Your first choice in where to buy a plasma TV is between a traditional "brick and mortar" retail store, or a an online dealer.
Brick and Mortar Retailers
There are many positives with going with an actual local store:
Number 1: they are almost always authorized and therefore the manufacturer's warranty will be intact.
Number 2: they sometimes have more lenient return policies (though they are becoming tougher about restocking charges).
Number 3: You can actually view the display that you are thinking of purchasing, which is at least an advantage for aesthetic reasons if nothing else (I'll explain this further).
There are also a number of negative aspects of purchasing from retail locations:
Number 1: Price: Not very competitive; prices at or near Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) policies.
Number 2: Sales Tax.
Number 3: They tend to side with one manufacturer over another based not on the merits of the product but instead on which manufacturer is giving the best spiffs, or getting them the most product. The retail stores I visit normally have and promote two brands of plasmas and otehr TVs; these are the brands they carry and they really do not want to carry more or do proper comparisons of the product, choosing instead to just rehash whatever the manufacturers tell them.
Number 4: Product knowledge ranges widely, from exceedingly poor at your "big box" retailers to very good at some specialty home theater stores.
Basically, there are two flavors of brick and mortar retailers: the first is the "big box" retailer with poorly qualified, low-paid sales clerks with dubious product knowledge at best. They usually sell less expensive merchandise from what I would call low grade to middle grade. They will usually have the best prices of the brick and mortar retailers and sometimes good specials, due to their volume buying policies.
The second category includes the smaller home theater "boutiques" and the mid-sized specialty chains like Tweeter that have salespersons that know the product fairly well - or really well, depending. They typically sell a bit better equipment, and offer different models than the big box outfits, but sometimes unnecessarily more expensive. They can also convince customers to spend more on higher end products, which for some customers is fine: at you know you're are paying more for merchandise that will last, and it comes recommended by someone that knows something about it. But is it worth the extra cost?
There is a wide chasm in the quality of dealers online. Much can be ascertained by the professionalism of the web site, the depth and breadth of specification information given, and whether or not the online web site advertises that they are authorized dealers of a given brand. Prices will be much lower than those of brick and mortar retailers, but there are some important questions you should ask: I would want them to be authorized by the manufacturer. I would test their knowledge and ask questions about "what if" the unit I receive is defective, "what if" the unit goes bad after 6 months, etc.
Here's Some Tips that will Help you narrow your choices:
Authorized Dealer Status
As already mentioned, most brick and mortar retailers are authorized dealers, but what about Internet companies? Not the case. Some are, but its not common. In most cases, Internet e-tailers are not authorized. Being authorized is a difficult process for Internet companies. To get set up with manufacturers is a painstaking process in which the manufacturers verify the standards and credit-worthiness of the dealer. In many instances, manufacturers will require a technical service center. In almost all instances they will require a showroom for the product and a warehouse for stock. Most Internet companies drop ship product from distributors or other dealers, and thus have no power to replace defective merchandise, get the customer a needed part, handle a return, give you technical assistance with the unit. Lastly, an unauthorized dealer cannot guarantee that you will receive the manufacturers warranty nor even an extended warranty if purchased. An unauthorized dealer cannot even guarantee you whether the unit will be new, unopened, and unused since they have no control over the shipping of the product.
I always check for the physical address of an online company from which I am seriously considering ordering. No P.O. boxes. No international addresses. No New York addresses. I might even go as far as verifying the address information with the Better Business Bureau (if the BBB insignia is posted on the web site). Reason? If I have a conflict I can get to them with certified mail, FedEx, or a law suit if need be. If a company is trying to hide this information I would not purchase from them. Basically, ask yourself "are they up front with who they are and where they are?"
Online dealers operating from New York addresses have a bad reputation in the industry for peddling "gray market" goods: products which may have the same model numbers, but were not intended for sale in the U.S., and which are therefore not covered by U.S. manufacturers' warranties.
Secondly, the salespeople are often selling you a box and understand little about the product (if there is a problem with the product or order, i.e. I get a defective unit or one with technical problems, who are you going to call?). Thirdly, from what I have found, the shops are not dealer authorized though they will swear they are. Next, purchasers have complained that they have received repackaged or refurbished merchandise in place of new product (also called B-stock). And of course, they don't actually stock the product and may be a sort of electronics clearing house from distributors. The New York e-tailers do typically have very low prices listed, but beware of those shipping and warranty charges. This is just one person's opinion, but I would not order a big-ticket item over the Internet from a New York e-tailer - it's just risky business
Beware the pricing portals, such as Pricegrabber.com, Dealtime.com, Nextag - there's an assortment of them. Why? A plasma TV is a highly technical piece of electronic equipment, not a CD or a book. Many of the companies represented on pricing portals rarely if ever have inventory, product knowledge, clearly written return policies, the ability to replace defective merchandise, manufacturer relationships, good warranties - the list goes on.
And a strong word of caution here on the pricing portal "dealer reviews." I would be highly suspicious of any dealer who only receives 5-star reviews. If there's never anything but glowing recommendations, it's very likely those shady dealers are reviewing themselves! Those "dealers" pay the pricing portals in various ways, so it behooves the portal to allow these bogus "reviews." Buyer beware!
Free Shipping Can be a Negative
Obviously somebody must be paying for the shipping - so they must be making up for it somewhere else: by inflating the sale price, or cutting corners elsewhere in the process. If they are shipping it for free then they must be shipping it as cheaply as possible, which is fine for a book. However, with a plasma television, shipping via the cheapest method possible could cause major headaches and hassles down the road should your screen be damaged in shipping. You should expect to pay a reasonable shipping charge when ordering a plasma TV online; it's worth it in the long run, especially if you're saving yourself the sales tax on the item.
Ask any Internet dealer what their standard warranty policy is. They should give a 30-day guaranteed replacement policy for defective units - it does you little good to save a few bucks on your plasma television only to be hit with the cost of returning the product and paying to ship a replacement. Many Internet dealers drop-ship the product from distributors, so they really have no control over the returns or replacement process for defective merchandise: as a result, you could end up having to ship the defective unit to a repair center even though it was a new purchase. Always try to purchase from a dealer that buys direct from the manufacturer and stocks the inventory - you'll be glad you did.
Remember: There is only so much protection your credit card gives you. The policies of the dealer must be observed in the credit card purchasing process. Don't count on your credit card to replace a defective unit if the dealer has no policy in place.
A quality retailer will sell a quality extended warranty from a well known brand. After an extended warranty is purchased it is out of the dealer's hands. Beware of "fly by night" extended warranty companies - if they go out of business so goes your warranty. Make sure the warranty offered by your dealer protects you no matter what.
I would ask the customer representative at the online dealer if they have a physical warehouse; i.e., if they stock the products they sell. Many companies will claim to have a physical location but are truly working out of an apartment, house or small office with little to no control over the process once the transaction has been made. Ask them if you can visit the showroom or store location where they stock the product. It's also a better sign that your online dealer is truly authorized by the manufacturer who makes your plasma TV.
Besides customer references and reviews, it's reassuring to see corporate client listings. If a company is selling to corporations, schools and government agencies, then I feel they must have their act together.
Yahoo, Lycos or Ebay Internet Stores
As often as not, these are prime examples of Internet dealers that just drop ship from distributors. They have no control over the process of shipping, replacing, repairing, or taking back defective merchandise. Forget about "Service after the sale" from these outfits.
Make sure you can access the policies on the dealer web site with regard to returns and every other aspect of the transaction. Is everything covered?
Ask the company representative you speak with some specific questions about the product before ordering. Make sure they can give you some after-purchase technical assistance and guide you in the purchase of accessories such as mounts, cables, etc.
Look for knowledgeable, unbiased advice on which products may best suit your needs.
Generally, you are looking for a well established, specialized dealer who will give you a good price AND good service and support. The better the e-tailer knows its products, the smoother the ordering process will be. It is possible to buy a plasma TV online, and save money in the process! You will definitely find the best prices online, and there is also good customer service to be found from online dealers. Using these steps, you should be able to avoid a bad online ordering experience.