OVER GADGETRY GUIDE
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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,
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
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
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