GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "How To" Archives

Published January 15, 2003

 

Mail-Order Shopping for Audio Equipment

If you had to write a catch phrase to describe today’s audio buying experience, "good, fast, cheap: pick two" would certainly be in the running. It unquestionably applies to buying equipment via mail order, a business where delivery speed and price have always been linked. Luckily there are a number of Internet resources that make finding a mail-order dealer easier than ever.

"Let’s be careful out there"

First, a warning reminder: As was mentioned last month, not all audio equipment manufacturers allow their equipment to be sold via mail order. If they don’t allow it, the gear you buy won’t be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. If there’s any doubt in your mind, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer to make sure you’re dealing with an authorized dealer.

The main thing to worry about when buying mail order from a place you’re not familiar with is plain old fraud: You buy the merchandise and either it’s not shipped or you’re sent something damaged. The main way to protect yourself is always to buy with a credit card. Any reasonable mail-order company won’t charge your card until the merchandise has been shipped. If you don’t get what you want and the merchant isn’t helping resolve it, don’t hesitate to contact your credit-card company and let them know you’re having a dispute. To really cover yourself, you should notify the credit card in writing of what’s happening.

Other than simply not getting what you ordered, the main risks you run buying through the mail are straightforward. Should you have to return the product because you don’t like it or it doesn’t work the way you expected, you’re probably going to be out the return-shipping cost at a minimum, and may have to pay a restocking fee of up to 15%. If something goes wrong with your purchase, you’re probably going to deal with the manufacturer directly rather than sending it back to the store you bought it from. Almost nobody but the manufacturer actually fixes anything anymore, so this is less of a concern now than it used to be. Finally, when you’re buying through the mail, you’re probably going to get less personalized service on your order. Many of these places operate on slim margins and do so partly by cutting down on the amount of time their employees spend talking with customers.

When looking for where something is available via mail order, you can always start with a general Internet search engine, like www.google.com. Putting in what you’re thinking of buying should not only reveal places to buy it, but can also reveal reviews, customer comments, or other helpful information. This sort of thing works well if you spend some time at it, but there are easier ways to narrow the search.

Cheap

No matter where you intend to shop, it’s always nice to know what the rock-bottom price for an item is. There are a number of search engines specifically geared for providing prices. These have become more popular over the last few years. Generally, you enter what you’re looking for and the site will find a list of categories that hold something that matches. Select the categories that fit and you’ll get a list of dealers and their prices. Sometimes there’s an advanced search page available that lets you narrow down what you’re looking for if the main engine provides too many entries (generally not a problem for audio equipment searches).

Let’s pick a couple of popular pieces of equipment available now and see what the search engines come back with. The Onkyo TX-SR500 is a nice home-theater receiver worth recommending in the sub-$300 price range. Pioneer’s DV-353K is the latest release from their line of budget DVD players. These two are carried by enough mail-order companies to make a good test. Here are the useful ones I know of, sorted by how many dealers they found:

www.froogle.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 20 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 9 dealers, $105 to $135

www.pricetool.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 11 dealers, $268 to $300 (plus a $200 refurbished unit)
Pioneer DV-353K: 12 dealers, $105 to $130

www.pricegrabber.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 12 dealers, $263 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 10 dealers, $105 to $131

www.shopper.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 10 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 4 dealers, $105 to $129

www.dealtime.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 5 dealers, $259 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 5 dealers, $109 to $150

www.mysimon.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 5 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 3 dealers, $105 to $118

www.bizrate.com

Onkyo TX-SR500: 2 dealers, $280 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 5 dealers, $105 to $129

On most of these sites, you can sort the results by price. This means that in a couple of minutes you’ve figured out exactly what the market will bear for what you’re looking for. I always hit www.mysimon.com and www.shopper.com because I usually find them to include the bottom price, even if they don’t have quite as many dealers. The more extensive listings from www.pricetool.com and www.pricegrabber.com tend to include a lot more chain retailers such as Circuit City and Best Buy -- more options, but most of them are selling at or close to retail.

For some variety, here are today’s prices on www.ebay.com on our two sample items:

Onkyo TX-SR500: 7 sellers, $190 to $264
Pioneer DV-353K: 3 sellers, $115 to $120

Some of these are auctions that haven’t closed yet so the actual sale price will be higher. Before you accuse this of being a totally unfair inclusion, note that many of these eBay sellers are actually small audio dealers who are selling the equipment with the manufacturer’s warranty. They’re not necessarily any more or less legitimate than some of the other people you’ll find on the Internet selling these items, but the usual caveats about authorized dealers certainly apply.

It’s also worth mentioning www.audiogon.com, which focuses more on high-end gear than the search engines above. These listings often come from audio-only dealers trying to move merchandise, and they list a substantial amount of used equipment. www.audioreview.com has a good-sized directory of "Partner Stores." You’ll find many of the companies when you search by price, but there are also some manufacturer-direct stores listed there that are worth looking into, like subwoofer-maker Hsu. The product listings at their site include ratings by the users of the site, which might also be helpful to you.

Good

For all you know, that rock-bottom price you see at some random mail-order company is because they’re shipping you a rock instead of what you ordered. You may have noticed that many of the search engines include some rating for how the dealer is viewed by its past customers. This is vital to know, and hopefully the principles aren’t involved in any business arrangements with the companies listed that make their recommendations biased. The rating at www.bizrate.com is substantial enough to be trusted, but they don’t cover enough companies to be very helpful. Any time you find ratings, try to drill down into the details to see feedback comments from individual voters. If your experience matches mine, you’ll find some of the low-ball vendors have feedback littered with complaints, while a couple of companies are praised consistently. Companies certified from www.shopper.com actually come with a guarantee that should your purchase go awry, CNET will reimburse the amount for which you might be held liable when you dispute a credit card charge (up to $50).

If you’re really worried about someone, one option you can always consider is contacting the Better Business Bureau before you order. Once companies start messing around with their customers their BBB complaints go up quickly.

Fast

If you want your new toy in a hurry, the magic word is "in stock," usually followed by a big exclamation mark. The better on-line stores tie their ordering interface to their inventory, so you know before you place an order whether the item is actually there or not. Often, feedback comments you’ll see suggest how accurate each company’s stock information is, so watch for that. The really top-notch sites will even give estimated times when unavailable items will restock again.

Shipping and handling can add up to be a substantial overhead to your purchase. Watch out because some mail-order firms will deflate their prices a bit and make them up by including a substantial "handling" fee. You can usually figure it out by comparing shipping fees across a couple of dealers. Make sure the $10 you save switching to a cheaper source for a product isn’t coming right out of your pocket on the delivery side.

Happy

In recent years, the proliferation of companies putting their sales information on the Internet has given consumers an unprecedented view of the nationwide (and even worldwide) best deals available. The techniques suggested here for sorting through price listings certainly aren’t limited to audio equipment. For example, you can purchase computer equipment in a similar fashion by digging for low prices at www.pricewatch.com and www.shopper.com, then checking the low-price vendor’s reputation at www.resellerratings.com.

While it’s hard to replace the experience you can get shopping at a good local audio dealer by buying through the mail, if you’re looking for something that isn’t available nearby or you really are trying to save every dollar, mail order can be a satisfying way to purchase your equipment.

Note: These suggestions are intended as research tools only, not buying recommendations.


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