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Walmart vs. Best Buy vs. Target vs. Costco: What's the best store for buying a TV?

The big game means last-minute TV shopping. So which store wins?

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TVs at Costco.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The easiest way to buy a TV is online, right? A few clicks and a few days, and there's a TV on your porch. But if you're not sure exactly which one you want, or you at least want to physically check out the TV before you buy it, you're going to have to head to a store. This is also the fastest way to get a TV, assuming you have a car big enough to get it home. That's especially important if you're buying a new TV at the last minute ahead of the big football game on Sunday, Feb. 2.

While online once promised lower prices, this is rarely the case anymore. Thanks to UPPs, or unilateral pricing policies, the price of most TVs in Best Buy or Walmart is likely the same as on Amazon.

If the prices are the same, and the models are generally the same or similar, where do you head? Good question. There are pros and cons to the top US stores, including warranty and return policies, but a major thing to consider is the nature of the store's TV section itself. None offer the ideal viewing environment to compare picture quality, but some are better than others. I visited a bunch of local stores to find out which one was best.

So what's the winner? 

  • If you know what TV you want, and you're a member, Costco's doubling of the manufacturer's warranty and two years of tech support is hard to beat. 
  • If you just want to compare TVs yourself, Best Buy is the best option, especially if it has a Magnolia section.

A regional retailer like Fry's might offer an even better place to judge image quality, but they're an increasingly rare breed. I live in a big city and nearly every specialty electronics retailer near me has closed in the last 10 years, so I have to figure it'd be even harder if you live in a small town. It would be worth checking Google for your area though.

Arranged in order of number of locations, here's how the major brick and mortar TV retailers stack up.

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Walmart

America's biggest retailer has over 4,700 stores in the US, far more than any other retailer on this list. Chances are it's the most likely place for most of you to find a TV.

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TVs at Walmart. Note the less-than-ideal lighting.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It's not a great place to look at a TV, though. There's marginal to no light control in the TV area. One store I visited had florescent lights right next to the screens, so it was impossible to tell any differences with all the reflections. TVs on the top shelf are not angled, so you can only see them off-axis (and therefore, can't judge their picture quality in any way). The video feed tends to be ads that don't show off detail or picture quality at all.

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In this Walmart the overbright lighting created severe reflections on the screens.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Walmart offers a Protection Plan extended warranty, via Allstate, that covers "mechanical and electrical failures from normal use." Assuming the issue is covered, it will "repair your item. If we can't repair it, we'll send you a replacement or reimburse you for one." It does not cover burn-in.

The return policy is 30 days.

Pros

  • Probably a location near you

Cons

  • Not a good place to compare TVs
  • Limited in-store info

Target

Target, the anti-Walmart, has over 1,800 stores. Inside they're pretty similar to Walmarts, though if the ones in my area are any indication, they tend to be in slightly better shape. 

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TVs at Target. Note how the top row is tilted downwards. This gives you a slightly better idea how the TV looks, compared to straight vertical mounting or sitting on a high shelf.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Like Walmart, the TV section doesn't generally have light management, but the TVs on the upper row are usually angled so you can view them straight on. That's a big improvement over Walmart. There's not much info available about each TV, however.

Target offers extended warranties from SquareTrade (which is owned by Allstate). It says if it can't repair it within five days of receiving it, it'll refund the cost of the warranty. For TVs, it'll "send a repair provider to your house to fix it." It does not cover burn-in.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

For electronics, Target has a 30-day return policy.

Pros

  • Better than Walmart to judge TVs, but that's not saying much

Cons

  • Limited in-store info

Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club

Though unrelated on the corporate side (Sam's is owned by Walmart, for instance), for our purposes they're quite similar. They're warehouse stores where you can get that 55-gallon drum of ketchup and that pallet of bean dip you need for watching football. They also sell TVs in their, combined, 1,300-plus stores.

Like the other locations we've discussed already, warehouse stores are terrible places to judge TVs. They're far too bright, with harsh overhead lighting. Usually the boxes for each TV will also be on display, however, so you can at least get some additional info. It'd be better to get the info on your phone, but in a pinch, the box is there with some highlights. On the other hand, to allow enough space below the TVs for the boxes, the TVs themselves are often much higher than you'd normally want to place them, so you're viewing them off-axis, which means some will look worse than they would if you could view them straight on.

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TVs bunched up at Costco. Lots of boxes though. Another example from this store is at the top of the page.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Costco has a 90-day return policy on TVs. It also offers two years of tech support. Most impressively, it automatically increases the manufacturer's warranty to two years. If you use its credit card, Costco will bump that up an additional two years. For reference, TVs typically come with one year parts and labor, or in some cases, one year for parts and 90 days for labor.

BJ's Wholesale has a 90-day return policy and a lifetime tech support line. It offers Protection Plus extended warranties through Asurion that don't cover "burned-in phosphor in cathode ray tubes or any other type of display." OLED TVs don't have phosphors, but it's a safe bet that bit of semantics won't fool anyone if you try to use the warranty.

Sam's Club has a 90-day return policy on TVs, a tech support line and it offers SquareTrade warranties that, like other SquareTrade warranties, do not cover burn-in.

Pros

  • Better return and, in Costco's case, warranty options compared to other retailers
  • Over-the-phone tech support included
  • Boxes on hand for anything in stock, to augment info placards

Cons

  • Terrible place to judge image quality

Best Buy

Best Buy is basically the last man standing when it comes to major electronics retailers, and it has over 1,000 stores across the US. 

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TVs in Best Buy.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Most crucially for our purposes, it often does far more than the others here when it comes to letting you get a sense of how the TV will look. The TV area is often darker than the rest of the store, and many stores have a Magnolia Home Theater section set off from the rest of the store that will offer even better lighting conditions to view certain TVs. In most cases, high-mounted TVs in either section will be tilted down for better viewing. There are also far more manufacturer-sponsored sections, so you'll see several Samsung, LG or Sony TVs grouped together with additional info about their technologies. No national retailer offers an ideal viewing area to judge TV picture quality, but Best Buy comes far closer than the alternatives.

Unfortunately, you'll only have 15 days to decide if you like the TV before you can't return it. Unless, that is, you're a My Best Buy member, in which case you'll have 30 or 45 for "Elite" members. 

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TVs in Best Buy's Magnolia store-within-a-store. It's hard to tell from photos, but this area has much lower ambient light than the rest of the store.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

There are tech support and extended warranty options, but both cost extra. Both are covered under its Geek Squad banner, and with TVs over 42 inches, it'll come to your house. Most interestingly, this warranty does cover burn in: "Pixel repair and burn-in coverage for TVs. We'll get your screen back to pristine condition if your pixels start looking weird or a shadow image sticks."

 Pros

  • Best national retailer to check out picture quality (again, this is a low bar)
  • Extended warranty covers burn-in

Cons

  • Still not a great place to judge image quality
  • 15-day return window

Local retailer

There are many local retailers that might offer the pros, and perhaps the cons, of the national chains. For instance, the southwest has Fry's Electronics, which often has a wider selection of TVs on display than Best Buy, usually in a darkened corner of the store. Smaller chains might offer better or more knowledgeable sales and service too, but it's hard to say. Since the financial crisis, so many of these stores closed it's difficult to make a recommendation about them, as huge parts of the country won't have access to such a store, but the same areas likely do have a Walmart or Best Buy.

If you have a local specialty electronics store, it might be worth going there instead of any of the chains. If you don't, chances are high it won't be there next time you want to go.

Final thoughts

You may have noticed one thing I didn't discuss is employee knowledge. It'd be impossible for any one person to judge this. They'd only be able to judge the employees at a specific store or stores they visited. You might find someone at Target who loves TVs and knows a lot, and you might find someone at Best Buy who calls their TVs "plasmas," or vice versa. Regardless, the burden of gaining knowledge falls to you. Do your research before you go. You are, conveniently, in the right place for that.

Lastly, if you do choose to buy a TV in a store instead of online, do keep one thing in mind: time. Not yours, but the time of anyone you speak to. Generally the big retailers don't work on commission, but in smaller stores they might. If you don't intend to buy in that store, it's polite to let them know up front, so if necessary they can help a different customer that might turn into a sale.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why you shouldn't buy expensive HDMI cablesTV resolutions explainedhow HDR works 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 best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel