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Retailer Reviews - personal experiences with online shopping

I do a lot of my shopping on the web, and since you're reading this page, chances are pretty good that you do too.

I'm often surprised by how hard it can be to buy something, whether it's because the online storefront has a shopping cart system dedicated to delivering only internal server errors, or the merchant in question advertises one price, but wants to charge another, or by the time you get to the final checkout step, the retailer slips in a shipping and handling charge that's high enough to cover not merely the actual shipping rate, but the cost of a whole new delivery truck.

These are my notes on sites I've bought computer, electronic, and video equipment from and what I thought of the experience. Your milage may vary, no warranty is expressed or implied for the comments that follow, especially if the retailer in question was bought out by another one the following week.

Price Comparison Engines
  • PriceWatch [ ]

    Pricewatch is my starting point for all things computerish, and it still keeps getting better. The two biggest problems I have with it are the constant efforts of some of the merchants they track to "pollute" searches and categories by loading up their product listings with the names of other, sometimes unrelated, products and/or placing their products into categories where they don't belong. Despite this, it's still the fastest way I know of to locate the best prices on commodity computer components such as hard drives, memory, CPUs, and motherboards.

  • StreetPrices [ ]

    StreetPrices gets my number two pick for locating computer parts, and they've got a more complex organization of heirarchical categories that sometimes makes it easier to locate a more unusual or specific part...and sometimes doesn't. They do a lot better than Pricewatch when it comes to products other than computers such as home electronics and video equipment.

  • PriceScan [ ]

    Pricescan gets the nod for consistently coming up with the best prices for cameras, camcorders, and other home video equipment. (Their coverage of professional gear is a lot spottier.) The biggest warning, however, is that they do have the highest proportion of dealers who list low, low prices but refuse to honor them, attach absurdly high "shipping and handling" fees, or suddenly discover that they're "out of stock" on any item you don't purchase an extended warranty for.

  • PriceGrabber [ ]
  • DealTime [ ]
  • Yahoo! Shopping [ ]
  • PriceCompare [ ]
  • SmartShop [ ]
  • AnyTitle [ ]
  • mySimon [ ]

    I've never ended up locating the best price on any hardware, computer or otherwise, through any of these, but they're all pretty good when it comes to comparing prices on DVDs and VHS movies. Which one is the best? I haven't figured that one out yet: how well they do seems to change about twice a day.

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Computers - components and systems Cameras and Video Equipment
  • B & H Photo Video [ ]

    Broad-line retailer of all kinds of camera and video equipment; usually not the best price, but not the worst either, and a lot of parts that can be hard to find anywhere else. Check out their used, demo, and open box sections--there have been a couple of times when I'd been looking for a specific oddball item and it just happened to be in their markdown section and pretty darned cheap. I may have just been lucky, but you could be too.

  • Adorama [ ]

    I've picked up a few harder-to-find digital camera accessories and optics from this company; the prices seemed reasonable and I've had no problems with my orders.

  • Buy.Com [ ]

    Lots of electronics, especially home theater and video stuff. Not usually the best prices around, but sometimes pretty close and every once in a while they'll have a special sale that puts them in the lead price-wise. Decent prices on DVDs and CDs too. Fast delivery and no hugely inflated fees.

  • eCost [ ]

    I've often found eCost to have the best prices on consumer VCRs and miniDV tapes. They have this odd "countdown" section with a list of popular items, each listed with one to thirty units remaining and some number of hours to go, urging you to buy them before they're all gone or the time runs out. When they run out or the time's up, they just start over, so it's not really a limited-time offer. There's usually something at a decent price on the countdown list (and usually several items that are not much of a bargain) but you can only get one item off the list per order; if you try to get more than one, it sometimes messes up the shopping cart function and you have to start over with an empty cart.

    eCost advertises "free shipping" on orders over a certain amount, typically $250 or $500. While that sounds great, "free shipping" doesn't actually mean that the shipping is free. For example, I ordered $250 worth of miniDV tapes--which is not a large box at all--and at the very end of placing the order, a $10 "handling fee" leaps into the shopping cart. Since my order was being shipped UPS ground, it probably was less than $10 in actual shipping charges.

  • Sharper Digital [ ]

    One of the most creative sites around in the "piling on of extra fees" category. I tried buying a consumer-model VCR from them (10.8 pounds, according to the manufacturer) and when I placed the order online, it popped up with a $42 shipping charge for UPS ground. That's more than a little exaggerated, but, even with that added, it was still cheaper than buying it in my local electronics store.

    ...then, two days later, a salesperson called and pushed (hard) for me to get their extended warranty. After I declined, he told me that there would be an additional $40 "overweight package" fee, because he claimed that this ten-pound VCR exceeded UPS' weight limits. Before he got to telling me any of the rest of the fees they were going to add onto the amount shown on the order, I told him to cancel it; by that point it was cheaper to buy it in town.

  • A & M Photo World [ ]

    They claim to have good prices, but I've never successfully ordered anything because they turn out to be "out of stock" on advertised items if I don't buy the extended warranty.

  • Broadway Photo [ ]

    Same here. The prices may look good, but when I decline to get the extended warranty, its "out of stock."

  • Thomas Distributing [ ]

    Seeking the Secret of NiMH? Here's where I get mine; they don't have much besides rechargeable batteries, but they've got a lot of those--and you know that's one thing you can never have too many of.

  • BatterySpace [ ]

    This is now my new favorite source for AA and AAA NiMH batteries. Great quality, even better prices, especially in quantity. Not the place to go for one or two cells--or for anything nonstandard--but if you want few dozen or a few hundred, this is the place.

    Two warnings, though--their "powerizer" AA batteries are physically slightly larger than standard AA batteries, so they can make for a tight fit, and their 10-cell "smart chargers" take three times as long to charge batteries as any other charger I've ever used, and they run hot and smell funny. No explosions, however, at least not so far.

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