Digital Cameras: Best Places to Buy

Amazon.com and Best Buy score highly in our research as great places to buy digital cameras.

Unless you shop at a local camera specialty store, we found that your best bet for buying a digital camera is to seal the deal online. Your neighborhood electronics emporium may not have the camera you're looking for in-house, but you can likely find that model on the store's Website.

We researched prominent retailers--both brick-and-mortar stores and Websites--in search of attractive product options and reliable buying advice in six purchasing categories: digital cameras, HDTVs, laptops, desktop PCs, hard drives, and printers.

(See the box of links at right for our appraisals of the other categories we looked at, and for a description of our methodology for choosing the winners and losers in each category.)

Here is what we found in the digital cameras category.

The Winners

Our research for this story covered ten retailers: Amazon.com, Best Buy, CDW, Newegg, RadioShack, Sears, Staples, Target, TigerDirect.com, and Walmart.

In our examination, Web-only outlets fared extremely well, with Amazon leading the pack in selection and pricing.

In terms of in-store buying advice and knowledge of specific products, Best Buy outperformed its brick-and-mortar competitors. For instance, one Memphis Best Buy employee correctly an­­swered our questions about the four cameras on our shopping list over the phone in just 5 minutes. A Best Buy staffer in Phoenix sensibly asked numerous questions about my specific camera needs before making any recommendations. (Click to enlarge the accompanying chart to see how all the stores did on digital cameras.)

We saw significant price differentiation among the outlets, too. Walmart generally had the lowest prices of the brick-and-mortar-backed Websites; Amazon offered good deals among online-only stores. Camera prices were higher at RadioShack and CDW than elsewhere on the products we shopped for.

The results of our spot check of in-store camera shopping in a large RadioShack in downtown Seattle were far less positive. Our shopper found that the store maintained a limited stock of cameras and that the sales staff wasn't very knowledgeable or helpful. When the shopper expressed an interest in specific cameras, staffers did not offer to help him by performing an online search at the store.

Shopping Advice

One dark cloud that hangs ominously over every purchase--whether online or in a physical store--is the prospect that you may be charged a restocking fee if you later return a camera you buy. The odds of being charged a fee when returning a camera lessens greatly when the box is un­­opened or includes all the original materials--but even then, many retailers' restocking policies are vague.

From our research, we recommend that you make your camera purchase online, and that you make Amazon your first stop. But before you buy, call up your local mega-retailer and ask whether it has the camera you like in-house. Even if you don't end up buying it there, you can spend some hands-on time with the camera and confirm that it's the one you want before you pull out your credit card.

Camera specialty stores are another good option: They usually have extremely knowledgeable staff, a wider selection of models than the mega-retailers, and sometimes better prices.

Products We Shopped For and Test Questions We Asked

We asked each store about the availability of four cameras. Here are the camera models and the test questions we asked the retailers' sales associates for each one (along with the correct answers we were looking for).

1. Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS

Q: Is this in Canon's new line of point-and-shoots?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you change the shutter speed and aperture manually on this camera?

A: No.

2. Nikon Coolpix S570

Q: Does this camera have a wide-angle lens?

A: Yes.

3. Nikon D90

Q: Is this the only DSLR that shoots video?

A: No. This was the first model that could, but other DSLRs nowshoot video, too.

4. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1

Q: Can you change the shutter speed and aperture manually on this camera?

A: No.

Of Related Interest

See "Technology's Most (and Least) Reliable Brands"--our annual reader survey of reliability and service for tech products, including digital cameras.

Senior Editor Tim Moynihan is a member of the PCWorld Reviews staff, where he covers digital cameras. Follow him on Twitter @PCWMoynihan

This story, "Digital Cameras: Best Places to Buy" was originally published by PCWorld.

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