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Christmas Gift Guide
Culture

Is the Apple Store the worst place to buy Apple products?

Commentary: With Apple blessing discounts of its products in other stores such as Best Buy, it makes less sense to shop in Apple Stores for Apple products.

Josh Miller

The first floor of the new Apple Store in San Francisco's Union Square.

Josh Miller/CNET

Last winter for my birthday my father gave me a $250 Apple gift card that I could use in Apple's brick-and-mortar stores or its online store.

I was pretty stoked at first. While $250 doesn't buy you much in an Apple Store, subtracting that amount from the price tag of say, an iPhone, iPad or MacBook, makes you feel like you're getting a deal. And in my case, as an employee of CBS (CNET's parent company), I get a 5 percent discount on many but not all products in Apple Stores, which helps cover the tax.

But I ran into a problem: As I contemplated a purchase I kept seeing better deals on Apple products in stores where I couldn't use my Apple gift card. During the 2015 holiday season Best Buy ran specials on the iPad Air 2, Apple Watch, MacBooks and iMacs. Staples, Target, and B&H Photo were also in on the Apple discount game. The Apple Watch was $100 off. The iPad Air 2 got $125 price chop. And so on.

This past May Best Buy had these deals, presumably with Apple's blessing:

Then I actually bought an Apple product without using my gift card. Last month I picked up a Geek Squad certified refurbished Apple Watch Sport for $226 at Best Buy as a Father's Day present. Apple also sells refurbished products, but you won't see it selling $226 42mm Apple Watches (the one I got was in perfect working order with not a scratch on it).

Flash forward to today. Best Buy has the latest Apple 13-inch MacBook Air 1.6GHz/8GB/128GB for $850 shipped (regularly $999) and "open-box" versions available for even less. It also has $100 off an entry-level 21.5-inch iMac. Amazon has it for the same price, too.

Best Buy is currently offering $150 off a new MacBook Air.

Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

Better yet, if you're a college student (or know a college student with a .edu address, wink, wink), Best Buy will take another $100 off those prices as part of its College Student Deals promotion that's good on all MacBooks, iPad Pros, and iMacs (you need to sign up at Best Buy's Student Hub with a .edu email address to get the required coupon codes).

Apple's known for its educational discounts and it's also running student promotion: Buy a Mac, iPad, iPhone for college and you'll get a pair of wireless Beats headphones (get the Beats Solo2 Wireless with the purchase of a Mac and a Powerbeats2 Wireless with the purchase of an iPad Pro or iPhone 6 or 6S).

I've reviewed both those headphones and like them -- both got 3.5 stars -- but I personally prefer cash discounts, especially since I suspect that Beats, which is owned by Apple, will soon release new headphones. The Beats headphone line is certainly due for a refresh.

I could go on listing various discounts on various Apple products I've dug up around the internet. Some of the deals are sketchy, but a lot come from authorized Apple resellers -- which give you the same warranty protection you'd get by buying at an Apple Store. And it's also worth pointing out that if you order from a store like B&H Photo, which only has a store in New York, you don't pay tax if the store ships the product to you in another state. On big-ticket items, 7 or 8 percent sales tax adds up.

The long and short of it is the Apple Store rarely offers anything in the way of deals or discounts. And yet it allows other stores to sell its products for less -- sometimes substantially less. Which means that despite the fact that the the shopping experience in Apple Stores is generally stellar (if you know what you want, you can be in and out in five minutes), it makes a lot less sense to buy Apple products in an Apple Store.

Remember, too, that you can also sign up for AppleCare extended coverage online, regardless of which authorized retailer from which you've purchased.

I'm not holding out any hope that Apple will start matching prices any time soon. Or that it'll start having real sales. But maybe it should. Then guys like me sitting on an Apple gift card won't opt for another retailer's gift card next time instead.

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