Amazon and Best Buy are wrong: Here's why you don't need to see a TV before you buy it

Making an informed TV purchase is almost impossible in a big box store

Amazon and Best Buy are wrong: Here's why you don't need to see a TV before you buy it Credit: Getty / gilaxia

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In a somewhat surprising move, Amazon has decided to sell its Amazon Fire TV Edition smart televisions in brick-and-mortar Best Buy stores.

More than anyone, Amazon has normalized the buying of products without seeing them in person first. It's not just the sudden about-face that's newsworthy, but also the focus on TVs. It certainly won't benefit consumers, because virtually everything you “see” about a TV in a retail environment is a lie.

Tricks of the eye

Sure, every retailer has little tricks to put a product in its best light when showcasing it on a shelf. But TVs offer a particular challenge due to their overwhelming sameness. How do you motivate consumers with a wall full of flat, black rectangles all displaying the same looped movie scenes and in-store ads? By turning everything up to 11, of course.

As soon as they come out of the box, TVs are put in a special "retail mode" that blasts the brightness and color saturation to garish proportions, but helps them stand out in a busy showroom.

“Judging a TV in a room full of TVs is like listening to a speaker in a room full of blaring speakers,” says Lee Neikirk, editor and resident TV expert at Reviewed.

“The eye can only resolve so much contrast at one time. If you’re looking at something really bright in a bright room, your eye can’t resolve darker hues. It’s going to make the TV’s contrast look better than it will in your home.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t substantive differences in picture quality between a $500 TV and a $5,000 TV, just that it’s hard to detect them in a retail environment.

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Where’s the remote control?

TVs aren’t just about picture quality, though. Streaming features, smart connectivity, and well-designed menus make a world of difference from one brand to the next. Unfortunately, you won’t see any of them in a store either.

That’s because the remote controls are usually locked up in a drawer somewhere. And even if you had them, the retail mode on most TVs locks out many of those features.

Works with your smart home? Guess you’ll have to take their word.

Truly premiere technology like a TV with Amazon Alexa integration would seem to be at a particular disadvantage because there’s no way you can replicate a smart home setup in a place like Best Buy.

Fancy in-store displays will likely try to explain how it all works, but that could be accomplished more effectively and thoroughly on a web page. Plus you don’t have to get up from the couch to learn about it.

And if you think the sales associate is going to do a better job at explaining it, clearly you haven’t been in a Best Buy lately.

So why would you buy in-store?

There are a few practical reasons to buy a TV in-store rather than online. Instant gratification is at the top of the list. Drive to the store, lay down a credit card, and be on your way with a new TV.

There are also some very reasonable concerns that a TV will get damaged in shipping. The folks here in the Reviewed test labs have had hundreds of TVs shipped to us over the years. It’s rare (under five percent of the time for us), but a puncture or a drop can mean tiresome paperwork and weeks of additional waiting for a replacement.

Caveat emptor

Even if you do all the right research and get it home in one piece, it’s wise to temper expectations. No matter how good a TV may seem when advertised, you’ll frequently be running less-than-ideal video signals through it. Your home’s internet provider, modem, router, and other factors can all play a part in downgrading video quality—all of which is conveniently side-stepped in a retail environment.

“It’s like thinking those clothes on the mannequin are going to look just as good on you,” says Neikirk. “They probably won’t.”

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