Make smart electronics purchases by doing advance research and planning.

By Sean Captain
Updated November 15, 2006
Justin Bernhaut

It’s hard to think clearly when you’re in a megastore surrounded by shiny new products and chatting with a salesclerk who may be either ill-informed or determined to sell you features you don’t need. Here's how to prepare.

  • Browse online product reviews. Independent review sites, like, will tell you most of what you need to know. Remember―no product is perfect, and reviewers pride themselves on pointing out flaws, however minute.
  • Try out products in stores. Websites provide the widest selection, and many, like, line up products for feature-by-feature comparison. But trying out items in person lets you find out how they really work. At cell-phone stores, you can usually make test calls to check for sound quality. And most places let you watch TVs and listen to audio systems. Bring along your favorite CD so you can judge audio equipment with material you know well.
  • Make use of salespeople. Even a great product may seem bad if it isn’t set up properly. Since you don’t have time to read the manual, ask a salesclerk to check and adjust the settings for you. Don’t assume that a TV in a store is set up right; adjustments for different times of the day and types of content (sports or movies), plus color, brightness, and detail can make all the difference. For more in-depth attention, try to shop on a weekday afternoon, when stores aren’t so crowded. At some Best Buy locations, you can make an appointment with a personal shopper, who will work with you one-on-one.
  • Consider the setting. The picture on a TV screen will look different in your home than in the glare of a warehouse’s fluorescent lighting. Try to find stores where audio and video equipment is set up in listening rooms or other environments similar to your home’s. (Smaller stores or specialty shops are often better for this.)
  • Ask about the return policy. You may not know whether you like a product until you have taken it home and used it for a while. Be sure the store allows adequate time to return an item and doesn’t impose a penalty. At Costco, for example, you can bring back most products at any time for a full refund. With most cell phones, you have at least 15 days to return it for a full refund. That gives you plenty of time not just to try out the phone but also to confirm that the wireless company provides good reception in all the places where you will be using it.

Useful Websites for Tech Shoppers

  • CNET, Reviews of digital cameras, cell phones, TVs, DVD players, and more.
  • Crutchfield Advisor, Companion site to an online electronics retailer. Provides good background information and how-to advice.
  • Digital Photography Review, Very detailed (and technical) camera news and reviews.
  • Phone Scoop, Cell-phone news and reviews.