May 24, 2010, 2:23 PM — 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.
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.
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.