If you read my "Buying an HDTV: Online or in-store" article, you'd have found the clear(ish) winner was buying online. The selection and prices pretty much can't be beat.
But as I mentioned in that article, not all online stores are created equal. There are many important factors to look out for when buying online that go far beyond price.
Buyer beware, as they say, as you'll see.
I can't offer an opinion on every TV retailer on the Web, as there are gazillions (actual number). What I can do is give you some guidelines to look out for when surfin' and buyin'.
The biggest-name online retailers offer a certain level of comfort, in that they aren't likely to rip you off, and most will help if you have a problem.
When you move to the next rung of retailers, ones that you might not have heard of before, things get a little dicey. As smaller operations, they can often charge lower prices than the bigs. Thankfully, the Internet is all knowing: A simple Google search of the company name should give you the highlights. Are other consumers positive or negative about their experience with the Web site? Every site is going to have a few detractors, but a lot of negatives is worth noting.
Amazon, eBay, and Buy all offer storefronts for thousands of smaller companies. These companies live and breathe (or they should) on their seller ratings. For more info on each, check out Amazon's info page on this, and eBay's. Buy.com buries this info a bit under "Seller Summary." All these ratings are user-generated. What percentage is good? Personally I wouldn't buy from a company even in the low 90s, when there are likely better options.
I've bought a number of items on eBay (135-year-old copy of "The Bab Ballads" FTW!) and many used CDs and books from random Amazon affiliates. In the few cases I had a problem, the owners of the stores helped me out immediately. Granted, this isn't like buying a TV, but I know some people are still scared of buying things "over the Internets," and they shouldn't be. Cautious, for sure, but not worried.
Shipping and taxes
Any price advantage from an online retailer can be quickly erased with shipping charges. There are always deals going somewhere. Crutchfield regularly offers free shipping on everything. Amazon, if you're a member of its Prime service, offers free two-day shipping.
If you're buying from a company that doesn't have a physical presence in your state, you technically don't have to pay sales tax. Certain states, like California, require you to calculate your own sales tax and pay it to the state every April. There's no real oversight for this, seemingly just your own conscience. Other states have no such regulation.
This is key, and I'm sure the No. 1 concern for most people. Amazon has a great return policy, 30 days, and it pays return shipping. That's only if you buy it from Amazon, though. Its affiliates can have different return policies.
Crutchfield does even better, expands the window out to 60 days, but you have to pay the shipping.
It's worth spending a few minutes digging through the retailer's Web site to find its specific policy. Many times, it's buried. If it doesn't want you to know its return policy, that's probably a bad sign. A good example is Buy.com. It boasts about its 45-day return policy on most items, but its terms are vague. They'll pay for the return shipping if the issue is their fault, implying that they won't if you just don't want the item. TVs above 27 inches "may require special freight delivery service," implying that you'll have to pay it. No specifics isn't great.
Often, buying a product from a brick-and-mortar store's Web site (e.g., Best Buy, Wal-Mart, etc.), will give you the option of returning it to your local store.
Also, it's worth noting that many retailers will push extended warranties and expensive cables. Both are just profit centers for the stores, and offer little to no value to you. Check out Are TV extended warranties worth it? and the HDMI cable buying guide for more info.
Are your credit-card numbers safe? Honestly, no, they're not. As the recent spate of hackings has shown, no computer system is truly safe. Some are more safe than others. This is a another example of why you should go with retailers you recognize. That's not to say small Web sites can't be safe, but the big Web sites have a lot riding on you feeling comfortable giving them your info. They're a lot more motivated to secure their databases.
If you use a credit card (as opposed to a debit card), any fraudulent charges can likely be disputed.
Buying online offers lots of benefits (price, selection), but like anything, it pays to be cautious. Just because a Web site has the lowest price, it doesn't necessarily mean that's the best option. If Company A sells a TV for $850, but has a seller rating of 70 percent, it's probably worth going with Company B and its 99 percent rating for $900. Ease of returns and some kind of customer service are likely worth paying for.
What has your experience been with buying TVs online? Any weird experiences?
Got a question for Geoff? Send him an e-mail! If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, he won't tell you which TV to buy. Yes, he'll probably truncate and/or clean up your e-mail. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.