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Stranger In A Strange Land: A Quest For Kitchen Appliances

1/05/2006 02:00:00 AM Eastern

An expert on major appliances — or majaps as the trade lingo goes — I am not. If a device has a processor, hard drive or is somehow tech-oriented, I'm all over it, but when you are talking ice dispenser and warming drawer I sort of lose focus.

Normally, this is not a problem for me. My wife and I don't have a dishwasher — more on that later — and my only interaction with a refrigerator and oven is when I use them at home. However, we are embarking on a total renovation of our kitchen, so we had to spend several evenings shopping for new majaps. Maybe that is a neat nickname.

With gas prices being what they are, we are lucky that our home is located practically at the center of a major appliance retail nexus on Long Island, N.Y. Within a mile we have a Best Buy, a Sears, a P.C. Richard & Sons and a Home Depo Expo Design Center, while a small independent dealer called Smithtown Appliance is a little farther away. We were looking to spend around $3,000 for a stainless steel refrigerator, oven and dishwasher.

So with zero preliminary research, my wife Tara and I headed to Best Buy. This is a standard format location that is just starting to implement some of the chain's new customer centric theories. The appliances section is quite large and was staffed by a single sales associate. Being a weekday evening in early December, the area was empty because everyone else was shopping for gifts over in the fun areas of the store.

We were greeted by the sales person in a friendly way. She told us to ask if we had any questions and backed off to let us browse on our own. This immediately made her a star in my book. I don't like sales people who run you around from product to product, pointing out all kinds of features. I would rather search on my own, digest the information and then make a decision. You will notice asking questions is not part of my formula, but that's why I have Tara. As the line in “Jerry Maguire” goes, “She completes me.” In this case, she is willing to ask all the basic questions that I refuse to. I also won't ask for directions when lost, but that is another story.

When it was time, Tara went into action. The sales associate gave a rather perfunctory answer when asked which refrigerator brand she liked best, claiming they were all similar; however, when confronted with the dishwasher section, she was full of useful info. Since we currently are dishwasher-less in my house, there was quite a bit we didn't know. I was willing to pretend that was unimportant, but Tara plowed ahead with many questions, all of which were nicely handled by the associate.

I was very impressed with Best Buy's selection. Prices ranged from the very affordable to darn expensive. I could not believe a dishwasher could cost almost $1,000, but a very impressive Siemens model proved me wrong.

Our next stop was Sears. Here we had a few minutes to peruse the aisles before we were assaulted by a sales person. Like many Sears associates I've dealt with, she was a bit older than those found at Best Buy or Circuit City and she was very comfortable working in a commissioned sales floor environment. She came over reeking of some horrible perfume and after a brief “What are you looking for?” proceeded to run us around the floor looking at ranges. She heavily pushed the Sears Kenmore brand; maybe there was a spiff running on them, I don't know. She did give out some useful information on certain features, but at the same time she was so intimidating that I wanted to leave even before we got to the refrigerators.

The store's fridge section was not as plentiful as Best Buy's, but the store stocked a very large number of ovens, although far fewer dishwashers.

The following day we decided to check out the Expo Design Center, the high-end Home Depot spin-off. We knew going in that it was pricey, but we were hoping the lower-end products might fit into our price range. We were wrong, by a lot. The sales associates again let us look on our own until we had some questions, which we did regarding countertops. These were handled very professionally and to our complete satisfaction.

Smithtown Appliance, a store with an outward appearance lifted directly from the 1950s, was our next stop. The sales person was more than friendly enough and not of the fire-breathing ilk we experienced at Sears. While the prices were a bit higher than we expected for such a store, Tara picked up several useful bits of information, such as how one brand was really the high-end line for another. Smithtown was willing to put together a fridge, oven and dishwasher package for us that would have knocked the price for all three down by about $600, but even with this, the total was above our allotted $3,000.

The next stop was P.C. Richard & Son's newest location — so new that we were there for its soft opening. The store was very inviting with a wide-open floor plan. The appliances section dominated about 30 percent of the floor space and was staffed by a nice-enough associate who gave me his card and offered to answer any questions. Since Tara was off to the ladies room with our daughter, I was on my own and basically had nothing to ask. He did not quite know how to deal with my silence, so we both stared at each other for a minute until I finally came up with something to say about the ovens.

As you can tell, I'm generally not a fan of commissioned sales floors, but as things go this was not so bad. This fellow fell somewhere in between what we experienced at Sears and Smithtown. The store had a nice selection and even a large area for those with big bucks looking for custom kitchens. The regular merchandise was pricier than I expected, but I also understand that a customer can dicker a bit on price. Meaning, if I was any type of shopper, I would beat this guy down to the wholesale price, but of course I'm a coward and would rather just pay what the price tag says. [This is one of the reasons I love car shopping at Saturn dealerships. All the ugliness of a negotiated price is eliminated.]

To fully immerse myself in a sales associate-free zone I visited Lowe's online. The selection was quite fantastic, although the images supplied were of poor resolution so I would be a little nervous about ordering something without seeing it in the store first.

In the end we ended up where we started, at Best Buy. LG turned out to be the big winner for us as we are now the proud owners of an LG dishwasher and 25.4-cubic-foot side-by-side refrigerator with exterior ice and water dispenser. Ending up with LG was a surprise for me. LG is a relatively new player in the majap category, at least in the United States, so I was somewhat reluctant at first to consider it. However, the brand was highly recommended by many sales people, and it featured some pretty neat technology, which appealed to my geeky side.

Frigidaire won the electric range contest. Quite simply it had the most features for the price, even compared to the high-end Siemens and Whirlpool Gold models we also considered.

Best Buy had the best prices and, for me, the most comfortable shopping environment. While I might have been able to work a better deal at P.C. Richard & Son or Smithtown Appliance, I do not want to shop that way.

As it turned out, we exceeded our spending limit by $600, but it was a small price to pay to see the look on Tara's face when she realized that in the not-too-distant future, we will never have to wash another dish by hand again.







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