After months of pondering the idea, you’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a camcorder to record life’s precious moments. But now comes another decision: where to buy?

Shopping for a camcorder is frustrating business if you’re not sure where to make your purchase. Are you in the market for a camcorder, and aren’t sure where to go? You’re not alone. Every day, thousands of shoppers set out into the shopping frontier, unaware of what type of store might best suit their needs.

Enter the Undercover Shoppers. Armed with pen and paper, our team of undercover shoppers set out to evaluate various consumer video outlets in search of answers to questions like these: What types of stores employ the best-informed salespeople? How do major appliance stores rate in terms of service and price? What about those huge chain stores that offer such great prices? Which stores offer the best selection? What about warranties? The answers we came up with just might surprise you.

We chose five sources to evaluate, two of which are mail-order companies. They were Circuit City (an all-appliance store), Sears (a major department store), WalMart (a large retail chain),and two mail-order companies–Video Plus and Abe’s of Maine. Let’s take a look at what our shoppers came up with. Please note that our undercover survey is intended to get you thinking about the different sales outlets available to you, and set you on the road to a successful purchase. Your own shopping experience might turn up different results than ours did.

Sales Technique
For the sales technique category, we evaluated three criteria: the helpfulness of the salesperson, his overall experience, and his knowledge of the product. Our first stop was Circuit City. We were interested to see if this store lived up to its slogan, "Where Service is State of the Art." This Circuit City branch didn’t disappoint. Within 30 seconds of entering the store, a salesman approached our shopper, Lisa. He was friendly, not overly pushy, and knowledgeable about the camcorders Lisa looked at. He pointed out various features that every consumer should know about before making a camcorder purchase, like zoom ratios, image stabilization and manual controls. He pointed out models with flip-out viewfinders and those with built-in viewfinders, and discussed the advantages of each type. He also discussed Sony’s SteadyShot system and how it differed from other image stabilization systems. His final recommendation–after asking what and how often Lisa would be shooting–was the Hitachi VM530A. This 8mm unit had a price tag of $599–not the least expensive Circuit City had, but hundreds below the more feature-rich Hi8 models. Overall, it was a very good sales pitch from a salesperson who knew his business.

At WalMart, Lisa encountered the opposite sales technique–that is, there was none. Lisa stood at the camcorder counter taking notes and examining the various models displayed for nearly 15 minutes. Not once during that time did a salesperson approach her, except for an "excuse me" by a salesman who needed to get behind the counter to help another patron. She was on her own; it was self-service, if you will. There were some "cue cards" displayed on the counter that described the differences between the VHS, VHS-C and 8mm formats, as well as a Zoom Ratio Guide that briefly explained what different zoom ratios meant. There was also an RCA/WalMart Camcorder Battery Cross-Reference Guide that listed what type of batteries were compatible with which RCA models. A nice thing to know, but not a question on the top of our list. Plus, the Battery Guide was from 1995–hardly a current source of information given that most camcorder manufacturers come out with a new line of camcorders each year.

The sales technique used at Sears was somewhere in between the two stores listed above. A friendly salesman greeted Lisa after just a few minutes of looking. He knew a little bit about a few of the models displayed, but seemed unsure about his territory. He, too, brought up Sony’s SteadyShot feature, but when Lisa inquired about various manual control features, he was unable to give her answers that satisfied our inquiring minds. He was called to the Video Game department, and seemed a bit relieved.

Selection and Price
Not counting the mail-order outlets, the Circuit City we visited offered the largest variety of camcorders. They displayed approximately 16-20 models ranging in price from $399 to $1200, from six different manufacturers. They carried VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS, 8mm and Hi8 formats, but no digital models. This, according to the salesman, was due to lack of demand. Circuit City offers an "Everyday Low-Price Guarantee" which states that the store will beat any legitimate price from a local store stocking the same new item in a factory-sealed box. If you find the same item at a lower price within 30 days, the company will refund 110% of the difference. Not a bad deal.

WalMart’s prices ranged from $399 to $599 for VHS, VHS-C or 8mm formats. They did not carry any Hi8, S-VHS or digital camcorders, although this wasn’t a big surprise given that the store specializes in low-priced merchandise. The models were haphazardly displayed and it was difficult to match the "cue card" description with the appropriate model.

In this category, Sears hit the middle of the road again. They displayed models from RCA, JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Sharp, ranging in price from $399 for RCA’s full-size VHS model CC432 to $799 for Panasonic’s VHS-C model PV-L657. They did not carry Hi8, S-VHS or digital models.

Warranties, Guarantees and Returns
You’ve completed your shopping mission, and now it’s time to take your precious camcorder out of its carton and do a little experimenting. But wait. Where’s that battery that was supposed to be included? And what about the flip-out viewfinder? It doesn’t rotate smoothly like the one on the store-model did. Frustration sets in. For most of us, when we put down our hard-earned cash or plastic, we expect to receive a product we’re satisfied with. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Knowing that we can return a product, "no-questions asked" if we’re not completely satisfied is a service that offers peace of mind.

Circuit City offers full refunds within 30 days of purchase if you’re not satisfied with the product for any reason. The merchandise must be returned in new condition with a sales receipt, carton and any accessories that were included in the original purchase.

At WalMart, if you’re not satisfied with your purchase, you can bring your camcorder back within 90 days for a full refund or exchange–with a receipt, of course. After 90 days, WalMart will offer repair services by the manufacturer. The manufacturer guarantees to contact you with a repair estimate before they make the repairs. (We think they should do that for any repair.)

Sears offers a Maintenance Agreement above and beyond the manufacturer’s warranty–for a price. The agreement offers "free" parts and labor for up to the first three years of ownership, unlimited service calls, non-technical calls (like how to clean your tape heads and how to get foreign objects out of your machine) plus an annual Preventive Maintenance Check. If a covered problem is detected during the Preventive Maintenance Check, it will be repaired at no additional charge to you. Sounds pretty good, but what does it cost? One year of coverage will run you $90; two years, $149; three years, $179. Evaluate your needs and make repair-contract purchases accordingly.

Mail Order
If heading from store to store to do your camcorder shopping isn’t for you, consider a mail order company. These businesses will take your order right over the phone and ship the product to your front door. Be aware, though, that some (but certainly not all) of these companies have reputations that leave plenty to be desired. Do extensive research before you buy, and heed the warnings we list in this article.

We set Al on the task of making the first call to Video Plus Audio. He told Joe, the sales representative, that he was doing some comparison shopping and that he’d never ordered via mail order before.

"You’re in for an interesting experience. Be sure to call a lot of different places, take lots of notes, ask lots of questions … You’ll get plenty of different answers to the same questions, depending on which (mail order) company you’re talking to," Joe warned. Now that’s sound, honest advice.

Al was disappointed, though, when he inquired about Panasonic’s PV-L657, the same camcorder Lisa saw earlier at Sears. Unfortunately, they did not have that particular unit in stock, although their advertisement states "all Panasonic camcorders available."

As far as their return and refund policy, returns or exchanges may be made within 14 days, and all returns are subject to a 10% restocking fee; shipping and handling charges are additional and non-refundable.

Al’s next call was to Abe’s of Maine. He wanted to compare the price of the PV-L657. Sears sold the unit for $799, with an extended service agreement available at $90 for the first year. Our salesman at Abe’s (Kevin) offered Al the same camcorder for $599 plus $30 shipping and handling, for a total of $629. A one-year, extended warranty was available for $99, bringing the total up to $729. Hmm … cheaper than Sears, but how did the service match up?

Al thanked Kevin for the information, and as he attempted to hang up, Kevin bluntly said, "What’s the matter, are we too cheap for you? No one can match our price." Al told him he had found a camcorder from another mail order company at the same price, and Kevin offered to beat the price by $10. After a few minutes of haggling, Al kindly thanked him again and hung up. A definitely different sales technique than any of the other outlets we’d tried, including Video Plus Audio, the mail-order company who utilized low-pressure sales tactics, and even warned us about the potential pitfalls of ordering by mail.

The bottom line? When it comes to mail order companies, do your research before you buy. Read the advertisements with extreme care, and make sure you have all the details prior to ordering. Understand the company’s return/refund policy before any money exchanges hands or you give out your credit card number, and never send cash through the mail.

Another good idea is to keep a complete record of your order. This would include the company’s name, the date your order was placed, whom you spoke with and what kind of product you purchased, along with any pertinent information the salesperson supplied you with.

Check with your local Better Business Bureau or your State Attorney General’s office to see if complaints have ever been filed against the company you’re interested in doing business with. For more mail-order advice, see the Mail Order Guidelines published in every issue of Videomaker.

Extra! Extra!
These days, every little perk helps. Circuit City offers "Answer City," a toll-free Line (800-950-9000) that hooks you up with a specialist who can answer your questions regarding set-up and operation of most of their products. Answer City is available seven days a week.

So, What Now?
We saw. We shopped. We conquered. So, now what? The rest is up to you. We’ve provided you with a wide-angle view of the various outlets available to you when it comes time for you to spend. Where you decide to purchase your camcorder is a personal decision, hopefully based on thorough, intelligent research and planning.

If self-service is your style, a store like WalMart would be a good option. These types of stores offer no-pressure, no-hassle shopping at reasonable prices. However, be sure to inspect your equipment carefully. Don’t purchase equipment in dented, torn boxes. If you want to be sure you’re getting the most current model, check with the manufacturer.

For you full-service types, a store like Circuit City would probably be your best bet. These stores offer in-house financing, a relatively knowledgeable sales staff and superb customer service.

Again, when it comes to ordering via mail, do your homework. Arming yourself with the weapon of knowledge can only help you in the long run.

Now, what are you waiting for? You’ve got some shopping to do!

Alice M. Greany is a freelance writer, editor, and frequent contributor to Videomaker.

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Camcorder Shopping Checklist

  1. Find out about the store’s return policy.
  2. Make sure the camcorder has a warranty.
  3. Research various outlets before you buy.
  4. Comparison shop.
  5. Ask if there’s a repair contract available–and be sure to find out how much it costs.
  6. Ask what types of extras are included (i.e., camera bag, battery, adapter).
  7. Don’t buy on impulse.
  8. Don’t buy a camcorder with features you don’t need.
  9. Never send cash through the mail.
  10. If you’re unclear about any part of a purchase contract agreement–ASK!

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