Comparison Shopping

On foot or online? Rating the holiday gift-buying experience.

December 10, 2003|By Andrea Walker, June Arney and Arthur Hirsch | Andrea Walker, June Arney and Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The question before us this December: Should we let our feet or our fingers do the holiday shopping?

Some people prefer to make their purchases perched at the computer far from the holiday crowds. Others like to mix it up at the malls and discount stores.

We decided to explore for ourselves which way may be best.

It was a snowy Friday afternoon when we set out to buy five holiday gifts: a stylish corkscrew, a Hokey Pokey Elmo, a digital camera, a book and a wool sweater. We traveled from downtown Baltimore to Laurel with stops in Towson and Columbia. Then we came back, settled down at our computers and went in search of similar items online.

What we discovered is that holiday shopping can be a nightmare - either online or in person. Every minute saved on the Web could well be spent worrying about a late arrival. While every satisfied visit to a store might end with a disappointing answer about price or size.

Both ways can be efficient and enjoyable, or tedious and irritating. It all depends on what you're buying.

If you know exactly what you want and you're not interested in hearing Christmas music or mingling with other shoppers, the Web is often the quickest way to go. But beware: While you can find deals on the Internet, shipping charges can be hefty, particularly as the holiday countdown begins.

So here are our tales from the shopping front where the click of the mouse is now competing with the roar of the mall.

The elusive rabbit

The Rabbit Magic Corkscrew, a fancy wine opener with handles shaped like rabbit ears, is all the rage among wine connoisseurs. So we thought it would be easy to find one in area kitchen stores.

Not so, at Crate & Barrel. The selection was skimpy at the store at Towson Town Center, where they carried only the most basic models and the saleswoman didn't have a clue what we were talking about.

At Towson Marketplace in Marshalls, which sells top-name products at discounted prices, the shelves of kitchen products were in disarray. No Rabbit was to be found in the mess.

Back at the Williams-Sonoma in Towson Town Center, they at least knew what the Rabbit was, although they didn't have it and couldn't explain what makes it so distinct.

Just when we were ready to walk away a second employee showed us a $35 Vigneto Table Corkscrew, a sleek stainless steel opener with no handles. Close enough, we decided.

Online, the search for the Rabbit was more efficient. Google produced instant hits to several sites with exactly what we were looking for.

The sites included great descriptions, and most sites sold the device at discount.

We chose to buy it from Wine, Racks, Plans & More (online at www.wineracksplansand more.com), which we found through NexTag.com, a comparison shopping site. We thought we were getting a deal at $48.98, nearly half the suggested retail price. But next-day shipping was $27.30, and other fees brought the total to a whopping $79.77.

The verdict: If you know what you want, online shopping is the way to go. But shipping may be costly.

This isn't a snap

We started the quest for an inexpensive digital camera at the Ritz Camera at The Mall in Columbia.

In less than 15 minutes, the salesperson provided a crash course on digital cameras and identified our options given a self-imposed requirement of 3.2 megapixels for less than $200.

Then it was time to comparison shop at Hecht's, where a store employee provided a personal escort to the camera department. Only one model met our requirements - a Canon.

At CompUSA in Columbia, four cameras fit our specifications, but the clerk had a clear favorite: the FujiFilm FinePix A210 with its optical zoom lens.

Service was worst at Best Buy, where several customers patiently milled around the camera display, with no sales staff in sight. Twelve minutes later, an associate arrived, warning that he usually handles computers and video/audio equipment and doesn't know much about cameras. The camera employee was snowbound.

He recommended a Kodak over the Fujifilm, but there was little reason to trust his judgment. So we returned to CompUSA and bought the Fujifilm model for $199.97 (without tax).

Purchasing online was fraught with problems for a novice.

Although several comparison sites reported a best price that would fit our budget, actually finding an online retailer to match the store price proved nearly impossible. In one case, we discovered that what we were about to order was not a camera at all - but a camera case for that model.

We decided to buy the identical camera we'd already found, but couldn't even do that quickly. None in stock at one place. Others, including www.bwayphoto.com and www.focuscamera.com, didn't answer the phones even though the hours posted on their Web sites said they were still open.

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