- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Everything seems to be starting earlier this year, so why not add holiday buying advice to the list? After all, I recall seeing Halloween items on sale just after Memorial Day — or was if after Bastille Day? — so why not get a jump on your Christmas list?

I’m thinking about this in part because there are some good bargains out there and in part because the buying landscape has changed dramatically this past year. Bye-bye, Circuit City retail stores. (The brand survives as a Web site.) Farewell to many Ritz Camera stores — the firm is on the rebound after bankruptcy but is pruning the number of retail storefronts it operates. Remember the Sharper Image? Forget about its stores; look for the brand on products in other retailers’ catalogs and stores. Get the picture?

The good news is that other choices remain, and newer ones abound. Among the others is Best Buy, a chain I viewed a bit skeptically before. In years gone by, the stores seemed a bit hurried and even disorganized. Brand choices were somewhat limited, and I was just underwhelmed.

What a difference a year or two can make. Shopping locally and while traveling (in this case, the urban hub of Appleton, Wis.), I’ve found Best Buy stores not only well-organized and well-stocked, but staffed by the people who are utterly knowledgeable and helpful. It is a pleasure to shop there, even in a strange town when I was pressured by time.

The “big box” stores, notably Costco, also are ratcheting up their offerings in variety and quality. In recent visits, I’ve seen a fairly good variety of big-screen, flat-panel TVs, mostly LCDs, and the pricing seems to cover just about all the bases. Costco is emphasizing better customer support and easier returns, adding to consumer confidence, I believe. (Costco isn’t alone in its wider variety of flat-screens, by the way. I’ve noticed a similar trend at both Target and Wal-Mart.)

For shoppers allergic to parking lots, a greater number of good deals can be had via the Internet and even cable shopping outlets. Last weekend, QVC offered a 12-inch-display Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart notebook/tablet computer for slightly less than $1,100, with free shipping, a decent bundle of software and a free upgrade to Microsoft’s Windows 7, due later this month. It was a good price, and the shopping channel’s 30-day return policy is more generous than some I’ve seen.

Also, the R-word — as in “refurbished” — is no longer a dirty word. You can find refurbished electronics on Apple Inc.’s Web store; at Amazon.com if you’re looking for a superlow price on a first-generation Amazon Kindle; or at firms such as TigerDirect.com, where you can get name-brand computers from HP and Gateway at more-than-decent prices along with similar breaks on refurbished digital cameras or GPS units.

For the uninitiated, a “refurb,” as the word often is shortened, is an item that has come back to a manufacturer or retailer for any number of reasons; the customer no longer wants the item, for example, or perhaps it was a demonstration unit. Once the product has been checked for quality and maybe cleaned up a bit, it’s sold, usually at a good break off the retail price. Most makers will stand by refurbished products, offering the new-product warranty and even selling extended warranties for the items.

That makes a refurbished computer a good buy; a colleague bought a first MacBook that way and so far has been happy. You might want to be careful when shopping for a refurbished item, but it seems clear that many bargains can be found among them.

Perhaps the best thing you can do is shop early; there seem to be a good number of current offerings worth bagging before the holidays draw nigh.

E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.

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