Mail-Order Shopping for Audio Equipment
If you had to write a catch phrase to
describe todays 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.
"Lets 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 dont allow it, the gear you buy
wont be covered by the manufacturers warranty. If theres any doubt in
your mind, dont hesitate to contact the manufacturer to make sure youre
dealing with an authorized dealer.
The main thing to worry about when buying mail order from a
place youre not familiar with is plain old fraud: You buy the merchandise and either
its not shipped or youre sent something damaged. The main way to protect
yourself is always to buy with a credit card. Any reasonable mail-order company wont
charge your card until the merchandise has been shipped. If you dont get what you
want and the merchant isnt helping resolve it, dont hesitate to contact your
credit-card company and let them know youre having a dispute. To really cover
yourself, you should notify the credit card in writing of whats 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 dont like it or it doesnt work the way you expected,
youre 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,
youre 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
youre buying through the mail, youre 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
youre 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.
No matter where you intend to shop, its 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 youre looking for and the site will find a list of
categories that hold something that matches. Select the categories that fit and
youll get a list of dealers and their prices. Sometimes theres an advanced
search page available that lets you narrow down what youre looking for if the main
engine provides too many entries (generally not a problem for audio equipment searches).
Lets 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. Pioneers
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:
Onkyo TX-SR500: 20 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 9 dealers, $105 to $135
Onkyo TX-SR500: 11 dealers, $268 to $300 (plus a $200
Pioneer DV-353K: 12 dealers, $105 to $130
Onkyo TX-SR500: 12 dealers, $263 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 10 dealers, $105 to $131
Onkyo TX-SR500: 10 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 4 dealers, $105 to $129
Onkyo TX-SR500: 5 dealers, $259 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 5 dealers, $109 to $150
Onkyo TX-SR500: 5 dealers, $230 to $300
Pioneer DV-353K: 3 dealers, $105 to $118
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 youve figured out exactly what the market
will bear for what youre 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 dont 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 todays 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 havent 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 manufacturers warranty. Theyre not necessarily
any more or less legitimate than some of the other people youll find on the Internet
selling these items, but the usual caveats about authorized dealers certainly apply.
Its 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." Youll 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
For all you know, that rock-bottom price you see at some
random mail-order company is because theyre 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 arent 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
dont 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, youll 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
If youre 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.
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 youll see
suggest how accurate each companys stock information is, so watch for that. The
really top-notch sites will even give estimated times when unavailable items will restock
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 isnt coming right out of
your pocket on the delivery side.
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 arent 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 vendors reputation at www.resellerratings.com.
While its hard to replace the experience you can get
shopping at a good local audio dealer by buying through the mail, if youre looking
for something that isnt 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.