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Archive for Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Look beyond big boxes for appliances

September 7, 2005

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If you've been putting off replacing that failing appliance until prices come down, fall may be the time to jump. Big-ticket items such as washing machines and ranges typically hit the stores in September and October, prompting sales of last year's models to make way for the new. Early fall also is a good time to gobble up gas grills. These summertime staples typically sell like hotcakes in May and June, then cool off after August. Shop then for bargain-priced leftovers.

And when you're out stalking bargains on these and other appliances, don't confine your search to the big-box stores that trumpet low prices and vast selection. As we learned from surveying subscribers to our Web site (ConsumerReports.org) about their experiences buying appliances, independent retailers not only out-service most major chains, but many out-stock and out-price them, as well.

Following are a few findings from our survey, in which more than 6,000 online readers reported on some 9,000 purchases of large and small appliances at independent stores and seven of the nation's largest retailers. (Of the seven - Best Buy, Costco, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart - we had enough data to rate Costco, Target and Wal-Mart only for small appliances. The others, plus the independents, were rated for small and large appliances.)

¢ None of the major retailers covered in the survey out-priced the independents for ranges, refrigerators and other large appliances. Only two big-box stores (Costco and Target) were clear price winners for small appliances such as grills and vacuums.

¢ Independent stores bested all but one national retailer (Sears) for small-appliance selection, and beat selection at two (Best Buy and Home Depot) of the four dealers we could rate on big-ticket items.

¢ Readers cited independent appliance stores for their stellar salespeople. Nearly 90 percent of small-appliance buyers found service very good or excellent for the independents, while fewer than 30 percent said the same for large retailers. Of readers who bought large appliances at independent stores, more than 80 percent said they were very satisfied with the service they received. Of large-appliance buyers at nationwide chains, fewer than 60 percent were as satisfied with service.

¢ Wal-Mart, the survey's clear loser among small-appliance dealers in overall satisfaction, is no cheaper than other stores, despite its "Always low prices. Always." tag line. Compared with other small-appliance buyers, more than twice as many who bought at Wal-Mart told us they overpaid. Readers who shopped there also ranked small appliances lower in quality than products readers bought elsewhere.

Yet not all of our survey findings reflected poorly on the national chains. Sears, for example, served large-appliance buyers nearly as well as the independents, and it was the only major chain that matched the independents for product selection, service and checkout ease when it came to small appliances. And Costco alone excelled in price without compromising product quality. Unfortunately, the chain's gains there were offset by subpar service and checkout, and limited product selection.

Wherever (and whenever) you shop, you can improve your chances of a rewarding experience by starting the process at home. The more pre-purchase research our readers did (most retailers and manufacturers have Web sites that let you compare features) the more satisfied they were, survey results showed.

Once you've found that perfect appliance, check out the store's after-the-sale policies before buying. Some retailers, such as Sears, will match competitors' prices; others may offer sales-adjustment, which entitles you to a refund or credit if an item goes on sale soon after your purchase. As for returns, some stores - including Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe's - charge restocking fees of up to 25 percent if you bring back nondefective merchandise.

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