HolidayBuyer's Guide

Should you buy a new TV online or in the store?

When it comes time to actually purchase that new TV you've had your eye on, is it better to buy it on the internet or head to a store? We weigh the pros and cons of each.

Every year more and more people choose to buy a TV online instead of in a store. Yet, there are still some some benefits to the ol' brick n' mortar.

So between the two, where is the best place to buy a new TV? Here's how both options stack up in various categories.

Price

Generally speaking, online is going to be cheaper. Most brands, however, have unilateral pricing policies (UPP). This means that model you've got your eye on is going to be the same price at every authorized retailer -- it's the same at Walmart or Best Buy as it is on Amazon. A sale at one means it's a manufacturer authorized sale, so they'll all have a sale.

If you've looked at all the major retailers and they have the same price, but Bob's Big Screen in Boise has it for $500 less...it might not be an authorized retailer. Why would you care? If you don't buy a TV from an authorized retailer, the manufacturer doesn't have to honor the warranty. Buyer beware.

A somewhat sneaky alternative to this is store-specific models. Amazon might have the $1,000 TV-X1000 while Best Buy has the $1,200 TV-X1000B. Same (or nearly the same) features, but because the models are technically "different," Best Buy doesn't have to match the price.

Still, no harm in asking at the store to see if they'll match an online price.

Winner: Online (but ask at the store for a price match)

Selection

Online is effectively infinite. That said, the big retailers like Best Buy and Costco are going to carry all the most popular models of the big brands. Unless you're looking for some minor brand or weird size, chances are you'll find what you need in a store.

Most stores can also order what you need (since they also have websites and huge warehouses). The exception is the store-specific models mentioned above.

Winner: Tie

Evaluation

If you're not exactly sure what TV you want, and hope to decide by looking at them, surprisingly a store doesn't offer much more in this regard than online.

Every big retailer has lighting radically different from your home. You're also not likely to be standing at the normal viewing distance.

Checking out a few of my local stores, I found some models a few inches on the floor, others way over my head. Some rows I was forced to be just a couple of feet away, others I had to step back to see the TV. All of these factors change your perception. Worse, if you're looking at two TVs, one by your feet and the other over your head, how do you compare?

In perhaps the best example I can think of for the futility of in-store evaluation, a TV I knew to be good, placed knee-level in a narrow corridor, looked noisy and overall terrible. I'd reviewed the thing and even I wouldn't buy it if all I'd seen was its in-store performance. Conversely, a TV I knew to be utterly mediocre was given center stage, its backlight cranked all the way up, giving it the appearance of being special. This is why LCDs always look better in stores than they do at home, and why technologies with higher contrast but which are dimmer overall like OLED (or plasma, RIP) don't look as good.

Some smaller retailers may have darkened show floors, which makes it slightly easier to judge.

Most mid- and high-end TVs are 4K, but if you're looking for budget models and are torn between a large 1080p model and a smaller 4K, don't let your eye fool you in the store. At home, sitting where you normally sit, the difference in resolution will be minimal, if that. Get the larger screen.

My advice: Do your research beforehand, then judge the TV at home (given a reasonable return policy). If the TV is well reviewed, and other regular people have positive things to say in online reviews, and it looks good in your home, guess what? You've picked a fantastic television.

Winner: In-store (barely)

Delivery

As long as the TV isn't too big, or you've got a big truck, you can drive it home. That's the biggest advantage to in-store: instant gratification. Most stores will charge you to deliver it, but specials come along with free shipping.

Online depends on the site. Amazon offers free shipping on a lot of TVs, and if you subscribe to its Prime service, two-day shipping on everything is free.

Winner: Tie

Returns

It's hard to beat driving a TV back to the store and telling them where they can stick it (in their warehouse; what did you think I meant?). Many retailers have 30-day, no-questions-asked return policies. Some have shortened this to 15 days, and some even have a restocking fee. Definitely worth checking out ahead of time. Costco has a pretty liberal return policy (90 days on TVs), if you're a member.

Online varies a lot. Amazon, as usual, is the gold standard. It has a 30-day return policy with free return shipping. Even better, it allows TVs purchased between November 1 and December 31 to be returned anytime before January 31.

Be careful, though, as Amazon isn't always Amazon. Many retailers use Amazon as a vehicle to sell their own wares. In these cases, Amazon is merely a facilitator. As in, you pay Amazon, but you actually bought the TV from Tim's Terrible TV Trader. Their return policy could be anything. So check the fine print. There's a middle ground, where it's "Fulfillment by Amazon," in which the stock may come from Random Ricky's Retailer, but Amazon takes responsibility.

Also check out: How not to get ripped off buying an HDTV online.

Winner: Depends on the retailer

Warranty

Costco extends the manufacturer's warranty on TVs to two years. All stores, virtual or physical, will offer extended warranties you can purchase for an extra fee.

Your credit card may offer an extension of the manufacturers' warranty. Certain AmEx and Visa cards often offer this.

It's worth noting that LCD TVs have proven to be very reliable. Extended warranties are usually not worth purchasing. Check out How long do TVs last? and Are TV extended warranties worth it? for more info.

Winner: Costco (otherwise a tie)

Support

Well, good luck. It's not likely you'll get much support in any fashion from any retailer, really. Some will offer in-home setup, though the quality of this is dubious at best. I've heard stories of HDTVs being hooked up with a composite cable (which can't do HD, 480i only).

Some retailers offer paid services that will hook up the TV for you, but these aren't much better sometimes.

Specialty retailers and custom installers usually have the know-how and are in the business of high-tech setup and installation, but this knowledge and skill comes at a price.

If you're not a do-it-yourselfer, check out my article on HDTV calibration for options.

Bottom line: You're on your own, unless you want to pay

Conclusion: Online wins

Even though our tally shows a fairly even balance, I think it's fair to weigh selection and price heavier than the others. So with that in mind, online is a decided winner.

If you're careful to note return policies and warranty availability, buying online is an excellent option. The better online retailers (and some are definitely better than others) will almost always have better prices and a wider selection. If it's not a big-name retailer though, make sure you check they're authorized by that TV's manufacturer.

Buying in a store certainly offers that instant gratification and the touchy-feely aspect a computer screen can't mimic (yet), but given the perils of in-store evaluation (as noted above) this hands-on aspect isn't all it's cracked up to be.

But do me a favor

I worked in retail for a number of years. Best Buy, Costco and so on have effectively become the retail sales floor for Amazon. People come in, check out the TV they want (see above!) then buy it online. So it goes.

But if you find a smaller, specialty retailer that actually offers a decent place to view the TV you want to buy...please be honest about your intentions. Don't waste someone's time, as chances are the smaller stores pay their salespeople on commission. As they patiently answer all of your questions, just for you to bail, they've potentially lost money not being able to help someone who is going to buy. So you've effectively cost them money by wasting their time.

It also makes you a jerk.

Be honest, tell them you're probably not going to buy. Maybe they'll have a special deal to lure you into buying it there and then. They're not going to kick you out of the store, paint a big red "A" on your chest, or stone you if you tell them you're not buying. If they're smart (and not busy), they'll probably help you anyway, because that's good for future business.

If you're in the market for a new TV, check out CNET's list of the best TVs.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, why 4K TVs are stupid and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his sci-fi novel and its sequel.

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