All About Plasma Televisions: A Buyer's Guide

Where should you go to buy your plasma or flat screen TV?

If you go with a traditional, "brick and mortar" retailer, remember to shop around-not just for the best prices but also for the best equipment. While established retailers are almost always authorized dealers of what they sell (which ensures the manufacturer's warranty will be upheld) and have more lenient return policies (restocking charges notwithstanding), they usually have a vested interest in which brand of TV they sell you. Many of the chain stores like Best Buy and Circuit City tend to push one manufacturer's products over another's based on issues totally unrelated to the merits of the products themselves. Some manufacturers offer incentives, or threaten to withhold merchandise, to achieve higher sales volumes. All of which means the big retailers do pretty much what the manufacturers tell them to do with-and say about-their products.

There are essentially two types of retailers selling high-end television sets. They differ in terms of price structure and technical know-how.

On the one hand, you have the "big box" retailer, which are the ones with the best prices and the worst service. Their employees are poorly qualified and poorly compensated. These retailers generally appeal to price-driven consumers.

The smaller home theater stores and middle-sized specialty chains, on the other hand, tend to be long on know-how and short on price-breaks. Their salespeople know the products they sell fairly well-sometimes really well. You'll typically find a bit better equipment at these stores as well as more diversity in makes and models of TVs. But, all this comes with a price: You'll probably pay more for your plasma display at these stores. Just know that you're paying more for merchandise that will last and comes recommended by someone who knows something about it.

Regardless of which type of retailer you go with, the principle advantage of going with a traditional retailer is this: You get a chance to see-and watch-what you're buying before you actually buy it.

If you go with an online dealer, expect to pay MUCH less for your TV-and to do some pretty extensive homework beforehand. We have all heard tales of online transactions gone wrong, where unsuspecting customers get stuck with defective, damaged, or otherwise sub par merchandise. If they are left with anything at all, that is.

There is a wide range of quality and professionalism among the electronics dealers you'll find online, so you need to check them out before you even think about doing business with them. Looks can be deceiving. A professional-looking website is a good sign, but it's no real insurance against an eventual case of buyer's remorse. Nor is paying with a credit card. Credit card companies can only protect you to a point. Ultimately, you are bound to the dealer's sales and returns policies.

Generally, you're looking for an established, specialized electronics vendor that can give you a good price and good service/support.

When buying your plasma display from an online dealer, be sure to get someone on the phone so that you can do some investigating.

  1. Find out if the company you're dealing with is an Authorized Dealer of the TV you're thinking about purchasing. Most Internet e-tailers are not authorized, which makes ones that are stand way out from the rest of the pack. Getting authorization to sell a given manufacturer's products is no easy process. Dealers have to meet some fairly stringent standards. Manufacturers usually require their dealers to offer technical support through a service center of some sort. In almost all instances, they will also require dealers to have a showroom for the product and a warehouse for the stock.

      Internet companies that are not authorized retailers of the electronics they sell normally do nothing more than drop ship those products from distributors or other dealers. All of which means they have no way of replacing defective merchandise, getting spare parts, or handling returns. Nor can such dealers guarantee that the TV you get will be new, unopened, or unused.

  2. Ask, "What if...?" Imagine everything that could go wrong, and then ask a sales representative how his or her company would handle the situation. What if the unit you receive is defective? What if your display goes bad after six moths? How can he or she guarantee you that your television will be repaired?

  3. Find out where they're located. Check the physical address of the company, and exclude those listing P.O. boxes or foreign countries as their addresses. You should also verify any address information with the Better Business Bureau (if the BBB insignia is posted on the website). Why? Because, if a dispute should arise, you need to be able to contact the company in writing.

  4. Determine whether they stock the products they sell. Many companies will claim to have a physical location, when they are really home- or apartment-based operations with little or no control over what happens once the transaction has been made. Always try to purchase from a dealer that buys direct from the manufacturer and stocks inventory.

  5. Ask whether they have corporate clients. If a vendor services other businesses, chances are, they're legitimate. You might also consider phoning some of these clients to confirm their references.

  6. Ask some technical questions about the products they sell. Make sure these people are competent enough to give you some after-purchase technical assistance should you need it.

  7. Get the low-down on the warranty. Inquire into the specifics of the dealer's return policy. It should give you one month's time to have any defective unit replaced at the seller's expense (shipping charges included).

You should also expect to pay some reasonable shipping fees. "Super saver" shipping is fine for books. But shipping a plasma television via the cheapest method possible will almost certainly turn into a major hassle down the road. In most cases, the costs of shipping are offset by the money you save by not having to pay sales tax on the purchase price of your plasma unit.