Shopping Advice

I wrote about the art of bargaining (never say “haggle”, it sounds like a scavenging sea bird with Barbara Streisand’s face) in Japan in this post last year, and I’ll be drawing from the same vein here, the shop smart vein.
I really enjoy chasing down good deals on the net when there’s something I need. The majority of my online purchases are computer parts, books, music CDs, and movie DVDs. The latter 3 are often bought on Amazon, the inception of which has saved many a gaijin from the ridiculous cost of English language books in the few Japanese bookstores that actually have an English language section. For those of you living in Japan who can read Japanese, there are a few tips for online shopping I can share that can potentially save you a lot of money when compared to buying at a store.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of advantages to buying in stores, such as being able to actually run your greasy fingers over the products, talking to the staff, and having a physical location (instead of an address in cyberspace) to return to if things go wrong. Actually, the average floor staff member is pretty useless for answering technical queries so if you want details you are best off looking for a geeky staff member who can be goaded into talking about various pros and cons of the products. You know, the kind of guy who gets absorbed in computer magazines while dropping crumbs on himself during lunch break. There’s at least a few of these guys in every electronics store around the world, it’s just that they can be hard to spot because they sometimes herd together and hide from the customers. In this case, you can often find them either near the service counter or repair desk, or in the back room nursing sick appliances back to health and having rubber band wars. Also, some are known to hang large numbers of keys from their waistline, perhaps to attract a mate, so if all else fails, stop and listen for the telltale jingling as they pace their territory.
Note: When I was in the states over the holidays, I actually saw a subspecies of staff-geek (s. geekus minor) at Fry’s Electronics sporting a wrist watch calculator (the true staff-geek, s. geekus major, is born with a dedicated computation device in his shirt pocket, the type of which varies by region; interestingly, it can be dropped as a decoy to confuse attacking predators – and will grow back with time)! He was feverishly moving boxes around the shelves and mumbling softly to himself, and I made a mental note to work him into a post somehow. To the anonymous geek at the Fry’s in Fountain Valley: this one’s for you (BTW, please get your ass behind the returns counter – that goddamn line was so long, I swear there were people waiting to return Pong – and that was before Christmas!)
Site recommendations:
The de facto price comparison site for electronics in Japan is kakaku.com. So far, the only one of its competitors that is worth a damn is coneco.net. These are sites to go to when you want to find the cheapest price for a specific product. I have been doing extensive testing for various items on both these sites recently and would say that they should be used in conjunction because Kakaku is more accurate (there are less listed items with input mistakes) and is fuller-featured, but Coneco sometimes has cheaper listings and a better interface for doing certain searches.
One of the best features on Kakaku is the BBS (bulletin board) for each individual product where you can ask others for reviews or advice. It’s nice because a lot of people actually use it and you can scan for information or ask questions. Another Kakaku feature watches the price of a specific product and will send you e-mail if it reaches a price you designate. I’m not linking to anything I mentioned here because the pages are product-specific. Go to the main page and you will find everything I described plus a LOT more as you get deeper into the site and look up specific products.
Coneco allows shops to list “display” or “floor” models which are sometimes very good deals. My favorite thing about this site, though, is how quickly you can search for the cheapest item in a category. Visit the full category page here, click on a category, let’s use Laser Printers as an example, rearrange the listing order to “By price; descending” by clicking in the appropriate column, and POW! there it is ( just for the record, today’s cheapest laser printer is a Canon LBP-1120 being sold for 17,980 yen with an average price of 21,838 yen for the 38 stores that are selling it ). Sometimes you can get great deals this way by trolling the categories.
Another place to troll for deals are the bargain pages on sites listed on Kakaku here or Coneco here. On the front page of each site there is usually a link for daily specials or campaigns that are being held. This is how I scored my $2,500 VAIO for $1000 last year, by clicking a random link one day. Actually, if you have read this far, you deserve the keys to the kingdom, here. The links on that page go straight to the bargain pages. Now go forward, grasshopper, and shop righteously.
Amazon-specific advice:
If you ever order products through amazon.com’s Japanese site that require shipping from the US, look up the price on the US site first. Depending on exchange rate and shipping fees (actually very cheap for small items), as well as campaigns, discounts, and other variables, it can sometimes make a big difference. I saved about 25% overall on DVD box sets I purchased last year (Region 1 versions of 24, The Sopranos, and Alias – ) by ordering through amazon.com rather than amazon.co.jp. Also, I suspect that shipments arrive much quicker doing it this way – I’ve never waited more than ten days for a shipment from amazon.com, but amazon.co.jp sometimes takes up to two months to ship me items they originally claim they can ship in 2-3 days. And they take an equally long time to tell me when the item I ordered is out of stock and not scheduled for restocking, but would I like to order something else instead (this greatly irritates me; it feels a bit like false advertising). I suspect this time lag when ordering through the Japanese site is due to extra steps involving intra-company checks and balances, but who knows, it may be furry little creatures in the warehouse that go apeshit and delay my shipment out of spite when they discover the importation of western corruption into this virtuous nation of harmony, tradition, and respect. And tentacle porn.
Disclaimer: The accuracy of the site information here will probably change quickly (such is the nature of this great gift that Al Gore bestowed upon us.).

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