The annoying part about shopping for consumer electronics online is how well the Web marketplace duplicates the flaws and hassles of the parking-lot marketplace.
First, effective price competition doesn't seem to have sunk in yet; you can save hundreds of dollars if you spot the right sale, or you can waste just as much money by forgetting to bookmark one store. Price-comparison engines aren't going to spot the good deals, so expect to waste lots of time clicking through competing sites.
Second, most sites make little or no use of some of the Web's most basic features. For the record, here's what I'd like to see in an online electronics store:
* Easy access to the vast store of reviews available across the Web, as well as customers' own assessments of products.
* Some method of comparing the features of competing gadgets.
* A search engine that actually works.
Instead, you find these features scattered across different sites. Amazon.com ( www . amazon . com / electronics) (as if it hasn't been mentioned enough times in this package!) does the best job of integrating reviews--although written by its own staffers, they still seem to be honest about noting flaws in products--and customer ratings. But its prices are often nothing special. You may want to read up on the reviews at Amazon, then buy elsewhere; if you're a local bookstore owner whose customers browse in your store but buy online, consider this your revenge.
800.com, by contrast, can't seem to scrape up more than one customer comment on any given product--but its comparison feature lets you do a line-by-line matchup of gadgets' features with just a couple of clicks. Very sharp.
Meanwhile, Buy.com (www.buy.com) has prices few stores can beat but provides no product information beyond a bland list of specifications. The site's search and browse tools are also a mess--do you look for a Rio 500 MP3 player in the electronics store or the computer store?
Outpost.com (www.outpost.com) has the best shipping deal around: free overnight delivery. Clicking around can reveal exceptional deals; its electronics store has JBL's Harmony desktop stereo on sale for $199, $200 below Amazon's price. But inventory outside of the site's computer section looks thin.
And so I continue to click away, trying to save the last $50 on my next purchase. This is the other way shopping online saves me money: It's so hard to know when I've found the best deal, I rarely wind up buying things.