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Local or Online Stores: Pay More for the Personal Touch?

This article was written by in Frugality. 18 comments.


About a month ago, I spoke with Tom Dziubek about frugal photography for the Consumerism Commentary Podcast. The frugal philosophy is simple: always pay the least for the level of quality you want. In a field like photography where electronic equipment is the focus, your best friends are Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, and specialty stores like KEH.com and B&H. Almost all of the time, the lowest price once could find for equipment, new or used, can be found through one of these five locations.

With photography, if you purchase equipment, you want the opportunity to try it out in person before you buy. There are a few options: find a friend who has the equipment you want to try and convince her to let you borrow it for a while, buy online and return the items if you don’t like it or it doesn’t work to your expectations, or try out similar items in a local store and leave the store to spend less money online. With the last option, you’re not auditioning the specific equipment you’ll end up owning, so that’s just one reason that strategy isn’t ideal.

Local stores have enough trouble trying to compete with stores with low overhead costs that are able to consistently undercut those stores on price. Consumers with a frugal mindset generally take the approach that the struggle between local stores and major mostly-online retailers is irrelevant.

I like walking into a store and building a rapport with the owner. In my case, I’ve been working with a local photography store to expand my hobby. For the last few years, I’ve passed control over most of my photography to software on automated digital equipment. While I use some manual settings, I’ve decided to challenge myself a little more and move into a subset of photography that might produce more satisfying results: medium format.

The owner of the local store has been very helpful. The store has tons of equipment to try. Although I researched quite a bit before venturing in, the owner’s knowledge and experience has been very helpful in troubleshooting both equipment and technique. I discovered a minor problem with my Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, and rather than sending it back through the mail to a stranger, it will be diagnosed, and fixed if necessary, locally.

While some equipment will cost more, I will most likely deal with this store directly rather than shopping online, at least for used photography equipment, the bulk of what I buy for medium format. Nevertheless, I feel I would have to draw a line at a certain point. When equipment is sufficiently expensive, there might be hundreds of thousands of dollars between the best price I can find and the best price this local store can offer. For used equipment, I may be willing to pay the extra cost to work with the store owner I trust, but for new equipment, where quality control is usually excellent and return policies are sufficient, it would not be financially responsible to pay more than I need to.

The $500 difference in price for a camera on KEH.com compared with the local store could be used to buy and develop many rolls of film. Speaking of film, the photograph included with this article is from the first roll of medium-format film I shot this past weekend. I have much room for improvement.

Are you willing to pay more to buy from a trusted, local source or is price for the same piece of equipment the only determining factor in your choice? If you are willing to pay more, is there a threshold at which you draw the line?

Updated September 12, 2011 and originally published May 24, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve

I assume you meant “hundreds or thousands”? Otherwise I admire both your commitment to photography and financial resources :)

It’s interesting to me how people are more willing to compromise their principles when there is more money at stake. Not calling you out, I have been noticing myself doing this recently.

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avatar Dan

Generally, it is sufficient for me to read reviews of a product and find the cheapest way to obtain it.

I think the real ethical question is: Is it proper to use the resources and knowledge of a local shop owner, just to turn around and buy the same product online for much cheaper? You mentioned that you could get the same product online for $500 less. Perhaps you could try negotiating with the shop owner? If I were in his shoes, I’d like the opportunity to at least decline a lower offer. Given that he did give you good advice, it’s only fair.

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avatar Jenna

For equipment – definitely go for the cheapest deal. For things like food – I tend to buy organic, locally sourced and fair trade (this usually cost more). For services – definitely go for the local and support friend’s small businesses. I think it all balances out in the end. I think it has to do with the emotional connection to things. I don’t tend to have much for things. But I do want to support my friends and put healthy things in my body.

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avatar Dan

I try to use the local vendors for hardware and services, and give them an opportunity to match price, or give me a deal on service or accessories. I like to support local businesses and feel the big guys have lots of opportunities the little guys don’t have.

That said, I’ll go for the low price package. my goal is 1/3 to 1/2 list. I’ve bought a bunch of stuff off Ebay, CL. (not photographic equipment, but guitars and musical equipment. The approach is the same.)

I also prefer local restaurants, rather than big chains, but that’s a different topic.

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avatar Henry Posner

I appreciate the benefits of hands-on shopping as much as anyone, particularly for electronics gear, hardware stuff and musical instruments. I’m also aware that for most folks these days there is no local shop where one can browse and leisurely compare half-a-dozen different cameras and lenses. I also know there are too many “box houses” here and there which only want to sell you what’s in stock or what’s paying the individual sales associate the best commission or spiff at the moment.

B&H doesn’t do spiffs and doesn’t pay commissions and we hire pros and make sure they get plenty of product training from industry tech reps. We try to have a comprehensive and informative web site and offer both online LiveChat and toll-free telephones so you can get individual questions answered.

Henry Posner
B&H Photo-Video

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avatar Money Smarts

I come down on both sides of this issue. For most things I search online and buy the item where I can find it the cheapest, most items are going to be the same if you buy online or in a local store. However, if I’m buying a higher ticket item – especially one that has a higher rate of failure or problems – and i’m anticipating I might have to return it or bring it in to get fixed, I might pay a little bit more in order to be able to have a local shop nearby where I can bring it to return or be serviced. It all depends.

The good part is I’m normally able to find some pretty amazing deals on things – even at bricks and mortars stores – simply because the internet is such a great research tool. Usually you can find a coupon code, sale or other discount just by doing a few minutes research.

For example, I recently bought a TV at a bricks and mortar store because I wanted to be able to return it if necessary. When I searched, however, I found several online discounts for the store I bought it at, and ended up saving hundreds of dollars by stacking discounts buying it online – but picking up in store.

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