Buying electronics should be as easy as finding hay in a haystack: They're in almost every store you visit, from local merchants to giant discounters, not to mention an ocean of...

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Buying electronics should be as easy as finding hay in a haystack: They’re in almost every store you visit, from local merchants to giant discounters, not to mention an ocean of Web sites.

Presumably, with more stores competing for your electronics dollar, you get more choice, better service and lower prices.

But when Consumer Reports polled some 10,000 readers about their experiences shopping for home electronics, they said not all stores are created equal when it comes to those criteria.

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The survey rated 20 retailers (including, as a group, locally owned businesses) based on Consumer Reports readers’ assessment of their overall buying experience.

While no retailer received top marks across the board for price, selection and service, one — — did score highest in price and service, the only categories in which it was rated. Not surprisingly, however, the Amazon shoppers sacrificed personal service, and bought lightweight objects that are relatively inexpensive to ship.

Some other findings from the survey:

• Tops in price. If price is your No. 1 consideration in buying home electronics, you’ll get the best deals at Amazon and from price clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. (When it came to price, discount stores Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart trailed the clubs in the survey.) The trade-off: Price clubs and discounters received lower marks for selection and service. Another high-scoring source for low prices — one that did better in selection and service — is the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). This outlet, however, is restricted to members of the military and some U.S. diplomats.

• Vast selection. For the biggest assortment of products, look to locally owned businesses and electronics chains. Respondents to the survey said they found the greatest selection at, Best Buy, Circuit City, Fry’s Electronics and camera specialists Ritz Camera. The tradeoff: You will pay more than you would at most discounters and price clubs.

• Stand-out service. If you can’t decide what you want, and you feel the need for sales help, head to your locally owned electronics stores or to the electronics chains. That’s where the respondents usually found good service. Among the chains they cited in particular: Circuit City, Good Guys, RadioShack and Ritz Camera. (Good Guys is Consumer Reports’ recommended stop for expensive electronics and great service, when price is no object.) Sears was rated better than most stores for service, while Fry’s Electronics was the only electronics chain to get low marks in this category.

If you don’t need to see or handle the item you want, go to the Web. Of course, there will be a delay in hands-on gratification unless you use one of the vendors that allow you to order through their Web sites and pick up purchases at a local store.

And if you’re going to be online anyway, why not try a bot? A bot (the term is short for “robot”) is a Web site that allows you to compare prices across dozens or sometimes hundreds of retailers. Some bots — such as and — specialize in electronics and are available at no charge.

Finally, if you’re not in a rush to buy, shop when the item you want tends to go on sale.

In the spring, for example, you’ll find the best deals on digital cameras and camcorders. (Camcorders also go on sale in winter.) Shop for DVD players in April and July, and look for lower prices on TV sets in July and November.

Copyright 2004, Consumers Union