I'm a cheapskate. I delight in buying something for the absolute lowest price you can find anywhere. There is a logical reason for careful shopping: nobody likes to waste money. I refine the process of shopping to a fine edge; a primeval instinct sets in.
Before I begin, let me clarify that this procedure has little to do with the art of bargaining. Although there are some occasions where the price is adjustable, most of the time the salesperson has no control over the price. What we are hunting for is the best "published price."
Although the procedures in this article work well for easily defined quantities such as camcorders, digital cameras, VCRS, monitors, some editing equipment, and even automobiles, the technique is harder to apply when the product has many variations, such as a computer. A computer consists of a dozen or so individual components, and unless you are familiar with each of the components, you could end up with a really low priced computer filled with last year's circuits, off-brand hard drives, slow RAM, and other junky parts. Camcorders and digital cameras, on the other hand, are easier to define. One JVC GR-DV3000U camcorder has the same parts as every other JVC GR-DV3000U.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Being a cheapskate takes a lot of work. You have to know exactly what you want. If you haven't done your research, you might as well blindfold yourself and run with the bulls in Pamplona. Unless you have a relationship with the salesperson where you know and trust each other, you are in danger of being trampled.
Start by spending a few minutes quietly thinking about how you are going to use this gadget. If you are going to use it professionally, then it needs to be a top-of-the-line model. If the item is to be taken on frequent vacations, maybe you want the smallest, lightest model available. Occasional, casual use may call for a cheap, no-frills model. Does it need to be super simple for Aunt Butterfingers, or does it need a lot of features for Techno Tony?
Next step: Find out what models are available and read their reviews. You can do this by going through back issues of C&CTV, or going to the library to read Consumer Reports. The larger bookstores often have quarterly reviews of popular video and camera equipment. Reviews are also available on the internet. When reading reviews, beware: How reliable is the reviewer? Some magazines base their reputation on printing honest reviews. Others, sway their reviews to please advertisers (the literary equivalent of Enron). Reviews are a little less reliable on the internet because the site is usually trying to sell you something directly. When reading reviews, use your common sense: If the review looks like an advertisement with only glowing things to say about the product, it is probably not objective.
Two things will happen to you as you study the products: You will get more confused because there are so many products out there, and you will become less confused as models and features start to gel in your mind. It is now time to start taking serious notes.
Create an informal spreadsheet. Across the top list all of the features that are important to you. Down the left column, list the manufacturer and model of each of the products you want to study. As you read, you are going to be doing two things:
1. As you study each model, mark the features on the spreadsheet.
2. Check the review to see if the device is praiseworthy.
Reviews, like employment recommendations, are seldom negative; what you are really trying to do is to find out if there is some flaw listed in the review that you simply cannot live with. Perhaps the product is incompatible with equipment you already have. Perhaps the buttons or the LCD viewfinder are too small or the battery doesn't last very long or you have to take it off the tripod to insert the tape, or your fingers rub against the microphone when you manually focus. These are the kinds of things that show up in the review and may allow you to cross some models off your list.
During this review process, keep notes about what accessories are included with the product; you will need this information later.
Early in your research, you will notice that top-of-the-line equipment costs more than no-frills equipment. A $3399 Canon XL1-S camcorder may have wonderful features, and get stunning reviews from everyone. You can never expect to buy it for the same price as a Sony CCD-TRV67 which sells for about $400. Although you can always expect to get something off the MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) top-of-the-line stuff will never sell for bargain basement prices (and if it does, you should become suspicious).
NARROWING THE SEARCH
When you finish your research, you should be able to narrow your list to three brand/models and study those three in detail. Know what accessories are included and what extra accessories you may want to buy, and the price of those accessories. You may find that one camera includes an accessory that another camera charges extra for. You will have to add these extras into the price when comparison shopping.
You will find that when you look at your spreadsheet, that not all models have the same features, forcing you to compare apples with oranges. For example: Last year I wanted to buy a 3.3 megapixel digital camera. I narrowed the list down to models that received good reviews, gave 200+ shots per battery charge, had 16MB memory included, and had a good manual, video out, 3X or better zoom, USB support (to connect with my computer), internal flash, and sported a reasonable price. I narrowed the decision down to the Canon G1 and the Nikon Coolpix 995. (The Canon G2 with 4 megapixels had come to market, but the price was still $900. The G1 and 995 used to be $999 but had been on the market long enough to drop to $650 on the net ($800 in the stores).
The decision between the G1 and the 995 was very close. The 995 had a stronger flash (22 feet versus the G1's 15 feet). The 995 had an actual distance readout (versus a meaningless bar graph on the G1), had a built-in macro focusing to 2 cm (versus 6 cm), and neat feature "Best Shot Selector" that rapid fires several shots and picks the sharpest to store to memory. G1, on the other hand, included an AC adapter (the 995 had it optional), shot at 50 ISO speed (providing smoother pictures than the Nikon's 100 ISO), had an autofocus illumination lamp to help the camera focus when shooting in low light, and recorded audio and video clips (the 995 recorded video only), and included an infrared remote control. For me, the 995 won by a hair because the macro lens capability was more important to me than autofocus in dim light. A person who doesn't take many close-ups but does take many pictures of their children in bed, may find autofocus in dim light to be more important than the close-up capability. Indeed, one could buy a close-up lens adapter for the G1, but that would add $70 to the cost.
The last step in doing your research is to go out to the local camera or video store and try out the finalists. Important: Don't get ahead of yourself; you aren't buying anything. You are just trying it out. Hold the equipment in your hand to see if it feels too heavy or junky or the buttons are hard to reach or the LCD is too small to see or the menus are too complicated to follow. If you can, see what kind of pictures the camera takes. This process may help you narrow your list of finalists even further, maybe down to one.
You've narrowed yourself down to two or three models and you know their relative MSRP, so you have a starting point to measure how much of a "deal" you are getting. You have made a list of accessories that are included with the device and added to the list any optional accessories you feel are needed and added the cost of them to the total.
The first place to start shopping is the local newspapers. Usually they will be loaded with ads, but rarely will they offer deals on the latest, best, hottest new items, the ones that smart consumers really want. It is logical that stores have no trouble selling highly-rated, popular items and will discount only the slow moving, less desirable items. Thus the ads you see most likely will not be for the best models or will be old models. Occasionally the stores will sell the product without accessories, charging you extra for the battery or the battery charger.
There is a slim chance that the exact product you want is available right around the corner. The benefits of buying of locally:
1. You can try the product out.
2. You don't have to pay postage.
3. You don't have to wait for the item to arrive.
4. You can usually bring the item back (and you don't have to pay postage in that direction).
5. If you know your dealer and he/she is competent, you may get some good advice.
Beware of return limitations: The store may not give you a refund insisting on an in-store credit. This is not a problem if the item you purchased was defective from the start, and you were replacing it with another copy of the same thing. It could be a problem if you discover that the product, after you have used it a few days, is unsatisfactory, and the store doesn't have another model available that suits you. Also, make sure the store doesn't charge you a restocking fee if you return an item.
Beware of "bait-and-switch" tactics, where the ad has an unbelievable price for one item, but when you get to the store, they won't sell it to you. The conversation may go something like this:
YOU: Hi, I'm here to buy the Sony XYZ shown in this ad.
SLITHERY SALESPERSON: You don't want that, it's a piece of junk
(The above statement may even be the truth. Remember the items most deeply discounted are the items that don't sell very well by their own virtue. Most likely, the salesperson gets a bigger commission by selling you the substitute device).
YOU (sticking to your guns): No, I want the Sony XYZ.
SLITHERY SALESPERSON (with a protective, fatherly tone): You really don't want the Sony XYZ. We sell a lot of them and the customers always bring them back a week or two later, broken. We have so much trouble with them that we shouldn't be selling them in the first place. Come take a look at the Sony ABC model which is excellent and also on sale. (Yeah, about $20 less than the MSRP, but you wouldn't know that because you didn't memorize the prices the 97 other Sonys that you didn't want anyway.)
YOU: No thank you, the XYZ is exactly what I want.
SLITHERY SALESPERSON: Let me see if I can find one. I think they are discontinued. (Returning a few moments later.) I'm sorry, but we appear to have sold the last one. See here on the ad where it says "quantities limited"? Some other customer has beaten you to the punch.
YOU: But the ad was in the today's newspaper and your store opened at 10:00am and it's only 10:05am.
SLITHERY SALESPERSON: These sale items go pretty fast. Maybe you'd like the floor model over here.
YOU: Let's see it. (You inspect the floor model and it is missing two knobs, the lens is scratched, it is covered with fingerprints, and it looks like someone has used it as a hockey puck.)
SLITHERY SALESPERSON: I can't seem to find the box or the manual and the battery and charger have been lost, so I'll give you $5 off for them.
YOU: I'll take a raincheck and wait for more of them to come in.
SLITHERY SALESPERSON: It's our store policy (waving a sheet of fine print) that sales apply only while quantities last. Being a discontinued item, I doubt any more will come in.
At this point, you might as well give up. Bait-and-switch tactics are illegal in most states, but unless you want to take the issue to the authorities or the Better Business Bureau, you are wasting you time here. Like Sisyphus, you are pushing a boulder up hill.
Perhaps you found an ad on the internet or an ad for a distant store, but your local store advertises that they "won't be undersold". Before you get too excited about having them match the wonderful price you found, you may need to check the store policy for limitations. Usually the policy runs about 125 lines of fine print and includes the following limitations:
1. The competing store must be within a 12 mile radius (yeah, like there is another electronics store within 12 miles of Chugwater, Wyoming).
2. The item must not be a close-out.
3. The item must be the exact same model with the exact same accessories (some stores get around this by including the lens cloth with their product, making it not exactly the same package as what the other store offers.)
4. You must provide a printed copy of the ad showing the date and source.
5. You must provide an invoice showing the price you paid for the item at the competing store (Who would bother going to one store, buying an item, and bringing the invoice to a second store to have them beat the price by $5?)
Another store trick is to bundle the item with something else you have to buy. You can have a laptop computer for $700 if you agree to sign up for internet service at $30 a month for the next 67 years.
Sometimes sales prices include the rebate that you have to sign up for and wait six months to receive from the manufacturer. If you do buy an item with a rebate, make sure you get the proper rebate forms before you leave the store and have them print you a duplicate sales slip. If you send your sales slip back to the company with your rebate form, you won't have a sales slip to bring with you back to the store if the item turns out to be a dud, requiring replacement.
Although buying items in stores bypasses the transportation charges, and give instant gratification, you often get stuck paying sales tax. For a $1000+ item, this can amount to more than $80 in some states. Buying an item mail order or over the internet, often bypasses the sales tax.
PURCHASING ON THE INTERNET
The internet is a great way to do comparison shopping. There are numerous sites that compare prices (called shopping "bots" --- short for robots) that will list your specific model and will tell the prices available from various mail order and internet stores. Four of my favorite bots are Nextag.com, Dealtime.com, Pricewatch.com, and MySimon.com. Beware that internet information is not always accurate or complete. When using such shopping bots, I have never found the lowest price on the list to be a good deal. There was always some nasty surprise. One problem with cyber-buying is that you cannot ask questions, and there are plenty of important questions to ask. For this reason, I recommend not purchasing an item directly from the web unless all of your questions happen to be answered right there on the screen (and very few web shopping sites answer all the important questions). Most internet stores provide a telephone number where you can ask questions or place the order by phone. I prefer this method so that I can ask my important list of questions, which I write down and have ready. This is how the conversation might go:
Ring---ring---ring---answering machine---on hold---music---press 1 if you want a salesperson---more music, or some similar routine. Finally, you reach a salesperson.
SALESPERSON: May I help you?
YOU: I see on the internet that you sell the Sony XYZ for $575. Is that correct?
SALESPERSON: Yes, that is correct. (This is
a good start because it shows the internet information is accurate
and there's no bait-and-switch afoot.)
YOU: Is the Sony XYZ in stock? (The internet listing may have said the item was in stock, but this is often inaccurate.)
SALESPERSON: Yes, it is in stock. (If the item is not in stock, stop the process right here. Some of these low-ball stores don't keep anything in stock and wait for you to make a purchase before they purchase the item from their wholesaler. Sometimes they wait for a bunch of similar orders so that they can get a quantity discount. Meanwhile, you end up waiting for them to collect enough orders or for them to actually acquire the item which could take weeks and sometimes months. The stories of people who have placed orders and waited for months for delivery would fill a large dumpster. In a worst case scenario, the purchaser sends money or has his credit card debited for the purchase, but still waits interminably for the item to arrive, eventually giving up and seeking a refund for the items that never came. The refund process is tedious, and starts with ring, ring, ring, answering machine, music, select 3 for customer service, music for an hour, no answer. In short, if the item is not in stock, go to the next vendor, even if the price is a few dollars more. Incidentally, there is the risk that the vendor may lie to you and say the item is in stock when it isn't. This is why you must ask this next question.)
YOU: When will you deliver the item? (A good answer would be two to three business days. That means that the item really was in stock and they will be shipping it immediately. If they cannot tell you how soon they will be shipping the item, you can assume the item was really not in stock.)
YOU: Is the Sony XYZ new, in its original box, or is it refurbished.
SALESPERSON: It is new in its original box. (This is the correct answer. Some items are refurbished, meaning they were returned to the manufacturer, or to the store, because something was wrong with them. Refurbished and returned items add more unknowns to the equation: Was it fixed correctly, is it a lemon, was it returned with all of its parts intact or does it have a tiny flaw that you're going to have to look for?)
YOU: Does the Sony XYZ come with all of the normal accessories?
SALESPERSON: Yes. (This is the right answer. Quite often the answer is no because stores, in order to achieve the very lowest price, unbundle the items, which means they remove the battery, charger, AC adapter, memory, and other normal accessories and sell you just the basic unit. Since you need those other accessories, you end up paying for them piecemeal and the total price, once you've put the package back together again, comes to more than you intended to pay. This is the most typical tactic of low-ball vendor. Since it is so typical, even if the vendor says the normal accessories are included, you need to explore the question further. This is where you need a written list of what the manufacturer normally includes in the package. If you didn't get this list in your research, you should go to the manufacturer's website for the official version of what accessories are normally included. With this list in hand, you go to the next step.)
YOU: Just to make sure, sir, does the Sony XYZ package include the ... (Verbally list each item that is supposed to be included and wait for the salesperson to say "yes". Be specific as you list the items: Don't just say battery, say "Sony BP-123 lithium ion rechargeable battery". This keeps them from substituting a lower quality battery for the original Sony equipment that was supposed to come with the camera. If the salesperson says yes to all the items on your list, go on to the next question. If not, you're getting into the murky area of unbundled equipment. You cannot be sure that you will get all the parts that you are supposed to have.)
YOU: Does the Sony XYZ have a United States warranty or is it gray market?
SALESPERSON: It has the US warranty. (This is the correct answer. Gray market equipment is meant to be sold in countries outside of the U.S. Although sometimes gray market equipment works out, you run the risk that:
1. The foreign equipment may not be compatible with United States TV signal standards.
2. It will not have a U.S. warranty.
3. If there are any rebates from the manufacturer, you will not be eligible for them.
4. I always get the feeling that companies dealing with gray market equipment are a little shady anyway and lose confidence that the transaction will go smoothly.)
YOU: What do you charge for shipping?
SALESPERSON: $15 via UPS. (This is a reasonable answer. Some companies increase their income by charging excessive amounts --- say $50 --- for the shipping. The shipping really costs them $14 and they pocket the remainder. If you are keeping score, add this to the original cost of the item to know what your final total will be. Naturally, shipping something across the country will cost more than shipping it from the neighboring state. Build this into your calculations.)
YOU: Is there a restocking charge if I return the item?
SALESPERSON: If the item is faulty, just send it back to us and we will send you another one at no additional charge. If you simply don't want the item and return it in good condition, we have a restocking fee of $15. (This is a reasonable answer. Mail order stores need to charge you something to keep you from willy-nilly buying things and sending them back. Sometimes, however, the restocking charge is excessive, say $40. This is a clue that the vendor is gouging you and maybe intends to send you dysfunctional equipment just to collect the restocking charges. It pays to be sure that you want a particular item before you buy it, to avoid the restocking charges and don't deal with companies that have excessive restocking charges.)
YOU: Do you charge a sales tax?
SALESPERSON: Not unless you are from New York. (Vendors are required to pay a sales tax for mail order sales made within the same state. If you are a New Yorker and the store is in New York, then you must pay the sales tax. If you are from New Jersey, the store doesn't have to charge you this sales tax, and shouldn't. Since the sales tax can be substantial, this is a detail worth examining. Often you cannot tell by the website or telephone number where the store is. If it is in your own state, you will need to add the sales tax to your tally and this extra cost may be enough to send you to another store out-of-state.)
YOU: If my Sony XYZ doesn't work when I get it, will you replace it?
SALESPERSON: Yes, definitely. (That's the right answer. Don't accept "You will have to return it to the manufacturer").
YOU: Well, everything sounds good. I'll buy it.
SALESPERSON: Can I interest you in a spare battery, or a lens kit, or a tripod?
YOU: No thank you, I'm fine. (Unless you really want these things, say NO and be affirmative. The accessories are high-margin items, often with little or no discount. The salespeople may earn a special commission on these accessories, so they push them vigorously. They may tell you that it is crazy not to have a protective lens filter on your camera, for instance. Although it is wise to have the lens filter, they are readily available cheaply, and do not have to be purchased with a "kit" of other lens filters that you don't want.)
SALESPERSON: Could I interest you in a carrying case, or an AC adapter, or a camera light?
YOU: No, thank you. I have exactly what I want. (Many low-ball salespeople are very insistent about selling you accessories. Don't argue about the importance of these accessories or their prices; simply say you're not interested, ending the conversation quickly. If you do want an optional accessory ---a spare battery is a good thing to have --- this is where your research becomes important: You should know the accessory's street price. If the offer sounds like a good deal, then let the salesperson add it to your bill. Incidentally, because of the high margins and commissions involved, the salesperson may be willing to bargain with you on accessory prices. If you know the $80 BP-123 battery pack is available from Supersuper Deals for $40 then tell the salesperson and see if he/she will match that price.)
SALESPERSON: Would you like an extended warrantee? For only $65, you can extend the manufacturer's one year warrantee to three years. If just one thing goes wrong with your Sony XYZ after the warrantee period, the repair could cost you hundreds of dollars, making this a great deal.
YOU: No, thank you. (Extended warrantees are seldom a good deal, and are a major moneymaker for the vendor with a big commission for the salespeople. Here's why:
1. If your device works the day you take it out of the box, it is likely to work for many years. Equipment failures usually happen within the first hour of operation.
2. The manufacturer's one year warrantee overlaps the three-year extended warrantee, so you are double-covered for one year, a waste of money.
3. Statistically speaking, electronic equipment seldom fails in the first three years ---unless dropped, etc. which isn't covered under any warrantee).
SALESPERSON: Let me connect you with our fulfillment department. (If all goes well, they will take your address and credit card number and will process your purchase. But things can still go awry: Some vendors, extremely anxious to sell you accessories, will not sell you the product without the add-ons ---which, incidentally, wipe out any savings you made on the deal. If they don't tell you outright that you must buy these accessories in order to close the deal on the main item, they still may connect you with a dead end fulfillment phone line. You wait forever and nobody answers to take your order. If this happens, you are out of luck; the good deal never existed. Go to the next vendor on your list.)
As you can see from this process, the lowest price is not always the best. What you want is to get the product you want (not some substitute) at the lowest price without buying unneeded extras and actually receive the product. Furthermore, your time is valuable, and it may not be worth an endless dance of phone calls in order to save a mere $5. It has been my experience that I had to reject the bottom five or ten vendors before I found a legitimate one. The legitimate vendor's price was still only about $35 higher than the lowest internet price, and always $150 lower than the sale price in stores.
WHEN YOU RECEIVE THE ITEM
When your treasure arrives, first inspect the packaging. If the package has a big dent or hole in it, bring the damage to the carrier's attention immediately without opening the package. This way, they take responsibility for the damage and fix the problem. If the package is okay, open the box, check to see that all the accessories are there, read the manual (which usually lists the included accessories), and try out your machine thoroughly. Most vendors will take devices back within five days, so you want to test the entire machine in that time to make sure everything works.
BUYING USED EQUIPMENT
Used equipment is so much cheaper than new equipment, you may be inclined to try this route. Sometimes, you find recent-model equipment which people have used and decided they didn't want. Many of these items may appear on E-Bay. Although these are sometimes good deals, there is one thing you need to watch out for: If a person is letting go of a relatively new item and taking a financial loss in the process, there has to be a reason. Regardless of the reason they tell you, there may be a second reason. When dealing with any kind of camera equipment, it is very easy to acquire a device with a tiny defect, typically a blemished pixel in the CCD. The blemish that looks like a white dot in a dark scene, or a dark dot in a light scene, goes mostly unnoticed at first. Then the owner "discovers" the blemish, and realizes they have a defective camera, but is too late to bring the camera back. Now that they see the tiny imperfection, it annoys them, and they choose to ditch the machine and shop for a "perfect" one. If you buy used equipment, you need to examine the picture closely to make sure that there are no bad pixels. Also check any mechanical parts to assure they work well. Buying used equipment can pay off but it takes a bit of work and luck, and it involves a little risk-taking.
You can get a really good price when buying a camera or video equipment if you do your homework, know exactly what you want, become familiar with the prices of the equipment and accessories, and ask all the right questions when you make your purchase. The process is a little like scorpions mating: Wonderful things can happen, but the process is delicate, and you have to keep your wits about you.