May 24, 2010, 4:53 PM — One challenge in buying a printer is factoring in the cost of ink and paper. In this regard, consulting an in-store expert can make your life dramatically less confusing (and less expensive).
We investigated ten prominent retailers--both brick-and-mortar stores and Websites--in search of attractive product options and reliable buying advice in six purchasing categories: printers, HDTVs, laptops, desktop PCs, digital cameras, and hard drives.
(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 printers category.
Our research for this story covered ten retailers: Amazon.com, Best Buy, CDW, Newegg, RadioShack, Sears, Staples, Target, TigerDirect.com, and Walmart.
In our evaluations, Best Buy captured the top spot, followed closely by CDW and Staples. Best Buy stores have a good selection of printers and, overall, well-informed salespeople. We also asked salespeople questions that tested their knowledge of printers in general and of some specific models.
During a 25-minute phone call we made to a Minneapolis Best Buy, the sales rep asked insightful questions, made sound recommendations, and remained upbeat and enthusiastic throughout the process.
Online, Best Buy offers even more printer models, along with useful product information, even though its ink-cartridge data was not conveniently located. Similarly, CDW's Website had a vast inventory, and its product listings included multiple photos, specifications, and ink-cartridge information. We ranked them second (click to enlarge the accompanying chart to see how all the stores fared in our rankings for printers).
Staples came in a close third behind Best Buy and CDW in the printers category. Its in-store staff gave fairly knowledgeable responses to our test questions. Its Website was easy to use, but the selection was smaller than the two higher-rated sellers'.
Amazon.com earned a middling grade for its offerings. Because Amazon (like Sears.com) aggregates third-party retailers, it can present a larger selection than many other retailers can, which makes comparing prices much simpler. But aggregating also makes the data less consistent and forces you to dig deeper to find the shipping and return policies that apply to your particular purchase.