I recently bought my daughter a new cell phone at the AT&T store. The LG Neon was $20 (after rebate, and with renewal of her phone plan). The clear snap-on case to protect the phone? That was $30, plus tax, we were told. We passed.
Then I went online to Handheld Items (www.handhelditems.com) and ordered a similar case for less than $9 shipped. It even came in a zebra-print design that my daughter coveted. The same goes for a skin for my other daughter's iPod Touch. Target sells it for $25, plus tax. The same model from MyGearStore (via Amazon.com) was $13 shipped. Screen protectors? A five-pack was $10 to $18, plus tax, at Best Buy, or $2 shipped for a three-pack from Meritline (www.meritline.com).
Accessories for any tech gear are almost always significantly cheaper online. It's an area where brick and mortar stores make a tidy profit, reinforced by having a limited selection at a maximum markup. Many buyers want to be good to go with a big-ticket item when they walk out of the door, whether it's a memory card for a camera, an HDMI cable for an HDTV or a case for a cell phone.
That brings up the biggest caveat when ordering online: Plan ahead or expect to wait for your accessory.
The other major caveat is product quality. In a store, you can see what you're getting before you pay for it. That's not true online. Some online products are less expensive because they're made of inferior materials or manufactured poorly.
But that isn't always the case; it's just something to watch for. The build quality of the protective case for my daughter's phone is excellent. The iPod Touch skin is identical. The screen protector is a fairly generic product. Read customer reviews before buying if you're unsure.
One reader also offers a good reminder to check Reseller Ratings (www.resellerratings.com) for feedback on any online retailer that you haven't used previously.
Dealnews (www.dealnews.com) does a good job of tracking deals on mobile accessories. Other sites include CellPhoneShop (www.cellphoneshop.net), Monoprice (www.monoprice.com) and Newegg (www.newegg.com). Amazon and even eBay (read those reviews!) also are catchall options.
But don't pay retail prices for accessories if you don't have to.
"Being patient is worth it," one reader said on the Technobabble blog. "Go ahead and pay that 800 percent markup if you want, though. The feeling of being a sucker will fade with time."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542