You've heard us say time and time again that the specialty retailer is the place to shop if you want personalized attention from a truly knowledgeable sales staff. Still, many of you insist on wiling away the hours at a mass-market retailer conveniently located in a strip mall near you. We can't really blame you. Convenience is a precious commodity in today's world. The question is, can you get a little knowledge and sound advice to accompany that convenience, or are you being led astray? We loaded up three of our editors with an arsenal of questions and sent them off to the Big Three retailers: Best Buy, Circuit City, and relative newcomer Ultimate Electronics. Their mission: Bring us back the goods and the not-so-goods from their buying experience.
Our Hard-Hitting Questions
• What is HDTV?
• What's the difference between an HD-ready TV (or HD monitor) and an HDTV?
• What's the lifespan of a plasma? Is it hard to fix? Is it easy to hang a plasma on my wall?
• What's the difference between LCD and DLP? What about LCOS?
• What's a progressive-scan DVD player?
• Can I get a high-def DVD player?
• What are DVD-Audio and SACD?
• Where should I put my speakers in my room?
Our Highly Advanced Grading System
A+ = 98, A = 95, A- = 92
B+ = 88, B = 85, B- = 82
C+ = 78, C = 75, C- = 72
Is a salesperson's knowledge more important than the store's cleanliness? It is to us—and should be to you. Here's how we weighted each score:
Quality % of Total Grade
Salesperson's Knowledge 35%
Salesperson's Helpfulness and Enthusiasm 30%
Accuracy of Store Labels 15%
Store's Organization 10%
Store's Cleanliness 10%
Each editor visited multiple stores; the grades they give are an average of their cumulative experience.
Does Ultimate Electronics live up to its name by providing the ultimate electronics shopping experience? Unlike my fellow namby-pamby editors who probably put in a combined 50 miles, I schlepped my tired, faux-consumer buns on a 2,800-mile round trip, visiting three Ultimate Electronics stores in a great triangulation of the retail electronics scene in the middle of America—from Austin, Texas, through Independence, Missouri, to St. Louis and back again. Think of me as the Lewis and Clark of undercover shopping, except there's only one of me and I didn't need a canoe for any part of the trip.
Anyone who's used to walking into disheveled megastores will marvel (as I did) at the cleanliness, consistency, and overall consumer-friendly atmosphere of an Ultimate Electronics store. With few exceptions, everything was neatly organized, uncluttered, and inviting, with mostly helpful signage—except for the lack of signage identifying the sale items that were being promoted in the store's circulars, which I found liberally stacked at the front of the store.
Although monstrous walls of TVs and receivers certainly use demo space efficiently, I found them a bit overwhelming, but I didn't have long to ponder what an enormous task it is to select a home theater system. In Austin and St. Louis, I was approached by salespeople within the first minute; huge kudos to the St. Louis salesman who offered a bottle of water as we both struggled to stay focused (and hydrated) on New Year's Day. The Kansas City salespeople were more laid back, allowing me to wander salesperson-unencumbered for more than five minutes.
A knowledgeable sales staff, of course, is harder to maintain than the beautiful lifestyle demo rooms and vignettes spread around these three virtually identical stores. Unlike the staff at Best Buy and Circuit City, Ultimate's gear guys (sadly, most of them are guys) work on commission. In theory, this is a huge incentive to be as knowledgeable as possible. Whatever the reason, the Ultimate sales staff, while not possessing the ultimate in expertise, at least displayed a penultimate level of knowledge. (In my experience, you'll have to visit a true specialty store—such as High Fidelity, Inc. in Austin or The Sound Room near St. Louis—to get better, in-depth advice.)
Obviously thrilled to explain high-definition, each salesperson demonstrated a particular HDTV, especially of the plasma variety. For the most part, they got it right, too—although one salesperson told me EDTV was 720p, while another confused 1,080 scanning lines with lines of resolution. I remained silently surprised when both the Kansas City and St. Louis sales staffs wholeheartedly endorsed plasma HDTVs as "possessing the best picture quality" of all TVs. My salesperson in Austin, a lone voice in the retail wilderness, unflinchingly advised that a top-of-the-line CRT-based, rear-projection HDTV ("like a Mitsubishi Diamond Line or Pioneer Elite") offered better overall picture quality despite costing significantly less than a plasma of the same screen size. He did, however, admit that plasmas possessed a higher "cool factor."
When it came to high-definition DVD players, the St. Louis store told me that "there's a rumor they have them in Japan." The Austin store thought we might start seeing Blu-ray machines by as early as "April of this year."
Audio evidently isn't Ultimate's strong point. Knowledge wasn't the issue; everyone handled the question of speaker placement well. They also gave essentially accurate, if highly simplified, explanations of DVD-Audio and SACD, although the Missourians heavily emphasized the multichannel aspects with only passing reference to better fidelity. The most disheartening thing of all was the body language of the salespeople. Where previously these dudes had been filled with enthusiasm about plasma sets and HDTV, their demeanors quickly sank to the excitement level of cold oatmeal when it came to audio.
My man in Austin, on the other hand, may have been a secret audiophile. While glassy-eyed when mentioning multichannel, he perked up when talking about better sound quality. In fact, I thought he was going to do something that the other Ultimate Electronics salespeople failed to do: give me an actual audio demo. Unfortunately, he only showed me a Denon universal player. (The other guys only mustered the strength to point in the direction of a player.)
Wandering on my own, I may have discovered why these otherwise respectable salespeople made the unforgivable mistake of not demonstrating a new and exciting audio technology for a potential customer who was clearly interested enough to ask about it. For all their beauty and organizational excellence, most of Ultimate's demo rooms sound excruciatingly awful—especially their "statement" front-projection home theater room. For the sake of the industry and the many customers Ultimate could expose to better audio, the higher-ups at Ultimate should give serious attention to the way these stores sound. That would be better than incorporating a wall for comparing home-theater-in-a-box systems. (Yes, they really had one.) And, for heaven's sake, go to Best Buy and get some DVD-Audio and SACD demo discs for your salespeople.—Darryl Wilkinson