Diary of an HDTV-Set Shopper

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Cable is abuzz with the potential for selling HDTV programming. A big jump in penetration of HD-ready sets is predicted between now and 2008, when an estimated 45 million viewers worldwide are expected to own the sets, according to In-Stat/MDR, a high-tech market research firm.

That compares with only 4 million sets now, most of which are in use in Japan.

But what is the buying experience like today at retail? Are retailers helping or hurting the chances that cable will have a crack at those new technology buyers?

In April, I put on my shopping shoes and gave HDTV retailers a try.

BUYING BIASES

First, let me declare my biases: I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I like researching a new purchase, determining the best technology and features, at the best price, for my husband and me. And I’m usually the purchasing driver: My mate always believes the price will go down even further. (I’ll never hear the end of $50 VCRs!)

But I don’t like the actual purchase, as it inevitably means six to eight hours of cursing and frustration as the two of us — both college-educated adults — try to interpret the installation manual.

For purposes of this story, I went to a variety of retailers: big box chains, regional chains and one high-volume independent in Los Angeles and Orange counties. I selected weekdays for my excursions in hopes that it would be easier to find a salesman (they were all men) who would have time for my questions. I also chose stores both in cable franchise areas where HDTV had been marketed for a while as well as communities where that product is just getting off the ground.

Because I wanted the same experience as a regular consumer, I did not identify myself as a reporter. I told the salespeople my husband and I were locals and planned to upgrade from analog to digital technology. My first question was always the same: “I hear different terms. EDTV. HDTV Ready, HDTV. What’s the difference?” Then I let the salesman direct me.

SIX-STORE SAMPLE

I eventually visited six stores and direct-broadcast satellite programmers would be delighted with my unscientific findings.

Only one retailer seemed truly informed about the offerings from the local cable company. Four others actively pushed the purchase of DirecTV service, in addition to an HDTV set, with one salesman explaining it was “the only true all-digital source out there.”

The only program source-agnostic retailer was also the only one that didn’t sell DBS hardware.

My first stop was also my best experience. I headed for a Good Guys store in Rancho Santa Margarita, which is also the hometown of the regional headquarters for Cox Communications Inc.’s Orange County system. Cox has been marketing HDTV programming since June 2003, and Rancho Santa Margarita is a good market for all of cable’s products. Its hilly terrain makes over-the-air broadcast reception impossible in many areas there.

It appeared to be the only store actually showing live HDTV programming, as opposed to DVD loops. Several of the TVs bore small set-top placards noting the TVs were powered by Cox. It took a few minutes for Nathan, the salesman, to seek me out in the near empty store, but he took all the time I needed to get my questions answered.

I was impressed that he (nor any of the other salesmen) tried to immediately qualify me with that offensive “How much ya got to spend?” question. He did steer first to a 55-inch Philips LCOS HD-ready set, but easily moved on when I explained I’d need a room addition for a set that big.

DESIGNED 'SURPRISE’

As we moved to smaller screens, he wisely changed the displays from a washed-out rerun of Hogan’s Heroes on TV Land to a vividly colorful episode of Surprise by Design. Will all the channels look that great, I asked?

He said non-HD channels will certainly look better on the HD set, but added I could get nine HDTV channels from Cox, including HBO, ESPN, two In Demand networks and Discovery HD Theater. DBS would only offer me four HDTV channels, he indicated.

“You have to do cable or satellite here,” he noted, advising me to purchase my TV first, then call Cox and have them bring me out an HDTV converter and hook everything up for me.

While the cable pitch was great, the TV shopping was dismaying. I learned from Nathan the extra hits I have to plan into my budget. Plasmas look so sexy, but they are fragile. Depending on the HD model, I could experience pixel burn-in, long-term picture degradation due to gas depletion or bulb burnouts, which require a $200 replacement.

Add to that a custom stand (approximately $250 to $500), wall-mount hardware ($250) or custom installation ($500 and up), plus upgraded cabling to connect the set to my current stereo, and a warranty, and the budget I’d consider for the actual TV is shrinking by the minute. Add to that $120 a year and up for programming? My husband’s “wait for the price drop” is sounding wiser all the time.

My next stop was also in Cox territory, a Best Buy store in Mission Viejo, but it was a very different experience. I knew the argument on behalf of cable HDTV programming would be weak to non-existent the minute I walked in the store and the first thing I confronted was two tables set up to tout their DirecTV offer: three rooms and installation, free. Hard to argue with that offer.

The store was bustling but finally someone asked if he could help me. Turned out he was a warehouse worker, but he did go and find the TV salesman for me.

'GOTTA GET DBS’

He patiently answered questions and showed me models from different brands, with small signs advertising Cox.

“If you want a picture this clear, you gotta go with DBS. Everything they have is digital. Cable is only semi-digital,” he said.

Huh? He explained that some of the channels are still analog. The salesman also volunteered there was an alternate source for HD programming.

“I think it’s, like, Voom?” he said, mentioning the name of Cablevision’s national HDTV satellite service. “We don’t carry it. It’s got like 40 channels but the equipment is very, very expensive.”

In addition to my other possible ancillary purchases (stand, wall mount), this salesman added I should get a “power center” to reduce the noise I will pick up from analog cable signals that will interfere with the HDTV set.

DBS also got the thumbs up from my next salesman, at a Circuit City store in Anaheim. When I mentioned the local operator there, Adelphia Communications Corp., the salesman just winced.

“They’re uneven on their programming. They’re not even 100 % digital. You should go for DBS.”

He then took me over to a 20-foot-long display, including all the variations of the DirecTV box — DVRs, HDTV, standard, multiroom.

Digital cable is 720 lines of resolution, he said. But HDTV is up to 1080 which I could get with the help of DBS. The store was also offering a $75 gift card as a further incentive to DBS subscription, according to the display.

As for the TVs, he answered all my questions, promoted no brand over the other and suggested I check out the floor models for ones with features in whatever price range I selected.

SEXISM ALERT

I felt treatment smacking of sexism at my next two stops.

The salesman at regional TV specialty chain Ken Crane’s in West Los Angeles seemed truly dismayed when I told him my husband was not with me. But he did answer all my questions, and I didn’t feel rushed. He reiterated the TV type descriptions: plasmas are expensive to make but display a great picture, LCDs come in many sizes but the bulbs will burn out eventually, and that the Volkswagen-sized rear-projection big screens are the best value for the money.

It was the first place where they had stationed TVs of different resolutions next to one another, so the viewer could compare and notice subtleties like how black was truly black and not dark grey on the highest resolution sets.

“Don’t look at the price, just look at the display. Which one looks best?” he said. I picked the middle. I’ve always had expensive taste: It was almost $10,000.

This store is also located in Adelphia territory, and when asked about programming, he showed me a letter from the cable company detailing the networks it is offering in HDTV. Nearby Comcast, he added, offers the Big Three broadcasters, HBO and PBS in high definition for about $12.

He showed me a two-page spread from DirecTV detailing, weeknight by weeknight, all the HD programming I could get from DBS. Most of the listings were broadcast, but it would leave the uninitiated with the impression that there is much more to view with an expensive new set on DirecTV compared to the local cable operator.

NO 'KING’ THIS DAY

I didn’t get far at my local specialty TV retailer, Paul’s TV. The store owner advertises regionally, and heavily, calling himself “The King of Big Screen.” Maybe selling to someone else, that is.

I was greeted promptly at this La Habra store, which specializes in Mitsubishi big screen rear projection TV’s. Then I was handed off to the salesman, Danny. I hit him with my standard first question, about the difference between EDTV, HD ready, etc. Hold on, let me get something for you, he said, returning with an impressive, 58-page brochure on Mitsubishi’s digital televisions.

“This will tell you more than I ever could,” he said. Great, research material! But then he told me to look around because he had some paperwork to do. I never saw him again.

I did better at another local store, Howard’s TV and Appliances in Fullerton. A patient, competent salesperson restated the pros and cons of each type of set and — as Howard’s doesn’t sell DBS hardware — didn’t promote any one type of programming over the other.

But I still didn’t buy a set.

I concluded my husband was right.

Better to wait until the prices come down and the programming expands.

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