Business

The A's have it when it comes to appliance price and selection

For the third year in a row, Amazon.com was the top choice among Consumer Reports readers' for small-appliance price and selection, while a new name, retailer Abt Electronics, was a top scorer for major appliances, mainly for selection.

Yet the customers of small, independent stores were much more likely than those who went to big chains to get major-appliance support without enduring exasperating phone calls.

To help make appliance shopping a breeze, CR recently enlisted more than 20,000 subscribers who reported on their experiences buying upward of 35,000 small and major appliances. In another survey, CR asked about respondents' efforts to contact retailers and manufacturers about almost 15,000 major appliances.

Amazon.com has won a following for offering free shipping on small appliances not sold through partners. For major-appliance purchases, Abt Electronics earned high marks for selection and it ships many items for free. But when it came to service and support of appliances, independent stores outscored all major retailers and manufacturers.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF CR'S SURVEY INCLUDE:

Lowe's edges out The Home Depot. While neither stood out for product support, Lowe's generally outscored Home Depot for product selection and shopping ease.

Mixed results for Sears. While respondents overall were very satisfied, Sears alone scored below average for its major-appliance pricing, despite a price-competition guarantee.

Premium products, same support. General Electric stood out for customer support on its Web site, but scored average at solving problems.

Low marks for Maytag. Maytag, acquired by Whirlpool in 2006, earned among the lowest scores when it came to dealing with real-life complaints.

BEST WAYS TO BUY: Good prices determined where CR survey respondents bought major appliances for about half of all purchases. Consider these additional strategies:

Study the market. Almost all survey respondents who read product reviews, browsed in stores or visited relevant Web sites found the time they spent at least somewhat helpful.

Time major purchases. In September and October, look for price breaks on cooking appliances as retailers put the previous year's models on sale to free up floor space. The same goes for refrigerators around May, and sales after the winter holidays are common. Shop for a major appliance when the store is the least crowded and you'll have the salesperson's ear. Lines are also much shorter on weekdays or early on weekends.

Plumb for deals. Look for rebates, coupons and related discounts in stores and online. Weeks before a planned purchase, sign up on a store's Web site to receive e-mails with promotional offers. Compile a list of choices from a manufacturer's Web site prior to hitting the store.

Skip the extended warranty. In general, CR finds extended warranties to be a bad deal for the customer. CR's reliability surveys have found that most appliances do not break during the extended warranty period.

The quality of a company's repair service and warranty were top criteria for fewer than 10 percent of respondents. But many scorned customers don't hesitate to post their fury on the Internet. Built into the price of any appliance is the cost to support that product over its expected working life. Check CR's ratings to see how retailers and manufacturers score for service and support.

In addition, CR's experts recommend doing homework before contacting the company for repairs by reading the manual's troubleshooting section and checking the manufacturer's or retailer's Web site for frequently asked questions and other guidance.

On the Net:

www.consumerreports.org.

NEWSPAPER ENTERPRISE ASSOCIATION

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