Home Theater Holiday Shopping Survival Guide

Holiday shopping tips for home theater and consumer electronics shoppers

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Thinking of buying home or consumer electronics products, such as an all-in-one home theater system, HD/4K Ultra HD TV, Blu-ray Disc player, sound bar, or media streamer, as a gift this holiday season? If so, check out our annual home theater holiday shopping survival guide for some great tips to ease your shopping stress and help you make the right decision.

Create Your Home Theater Budget Wisely

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Be realistic. There are many discounts during the holiday season, especially on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), but many items are only offered as limited quantities, perhaps on certain days, or even during certain hours of a specific shopping day. These items will run out quickly before you may have a chance to get one.

Also, make sure you budget for additional expenses such as sales tax, delivery charges, and needed accessories (see more on this below). A good rule of thumb is to look at the purchase price of the product and add an additional 20-25%. This will more accurately reflect your final register total.

Do Your Own Product Research

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If you are interested in buying any type of home theater component, check out information both on the internet and in print on the type of products you are considering.

On the Web, sites such as this one can offer resources such 'Best' product lists, comparative reviews, product profiles, and more that can help you narrow down your choices.

Even if you are not a techie it is easy to gather some basic knowledge before shopping.

Don't ever tell a salesman you know nothing about the item you are trying to purchase, especially if he/she is on commission.

Read Carefully — Understand What Those Ads Really Mean

Frys and Best Buy Ad Examples
Frys and Best Buy Ad Examples. Fry's Electronics and Best Buy

We are always looking for the right product at the right price, but before you actually go out and buy you need to know how to buy. One important way to prepare for the home theater or consumer electronics shopping experience is to learn how to interpret the different types of ads that clutter the newspaper or internet.

Product ads come in four basic types:

The Doorbuster Ad

Be wary of the Door Buster and Limited Quantities Ads. These items are intended to bring bodies into the store; they are usually money losers, no name branded units that may not be a great consumer value either.

Door Buster Ads and Limited Quantity Ads are very common during holiday shopping periods, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the Day after Christmas, New Year's Day, July 4th, Labor Day, and also Grand Openings.

If you are looking for something for your home theater system, is that bargain TV going give you great picture quality? Does that $29 DVD or $49 Blu-ray Disc player have all the needed outputs or features you need and play ALL types of Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, CD, CDrs, and CDrws? For this, I would bring a Blu-ray Disc, DVD and or CD/CD-R to play on the demo unit to make sure.

The Step-Up Ad

Alongside the doorbuster, are Ads for step-up products that may suit your purposes better. The strategy here for this type of Ad the retailer hopes that the consumer will actually by the step-up product, rather than the door buster. Although on the surface, this might be considered a bait-and-switch scheme, it is, and it isn't. Legally, as long as both products are in stock, the bait-and-switch issue is minimized, as long as you are not pressured into the step-up item.

A reasonable step-up item may actually represent a better value. These units are usually recognizable brands and have features and performance that will benefit the consumer more than the doorbuster.

The Rebate Ad

Take note of any rebates or promotions that may be in an ad. An ad may say BrandX Blu-ray Disc player for $49, but the fine print might say "after $30 mail-in rebate". You pay the $79 and the sales tax on the $79 at the register, and then get a coupon for the $30 mail-in rebate. Make sure the rebate coupon has a contact number or address that enables you to track your rebate. Rebates typically take 6-8 weeks to process.

Finance Promotion Ad

Another type of Ad that you really need to look at carefully is the Finance Promotion Ad. Many times you will see an ad, such as: No Interest or Payments for a specific time period, which can vary from 6 months to 2 years. However, this can be a fatal credit trap if you don't pay attention. The reason is that while it is true that you don't have to make any payments or pay interest during the specified time period mentioned in the ad, interest still accrues during the time period, which can be quite substantial.

In other words, while you aren't required to make any principal or interest payments during the credit line period, make sure you make as many payments as possible, or pay the whole thing off, before the end of the credit period, otherwise you will start owing all of the interest charges accumulated since the date of purchase. This might be more than the price of the product.

Beware of Generic Product Promos

Another trick used by retailers is advertising a product in generic terms. The ad might say: "32-inch LCD TV" instead of "32-inch Brand X, Y, or Z LCD TV". This means that the retailer may not be offering a more well-known brand but a more generic or no-name brand. This gives the retailer the flexibility to substitute brands if they run out of one brand due to customer demand. In this scenario, customers that come early might end up with a more well-known brand or more current model that customers who come in later. The only requirement on the retailer is that the items have approximately the same features — according to what is stated in the ad.

Product Availability

Just because something is featured in an ad as being on sale, it doesn't mean that the store has enough for everybody that wants to purchase the item that is being advertised.

Although it is illegal for a store to advertise something it doesn't have in stock, a store can specify in their ad that the item is only available in limited quantities. Look for phrases in an ad, such as minimum quantity X number per store, Doorbuster (item only available at advertised price for certain time period — common for Grand Opening and Black Friday Ads), or Limit 1 per customer.


Understand how rainchecks work. If an item is specifically advertised as a Door Buster or Limited Quantity, there is no requirement that the store provides a raincheck to purchase the item at that price later. By the same token, even if the item is not advertised as a Doorbuster or Limited Quantity, the store might still state in the ad that no rainchecks are available for that item.

Buy Everything You Need The First Time

HDTV Cable Connections
HDTV Cable Connections. Robert Silva

Buy EVERYTHING a product needs to make it work. Don't take the 'I'm buying the unit, they can come back for everything else,' attitude.

Make sure you buy any needed cables, batteries, tapes, memory cards, bags, or other accessories so the item can be used the day it is given. If you are buying a DVD or Blu-ray Disc player, buy a couple of DVD or Blu-ray Disc movies. If you are giving someone a DVD Recorder as a gift, make sure you buy a package of blank DVDs in the correct format.

In addition, don't forget to get a good surge protector and the correct connection cables for those home theater components.

Another great accessory to consider is a rack, or cabinet, to store or display or those newly purchased home theater components. You might even consider a nice new comfortable chair or couch for you and/or your loved one to cuddle up in when watching all those Blu-ray discs or DVD movies and sporting events on that new big screen TV!

Also, an attractive stand, rack, or cabinet can give your loved one a way to organize gadgets in a logical fashion and help to organize those "miles" of cable that end up collecting dust, dog and cat hair, and who knows what else.

Sure, it's neat to show off all those gadgets to friends and neighbors, but you'll impress them more if the living room doesn't look like the local electronics retailer.

With low stock levels after the holidays, some accessories may be in short supply. If you can't afford the whole package, partner with someone to assist or give something that is in your budget.

Know Store Return Policies — Especially on Electronics

Standard Best Buy Return Policy
Standard Best Buy Return Policy. Best Buy.com

When buying gifts, make sure you know right up front what the return policy is. Don't buy a product just to give something to somebody knowing that they are going to return it. Some retailers have restocking fees on some or all items (once opened), including camcorders, digital cameras, and laptop computers. They are strict on this policy.

If the product is not defective but is still within the return policy, you may be sacked with a 15% restocking fee. If you are out of the return policy guidelines by even one day, the product is yours, even if the product is unopened.

A store's return policy should be posted at the cash register stations, and may also be imprinted on the back of your receipt. If you don't see it, ask.

Extended Service Plans — To Buy or Not To Buy?

Reading the Fine Print
Reading the Fine Print. Bart Sadowski - Getty Images

When buying gifts we want to do the bare minimum. Resistance to buying a service plan or extended warranty is common, and, many times your suspicion is justified. However, if you are buying anything mechanically based, such as a Blu-ray Disc/DVD/CD player or recorder, or you are buying a large-screen LCD or OLED TV, or video projector, consider buying extended service. Of course, the cost of the plan, the type of coverage offered, and the price of the plan are also important considerations.

Know the Rules of Mail Order and Online Buying

Hand holding credit card appearing from laptop
Hand holding credit card appearing from laptop. Dimitri Otis Getty Images

In the quest to find the right product at the right price, many consumers are buying more and more off of the internet, mail order, or from QVC and other shopping channels.

However, as attractive as those internet and mail order shopping prices are, there are some pitfalls. Keep the following tips in mind.

Buy From Authorized Dealers Only

There are some great "deals" on the internet and in mail-order Ads, but be wary: Is the seller an authorized dealer of the product in question? If not, the product manufacturer may not honor its warranty through that dealer (and is not obligated legally to do so).

Also, if you are buying from a shopping channel, such as QVC or HSN, you will often notice that a representative from the company, whose product is being promoted, is usually on hand. This is one reassurance that QVC, or a similar shopping channel, is an authorized dealer for the product.

However, be cautious when buying products via Auction sites, such as eBay. Make sure you are aware of whether the seller is reputable (check for a seller rating system on the site), the product is new or used, and also understand the terms and conditions of bidding and payment.

Avoid Purchasing Gray Market Goods

Some mail order and online dealers deal in and sell what is referred to as gray market goods. This means that the dealer may be selling a version of the product that is not intended for the U.S. market. It may have a Canadian or other foreign warranty, have a different model number, and the instructions may not be in English. Once again, the manufacturer is not obligated to honor its warranties if its products are sold in this manner.

Make Sure Everything is in The Box

Make sure that all accessories that are supposed to be in the box are included. To find out what items are supposed to be included, check out the manufacturers' website, or consult some reputable online sites, such as those listed by Amazon. Also, shopping channel outlets, such as QVC are usually straightforward regarding what comes in the box or what else is included in your purchase.

Know the Return Policy

Make sure the return policy is posted on the website or AD and that you understand the conditions. There is no automatic right to a refund if you are not happy if the return policy is clearly delineated. If you choose to buy from an unauthorized dealer, or an auction site you may be totally out of luck. Don't hesitate to ask questions — know who you are dealing with.

Be Aware of Shipping Costs

With ultra-low internet prices, many products appear at first to be great deals but beware of the shipping costs. If that $700 AV Receiver is $800 at the local retailer, but the online shipping cost is $50, you might want to rethink your purchase in light of being able to go to your local retailer if you have any trouble with your purchased unit, rather than having to ship it back to the online retailer for another $50.

Paying With Credit Cards Online

When paying by credit card online make sure that any purchasing you do is through a secure website, preferably with an SSL connection. You can also check for the Better Business Bureau Online Participation Program. If ordering by Phone, make you have the complete name of the person you are dealing with. Although online and mail-order credit card fraud is about the same as brick/mortar credit card fraud, it is always better to be safe than sorry. One safe option, if offered, is PayPal.

Other credit card tips include:

  • Make sure your credit card includes fraud protection.
  • Use a credit card that offers product return protection.
  • Consider getting a Virtual Credit Card number.
  • Add credit card transaction alerts on your online banking and/or mobile banking app and respond to alerts quickly.

Prepare Yourself Physically and Mentally

Family Eating Breakfast
Family Eating Breakfast. Getty Images

Before setting out for a day of holiday shopping, remember to eat a good breakfast (and also take some snacks and water with you). Wear good walking shoes, collect all of your notes and lists, and dispense with any unhappy thoughts. It will be a long day.

Whether you are an early or a last minute shopper, also remember to have fun. The stores will be crowded, you will have to wait your turn to be served, and it's possible that the item you may really want may be out-of-stock. Just go with the flow and have a happy holiday shopping season.