If your initial purchase idea has run the gauntlet of the first two chapters and survived, now’s the time to evaluate it in greater depth. This is no easy task. If you search for “coffeemakers” on Amazon, for example, you’re confronted with more than 23,000 results. Faced with such sensory overload, how do you decide which product is best? As any fringer could tell you, the answer is research—not too much of it—but enough to improve the odds of scoring quality merchandise at low prices. This chapter presents five tactics: (1) read product reviews and, for big ticket items, buying guides; (2) ask around; (3) try before buying; (4) consider hidden ownership costs; and, in certain circumstances, (5) revisit the alternatives listed in the first two chapters.
□ 3.3.1 Read Buying Guides and Product Reviews
Spending less doesn’t mean that you buy the cheapest products, especially ones that break or underperform. Instead, spending less means spending smart so that you get full value for every dollar relinquished. This requires research.
□ Read Buying Guides. For big-ticket items like appliances, electronics, and power tools, learn the basics. On the web, search for your product and the phrase “buying guide,” as in “dishwasher buying guide.” At the library, read the Consumer Reports Buying Guide, which is published annually and covers dozens of product categories.
□ Visit Consumer Search. ConsumerSearch.com collects reviews from web and print sources and recommends specific models. If the site evaluates your product, your analysis is largely completed. Reviews are arranged under logical categories—electronics, home and garden, kitchen and food, fitness and sports, computers and internet, family and pets, health and beauty, and automotive. Time magazine named Consumer Search as one of the fifty best websites for 2009.
□ Read Consumer Reports. Support the cause of good consumerism by subscribing to the magazine or website (ConsumerReports.org). If this seems too costly, reduce your research expenses by periodically reading issues at your local library. Consumer Reports contains no ads and is published by Consumers Union, a nonprofit worthy of any fringer’s philanthropy (see Chapter 19).
□ Visit Amazon. Search for products on Amazon.com and sort the results by “bestselling.” Usually, consumers are wise, and the top-listed items make good choices for quality and value. Each listing includes customer reviews, but beware: some grumps cast aspersions on even the best of products. Don’t be scared off by a few negative comments.
□ Visit CNET. Head over to CNET.com whenever you shop for electronics—televisions, computers, printers, tablets, cameras, MP3 players, and cell phones. Look for editor’s choices that spotlight the top picks in each product category.
□ Look at YouTube. Uploaded videos show the product in actual use. Beware of postings that are thinly disguised ads. Visit YouTube.com.
□ Search the Web. For most purchases, the above sources provide ample information. But if you thirst for still more data, search online for the product’s name, manufacturer, model number, and the word “review.”
□ Consult Product Specific Sources. Consult hyper-specific authorities that might have reviewed your product. Look at blogs, club websites, online specialty stores, and enthusiast magazines (Photography Magazine, Stereophile, Sound and Vision and Cook’s Illustrated).
□ 3.3.2 Ask Around
When you shop for appliances, electronics, or software, consider online discussions. Search for your product along with the phrases “chat room,” “forum,” and “discussion board.” Sound out your friends—they’re consumers too. They likely have some opinions (again, don’t be scared off by one bad comment, but be very scared if you hear it repeatedly). Ask detailed questions:
□ “Which features were useful, and which were useless?”
□ “Is any feature missing that should have been included?”
□ “How’s the durability and reliability? Any breakdowns?”
□ “Would you buy it again, or something else instead? Why?”
□ “Any other opinions?”
□ 3.3.3 Try Before You Buy
Whenever you can, take the product out for a trial run before spending. Consider these audition techniques:
□ Play with Floor Models and Demos. If the store displays your product, run it through its paces.
□ Sample Samples. Warehouse clubs regularly offer these enticements—eat up before you buy up. And many stores accept returns of half-eaten foods, so if you try a product for the first time and don’t like it, you can still get a refund.
□ Visit Fitting Rooms. Try on clothes to save yourself the hassle of a later return.
□ Borrow. Return the favor by lending out your own stuff.
□ Rent. If you’re about to pay $15,000 or more for a particular make and model of car, rent one first so that you can learn more about it (see Chapter 17). Also rent before you buy expensive tools and sports equipment. You can even rent mattresses: the next time you travel, book a hotel that features whichever model you like and sleep it over for the night.
□ Buy Used. Before you drop $150 on a new bread maker, buy one for $10 at the thrift store. If your idea is half-baked, you haven’t spent much, and you can always donate it back. You even might find the used model works so well that you don’t have to spend more on a new one.
□ Read Owner’s Manuals. Hold a virtual audition by reading the manual before you buy. Find them at manufacturer websites, ManualsOnline.com, or search the web for the make, model number, and the word “manual.”
□ Make Use of Trial Periods, Money Back Guarantees, and Liberal Return Policies. These policies let you back out of any unsatisfactory purchases. Be sure to factor in shipping costs.
□ 3.3.4 Consider Hidden Ownership Costs
Typical culprits include installation, storage, accessories, servicing, subscriptions, disposal, repair, energy use, insurance premiums, licenses, ownership taxes, and components (cartridges, filters, and batteries). Favor products that cost less to own. Some cases in point:
- HDTVs. They look awesome, but don’t forget all of the other costs: (1) wall mounts or cabinets; (2) subscriptions to HD channels; (3) upgraded sound systems; (4) Blu-Ray players and disks; (5) HDMI cables; (6) energy usage (gas plasma sets especially); (7) faster internet connections for online content; and (8) disposal costs for your old TV.
- Kitchen Gadgets. Beware of products with frequently replaced components: flavor pouches for single-serving coffee makers, seedpods for hydroponic planters, and canned syrups for brew-at-home cola machines.
- Printers. Over time, the cost of toner dwarfs the cost of a new machine. To stay out of red ink, seek printers with low operating costs.
- King-Sized Beds. If you go big, you pay more for headboards, bed frames, mattresses, mattress pads, pillows, pillowcases, sheets, blankets, and comforters.
- Replacement Decking. Wood decks require frequent waterproofing or staining. Eventually, they wear out. Composite materials cost more up front, but they last longer and demand much less upkeep.
- Hot Tubs. Spas soak you twice. Don’t forget the post-installation costs: (1) chemicals and test kits; (2) utility costs; (3) filters; (4) insulated covers that you replace every few years; (5) repairs to frozen pipes and other failed parts; and (6) disposal costs once you finally decide to ditch it all. Maybe you’ll be less steamed if you accept these as the costs of restorative soakings at 102°F.
□ 3.3.5 Consider Repeating Strategy Nos. 1 and 2
As you research, you might discard your first inspiration in favor of another product. If this happens, backtrack to Chapters 1 and 2 and run your latest idea through the listed tactics. Why? Typically, you save much more from those alternatives than you do by following the herd of mainstream consumers into malls and box stores (where they’re milked for all they’re worth). The choice is yours. You can become some retailer’s idea of a cash cow; or you can jump the fence to greener pastures where the dollars grow in great profusion.
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STRATEGY NO. 3: RESEARCH THE PRODUCT
□ 3.3.1 read buying guides and product reviews—
□ for big ticket items, read buying guides [search web]
□ ConsumerSearch.com, Consumer Reports
□ Amazon reviews and bestseller lists
□ CNET, for electronics
□ web reviews [search for name, model no., “reviews”]
□ sources unique to this product [magazines, clubs, blogs]
□ 3.3.2 ask around
[friends’ opinions, chat rooms]
□ 3.3.3 try before I buy
[loaners, rentals, demos, samples]
□ 3.3.4 consider hidden ownership costs—
□ disposal [old TVs, tires]
□ service and upkeep
□ accessories [cases, rechargers]
□ frequently replaced components [filters, toner]
□ energy use
□ fees, subscriptions, licenses
□ tax impacts [ownership taxes, deductions, credits]
□ 3.3.5 consider repeating Strategy Nos. 1-2