Where and How to Buy Your Digital Camera

Time was when you wanted to buy a new camera, you made a visit to your local camera store. Nowadays, full-service camera shops are all but extinct, having been done in by superstores, warehouse clubs, electronic boutiques, and of course, the Internet. With so many different sources available, where should you shop for your next camera?

Let's review some of the places you can buy digital cameras and accessories, along with the pros and cons of each:

■ Local camera stores—Although few and far between, many cities and towns still support a handful of stores that specialize in digital cameras and photographic supplies. Most, however, have expanded into other areas in an attempt to remain afloat, such as selling camcorders and other consumer electronics. The advantages of a full-service camera store are that you can have a hands-on session with the products you are thinking of buying, someone in the establishment usually has a working knowledge of photography and digital cameras and can competently answer your questions, and you can walk out of the store with the model you buy. What's more, when you return with more questions, the staff will be more likely to recognize you as a customer and try to help you. On the negative side, prices are likely higher than elsewhere, and selection is more limited.

Full-service camera stores—Large nationally oriented camera stores, like B&H Photo, Samy's, and Olden's, sell thousands of digital camera via toll-free operators, mail order, the Internet, or their retail outlets. Assuming that you're buying from one of the biggies and not a fly-by-night outfit, these large camera stores can offer bigger selections, better prices, fast service, and occasionally, even advice on what to buy. But they also tend to be rushed and impersonal, the salespeople may be curt and even rude, and you may have to jump through hoops if you must return defective or wrongly shipped items.

Superstores—Places like Sam's Club, Circuit City, Best Buy, Costco, and even Staples and OfficeMax do a big business in digital cameras. They usually have a good selection and supply of different makes and models, may offer discounts and rebates, and as long as you're in the store, there are lots of other items that you may want to stock up on. Don't expect any advice or assistance, since these are basically pick-it-yourself outfits.

The Internet—By using search engines like priceline.com or streetprices.com, you'll find scores of sellers of the digital camera you want, listed according to price. It's a quick way to buy and may give you the best price available. You're on your own regarding selection, however, since you'll get no advice on what to buy. Likely as not, you won't ever get to speak to a real, live person. And you must be careful that what you order is what you expect, because rectifying mistakes can be costly, frustrating, and time-consuming. Buying on the Internet is best left to users who are very familiar with both computers and cameras.

eBay and other online auctions—eBay presently is the world's largest camera dealer. In fact, more digital cameras (and film cameras as well) trade hands on eBay than almost every other source combined. Buying used equipment on eBay is strictly a matter between you and the seller, but keep in mind that most of the new digital cameras are sold from garage and basement operations and the starting price is usually just a notch above the industry wholesale price. So you're likely to get a camera at a good price, but if you have any problems or need to return the camera, you'll have to deal directly with the manufacturer and not the person or firm you bought it from. Again, buy on eBay only if you have a very good idea of what camera you want and are familiar with eBay's rules and limitations.

Camera and computer shows—Do a Google search on camera and computer shows, and you're likely to find one near your home sometime soon. These shows have dozens or scores of full-time and part-time dealers selling everything from PCs to printers to digital cameras and supplies. It's a fun way to compare wares and prices, to haggle and bargain, and possibly to come away with the camera you want at a price you can afford But as with Internet sales, that dealer probably isn't local, won't have any time to talk to you, and won't be any help if you need to return the camera—you'll have to deal directly with the manufacturer.

Private sellers—The problem with buying privately through a newspaper ad, garage sale, or personal friend is that the seller usually has only one camera to sell, and it may not be what's right for you, regardless of how great a price it may be going for. Usually, the terms are simple: cash and carry and as is. So if it's not what you wanted or expected or it doesn't work properly, you're stuck with it. That is, until you manage to privately sell it to some other sucker.

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