Unlike buying most other big-ticket items, a lot can go wrong with appliance purchases. If your new tablet doesn’t work, you can just return it and get a replacement. But you can’t easily tote your new defective refrigerator back to the store, plus most consumers need help with delivery and installation.

Unfortunately, delivery and installation were the most problematic parts of many transactions, according to customer reviews for nonprofit consumer group Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org. The reviews were based on local surveyed appliance purchasers.

Equally unfortunate, Checkbook found that most stores use fake sale prices to mislead their customers into believing they are getting special deals when, in fact, appliances are on constant sale, and at most stores, buyers are paying too much.

Fortunately, Checkbook has identified some area stores that usually serve their customers well. To help you separate the good stores from the not-so-good ones, through a special arrangement, StarTribune readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local appliance stores for free through March 5 by visiting the website listed below.

Start by deciding on the models you wish to buy

There are a few excellent sources that provide independent buying advice. Consumer Reports regularly evaluates appliances on a range of quality issues, including reliability, and offers advice on the pros and cons of configurations, designs, features and options. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Star program provides lists and energy-usage data on certified appliances.

Salespeople can also be fantastic sources of buying advice — but only at stores that employ knowledgeable, helpful staff.

You want sound buying advice, careful and prompt delivery, and a trouble-free installation — but you don’t want to pay a steep price for them. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Checkbook found that highly rated stores often quote prices as low as, or even lower than, their low-rated competitors.

Don’t assume sale prices are low prices

The sale prices at many local stores and on most websites probably aren’t special prices at all. Even if the sign says “Save 60%,” it’s probably meaningless.

Shop around

The highest price quoted by local retailers for an LG refrigerator (model LMXS30776S) was $3,650; the lowest price was $2,499 — a tidy savings of $1,151. For a Maytag range (model MGR8850DS), prices ranged from $972 to $1,368, a difference of $396. Because it is easy to obtain price quotes, consumers willing to make four or five phone calls could save several hundred dollars.

Call or e-mail stores to get price quotes

A bad-for-consumers policy of appliance manufacturers is the use of “minimum advertised prices,” or MAP. Designed to boost profits for both manufacturers and large retailers by squelching price competition, these policies require retailers to advertise product prices at or above preset minimums. But MAP policies don’t apply to prices quoted in person, over the phone or via e-mail.

Mention that you are contacting several stores for quotes

When calling or e-mailing stores, mention that you are contacting multiple stores for price quotes. At independent stores, Checkbook’s shoppers found that informing sales staff that they were getting price quotes from several stores often spurred discounts or waivers of delivery and installation fees — or both.

You don’t have to pay more for superior service

Checkbook found that stores that rate high on service were as likely to quote low prices as stores that rate low for service — and that the best prices usually weren’t offered by the big chains.

Don’t assume online-only retailers are cheaper than local stores; you can’t count on the internet to deliver the best appliance deals.

Confirm delivery and installation prices

If you need delivery and installation services, nail down prices for that work along with prices for the appliances. Be aware that some companies won’t install dishwashers, and others won’t connect appliances to gas lines. Some delivery personnel won’t do anything but move appliances into place and plug them in. If you buy from a store that doesn’t provide full installation services, and you aren’t comfortable with doing it yourself, you’ll have to hire a plumber or appliance repair service. Most reasonably priced plumbers charge around $100 to $150 to hook up clothes washers, gas stoves or dishwashers. When comparing appliance prices, take these expenses into account.

 

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of appliance stores free of charge until March 5 at checkbook.org/StarTribune/Appliances.