Steps to Take Before You Buy a Big-Ticket Item

There comes a time in every shopper’s life when you have to make a large purchase. Whether your washing machine has gone on strike, your oven has decided to call it a day, or you can no longer live without a tablet or e-reader, buying a household appliance or digital gadget can be a stressful and drawn-out process.

Getting to the point where you’re able to make a good decision on a big-ticket item can take time, but it is worth it. The following steps can help.

1. Decide whether you really need the item, and can afford it. Sometimes we buy a new product because we are hoping to change a longstanding habit or because our friends or family have it. Other times, we succumb to the purely rational belief that we need the item when we actually don't - the Shopping Shoulds. On the other hand, there are big-ticket items that we genuinely need and that can make our lives easier or more fun. Think about how much you're likely to use the item; if it's only once in a blue moon, (eg a chainsaw or drill) it might be simpler to borrow it from a neighbour, family member or community borrowing scheme whenever you need to use it. If you decide you really need the item and you can afford it, then it's time for the next step.

2. Ease yourself into the research process. Use internet search engines to gain an overview of the kind of features and benefits you can expect from the item, and the issues and pitfalls to be aware of. Don’t worry about details at this stage, but focus on getting general information from many sources.

3. Speak to salespeople. Salespeople are often surprisingly honest about the products they sell. Tell the salesperson you’re just researching, and promise not to take up too much of their time. Then ask just enough questions to get information you can use as a basis for further research. Have a pen and notebook with you and take notes. Salespeople often earn commissions on what they sell, so try not to monopolise them if you’re not intending to buy from their store.

4. Research yourself! Take an honest look at your own lifestyle, and how it will affect your ultimate choice. What are you going to use the item for? Will it fit in with what you already have? Which features are important to you, and which can you do without? Should you buy new or secondhand? If you buy secondhand, what additional checks will you need to make? Do you have any special needs, and if so, what features should the product include to accommodate those needs?

Decide on the price bracket you can afford. Think about the ethical and green considerations you want to take into account (for example, plasma television screens use more electricity than do LCD screens).

5. Obtain in-depth information from trustworthy, independent sources. Once you have an overview and you’ve worked out your own needs, you’ll need more specific information: the price points of the item, the best time of year to buy it, the special features you can expect for different price points, the quality measures you might use to compare different products, the level of customer service offered by the various brands, and the cheapest price at which you can obtain the item once you’ve chosen it.

Use a range of trustworthy sources, including consumer websites and journals, comparison and product review websites, and shopping apps. Detailed specs are often available on company websites, but you can ring the company’s consumer information line if the information is incomplete. For Australian readers, Choice  is an excellent resource for comparing the performance of different products.

Follow your energy during the research process, as it can prevent you going up blind alleys that lead to unnecessary confusion.

6. Research the store as well as the product. The store you end up buying the product from will affect the experience you have is something goes wrong, so this needs to be part of your decision making. Find out about the returns policies and customer service record of the store before you buy.

7. Don’t overdo the research. Consumers get fazed by too much choice and may even opt out if it gets too hard! Putting some boundaries in place early on – eg the upper limit you’re prepared to pay, brands you don’t trust – can be helpful. Another option is to ask a salesperson or knowledgeable friend to recommend four or five of the best brands, and use that information to determine the direction of your research.

8. Shop wisely to get the right price. There are loads of shopping apps that can help you find the best price for a product. Here’s a list of the best iPhone shopping apps from lifehacker, and here’s one for the best Android shopping appsIf you find the best price at an online store, ensure you take freight costs into account. For extra savings, combine a coupon app with an app that gives you the cheapest price – but also consider points 6, 9 and 10.

If you don’t have access to shopping apps, use comparison websites to check prices, but also use the internet to check the prices offered by bricks-and-mortar stores that may not be included on comparison websites. You can’t assume that online stores are always cheaper, even when freight costs are waived.

9. Don’t assume you have to use price as the sole basis for deciding your preferred retailer. Because I value convenience and avoid risk, I prefer to buy big-ticket items from retailers to whom I can easily return the item if something goes wrong. In contrast, many consumers are happy to buy significant items from online stores, especially those stores with good returns policies.

10. Don’t let the smartphone rule you. You are the ultimate arbiter of what you buy, not your smartphone. Use shopping apps to give you the information you need to make a good decision – don’t let them make the decision for you.

11. Use your intuition when making your final choice. You may reach a point where you’ve worked out what’s right for you, and still have to choose between two similar items. If so, using your intuition can save you much time and effort. You just know you need to choose brand X rather than brand Y, although you can’t say why. (Note: this is not the same as mindless brand loyalty!) You will probably never know why this decision is right, but it may mean you avoid the hassle of a faulty or inappropriate product.

12. Let go for a while. If you’re finding it hard to choose between brand X and brand Y, step back and practise letting go. Decide that you’re going to temporarily give up, and let your unconscious handle it. Symbolically give the whole thing away. Do something that occupies your mind and see if an intuitive choice presents itself. This could be in the form of a mental image, a coincidental mention of the brand by someone or something, or just an overall sense that you’ve made your decision.

13. Give yourself time to get used to the item once you've bought it. A big-ticket item can take some getting used to and incorporate into your life. Expect a period of discomfort and uncertainty while you adjust to it. However, don’t hesitate to return it as soon as possible if it’s faulty.

Until next time!

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