Buying online and offline

Friday 29 May 2009This is 14 years old. Be careful.

I recently replaced our home phones because the old ones weren’t charging well, even with new batteries. I bought them online, had them delivered, set them up, and didn’t like them. The ring is strident, and the keypad has an aggravating quarter-second delay between pushing the button and making the tone. The phones are just not a pleasure to use.

I kicked myself for buying online where all I could tell was how the phone looked, and quantitative facts like battery type and price. I should have gone to a store. So the next time I was in a Best Buy, I went to look at the phones. And then I remembered: you can’t tell anything about the phones there either. First, none of them do anything, they are all non-working display models. Second, you can’t even pick some of them up: they are glued into the base, or have a cable awkwardly attached to their back. I had gotten into a car, driven to a real brick-and-mortar store that Best Buy had expensively built and staffed, and I had pretty much the same experience as I had online.

I understand that Best Buy needs to prevent theft, but don’t they also need to encourage purchases? I’m told that especially for laptops, trying the product physically is an important part of the purchasing process. Among many other reasons, Apple stores are part of the success of Apple laptops: customers are encouraging to touch and try the real thing.

For at least one of my complaints about the new phones, the online site could help me out: give me a usable emulation of the on-screen menu, and let me hear the noises the phone can make. For the keypad delay, there’s not much they can do.

Phones (I almost said “cordless phones”, but that would have dated me!) are a commodity these days, and price and appearance are probably the two most important considerations, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. But I would expect physical retailers to take whatever advantages they could.


Compare that experience with going into REI, for example, where they have knowledgeable sales staff who can help you make an informed decision, plus they have an extremely liberal return policy if you end up not liking your purchase. If only they sold telephones.
For all of the reasons you've detailed, we have gone back to old style desk phones with wires for some locations in the house. You can get them for $2.00 at yard sales and the like. We've been amazed at the compromises in sound quality we'd made with the cordless units, not to mention the hassle of buying new batteries for 2 or 3 different types of phones and the guilt of disposing with the old.

It's also refreshing to sit down and have a conversation, rather than partake in another task while balancing the phone on the shoulder.

Maybe a regression, but it works for us.
While shopping online does have it's downsides - the lack of tactile experience being one of them - it seems like it's more than made up for by how good customer support has become with many companies. Some examples ...
- WaterPik toothbrush with a dead battery: Called up WaterPik and they immediately sent me a new one, no questions asked.
- Logitech keyboard/mouse: After using mine for 2+ years, it failed. Logitech replaced it with newer model, no questions asked. Twice (yup, I've effectively upgraded my Logitech keyboard for free twice now.)
- Belkin power supply, same story as Logitech.
- I bought some hardware to make a baby crib from and accidentally got the wrong color. Even though it was my mistake, they replaced it at no cost *and* paid for all the shipping.

These are just a few examples that come to mind but, as a consumer, my expectations of what companies will/won't do for me when I'm dissatisfied have changed dramatically over the last 5 years. I attribute this largely to how powerful the consumer's voice has become on the social web. There are numerous examples of consumers putting a real dent in corporate bottom lines. (My favorite example, by far, is what happened to EA's Spore, which I blog about here)
I had a similar experience buying our recent land-line phones. I bought the Panasonic KX-TG1033S three-handset set based on the great reviews on Amazon. The same keypad beep lag you mention drives me nuts. The display also shows the number of missed calls, but in order to clear it, you have to manually view each number that called on each handset. The answering machine irrevocably clears the "new" status on messages after listening to them so if I listen to one of my wife's, she'll never know it unless I jot down a note. The call quality is good, I suppose, but I dread having to use it every time I pick it up. I'd rather just use corded phones again, like mikey, and not have spent $80.

I'll give Amazon some props though. They are outstanding on returns. I could have sent the unit back and tried again, but I'm doubtful I'll find another model that doesn't fall short. I'll just wait this set out the couple years until they won't hold charge.
Jarrod Roberson 6:40 PM on 29 May 2009
man get Uniden phones, especially the DECT 6.0 models rock!
I have the DECT 6.0 Model DECT2080-5 (, with 5 handsets and it is the best set of phones I have ever had. I have never had any problems with Uniden phones. We got these new ones mainly because we built a new house and needed lots of phones to cover the entire 6k square feet across 3 floors and the intercom feature is awesome. They even integrate with the digital voice mail we have with Comcast Digital Voice and blinks its little light when we have a digital voice mail. We got ours at Costco for ~$90.
Go for Uniden you won't be disappointed.
I'll 2nd the Uniden recommendation. We picked up a 5.8GHz, 3-handset system at Costco when we moved into our house 4.5 years ago and it's been great. Good sound quality, decent coverage (covers whole 2500sq-ft house), caller ID, decent ringtone choices, etc. I have absolutely no complaints with it.

If you're interested, looks like you can get the same system for ~$50
I've heard similar experiences from others or at a talk somewhere a while back- you can't "just buy a simple phone" anymore. Supposedly the marketing view is, given the option to buy featureless, simple, basic working phones for a good price, that consumers would always choose to tack on more features for a bit more (not me!!).
I find that for most things, Amazon reviews give me better information than I could ever hope for from a big box retailer. Sure, I was able to have a hands on look at my new toaster at the department store, but an online review might have clued me in to the fact that the handle melts and falls off after 3 months. Best of both worlds - hands on in the store with Amazon on a smartphone.

I'll recommend Uniden and Vtech phones. I've had both brands; very happy with them.
I too have had bad luck at Best Buy... I once bought a Toshiba laptop just to look and touch, and returned it before I left the store.

And I also just got fed up with my phones, and spent some time reading reviews on I ended up with a cordless Panasonic set (4 handsets) and they work marvelously.

For hardware, I've been going to Sears lately. They somehow strike the balance between inexpensive good products and great staff. I have yet to find a technology store that does the same face-to-face.

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