition being what it is they'll generally do the best they can to match the bulk retailers. What they may lack in price or selection, however, they usually make up for in product knowledge and after sale service and many even have their own, on site repair depot. These are also good places to go to get product information (realizing, of course, that they still have a vested interest in presenting the brands they carry), but it's not fair to jerk them around. By this, we mean that if you're going to pick the little guy's brains, you should do your best to make your purchase there, too, all things being equal. These are also generally the best places to go if you're looking for high end or unusual products.
  • The Giants. Department stores like Sears usually have an electronics section. Some of them even carry a reasonable selection of brand name equipment. They're about as price competitive as the Little Guys, though they also have sales and promotions and sometimes you can get 'em to match competitors' prices. They're also generally pretty good with after sale service and will usually bend over backwards to satisfy you. Be careful about comparison shopping these places; sometimes the manufacturers make special models (or at least special model numbers) to make them look like they're made exclusively for the retailer. That's not necessarily bad, but it can be confusing if you're looking for a XYZ 110CS and they have an XYZ 112CS instead. In this situation, be guided by comparing features and price, not model number.
  • The "Superstores." These places usually look junky and are noisy and sometimes you have to beat the salespeople off with a stick. They're also lousy places to demo equipment, especially audio equipment (which can't be heard over the din). You sometimes don't get a good idea of a TV's true quality, either, because that huge wall of screens can all be fed from one cable outlet, which is a recipe for disaster. Product knowledge sometimes takes a back seat to product hype and pressure, too. Be wary of after sale service, too, 'cause you're just a number to these places and chances are they won't remember you unless you dropped many kilobucks there. They're also so busy your service problem can get lost in the shuffle. Despite that, however, they usually offer a good selection of models and brands and you really can get a good deal if price is your primary consideration. They're also good places to pick up consumables, like blank tape and disks and accessories. You can probably include the 'warehouse' outlets here, like the "price clubs" though they sell everything under the sun and the staff probably knows nothing about anything. Still, some good bargains are to be had, as long as you don't mind packing that 53 inch TV home on your back.
  • The "Junior Department Stores." These are the Kmarts of the world and are generally good places to avoid if you're looking for anything other than a clock radio or a throwaway stereo or video. Couple this with a staff that's more interested in talking on the phone than boning up on their product line (which, given minimum wages these days, is probably understandable), and you have a good chance of buying a product whose ultimate resting place will be a landfill. Okay, that's probably an overstatement, but this type of store is not the first place one should look if you're serious about your equipment.
  • The Mail Order Catalogue. Good for prices, but a very difficult way to audition product. It helps if you know what you want. Don't forget shipping charges, either, especially if something goes wonky and you have to send it back for service.

    The Dicker Factor:

    Money being what it is, money talks. Cash talks loudest, 'cause it's immediate and it warms the hearts of all whose palms it crosses. So cash is your best bet if you're dealing. A major credit card's pretty good, but dealers can get dinged a percentage off the top for accepting them (banks being such philanthropic enterprises), so remember a credit purchase is already discounted - just not to you.

    Markups on electronics these days can be pretty slim, so even waving cash under a salesperson's nose won't get you a magical 50 per cent off, except under the most unusual circumstances (like a going out of business sale or maybe a clearance of old stock). Some places don't allow their staff to dicker, either, but you never know until you try.

    No Interest sales and promotions like that can get you easily into your dream equipment at a payment you can afford, but remember that somebody's paying for that special deal and it ain't the dealer, the manufacturer, or the bank. That leaves you. The interest (or whatever's being offered) is built into the price at the start and we're willing to bet the salesperson won't be smiling nearly as widely if you try dickering at a promotion.

    Of course there are exceptions to every rule and you should always try to get the best deal for yourself. Just remember that you will never get something for nothing. Also remember that these dealers have to eat, too, so don't expect anything more than a fair and equitable deal.

    Suggested List Prices are basically meaningless these days, except as places from which to start (and to compare models and brands). Use price quotes in magazines (including this one) as guides only.

    Whither Murphy's Law?

    Today's electronics are built as cheaply as possible for the most part. However, since so much consists of solid state components and microchips, chances are it'll never need service. That said, however, the complex nature of today's equipment means if it does decide to develop a mild flutter, it could the devil's own work tracking it down. This means it could be expensive if it's off warranty (and when else would it break down, right?).

    Fortunately, so much is modular it may be quicker and easier just to throw away the chunk of component that's causing the problem and replace it. And, since prices plummet steadily, the replacement part may be cheaper than the original by the time you need it. If you bought a $200 14.4K fax/modem that's gone awry, for example, to replace it now it requires hardly more than the purchase of a box of corn flakes. If your 5 year old VCR bites the dust in a serious manner, throw it away; the new ones are about as cheap as the repairs on your old one.

    Forget about extended warranties, too. They're a cash cow for the retailer (and the warranty company) and you'll probably never need it. And even if you do, chances are the fine print will exclude exactly the part that broke on your equipment. Better to use one of those credit cards that doubles the manufacturer's warranty if you're worried about the longevity of your product.

    If you do need service, the first place to try is the dealer from whom you bought it. If they're no good, find out who the authorized service depot is and go there yourself. The dealer will usually tell you; so will the Yellow Pages.

    If you can't get no satisfaction (to borrow a line), don't hesitate to write the manufacturer. They generally care very much about satisfying their customers, correctly realizing that one angry customer translates to ten lost sales as that person warns friends and family against the brand. This is a last resort, of course, but a good one.

    One word on behalf of dealers. It's not nice to buy from Whacky Willie's and then, when it breaks, take it to "The Boutique of HiFi" because they're known for their customer relations and product knowledge. If you didn't shop at the Boutique you're not their customer and are unfairly abusing them. Fair's fair, after all. If the dealer has its own depot, this doesn't neccearily apply because they have a chance to make a few bucks off the labour charges, which can take away some of the sting of not having made the sale.

    Now, on to the equipment itself...




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January 31, 2006