Thursday, August 11, 2011

OTA in Retail Land

Despite a few false leads, there is hope for OTA at the mall

Based on my last posts, there’s not much to help from the major TV networks for the average consumer to learn about and set up for OTA DTV. Sure, there’s a slight smattering of information available for Canadians from major TV networks on their websites, toll-free numbers and TV spots but unfortunately there is also an active campaign to round up the last of the non-pay TV subscribers and sign them up for satellite or cable services. (By the way, kudos to the marketing brains that found a way to take an improvement to a free alternate service and spin it into a way to make a sales pitch to get more subscribers! They’ll have to teach that one in business school.)

Meanwhile, what is happening in the retail world? Electronics stores and other TV-point-of-sales must be ready to jump on the DTV bandwagon, right? I mean someone out there must be willing to extol the benefits of DTV’s crystal clear uncompressed picture, new programming features and all those new OTA gadgets. Surely a business plan exists to generate some sales when as many as 1 out of 5 Canadians still receive their TV over the air.

To see what the average consumer would encounter from the retail world, your Average Joe has gone “undercover” to three big national electronics retail chains. At each of these stores, I’ve asked for information and products to help me complete a new OTA setup for my HDTV. At each location, the staff was asked the following questions to see how much they knew about the digital transition, how much OTA gear they actually had, how much they knew about their OTA products and how willing they were to sell it to me in the place of other alternatives such as satellite and cable boxes.

Typical questions consisted of:
• What digital channels can I receive in this area?
• What antenna do you suggest? (for various setups)
• What date is everything going digital?
• I think my elderly parents’ TV is analog ... will they need a converter box and do you sell any? (Which do you recommend?)
• Have you been selling a lot of this OTA stuff?

Let’s check out the scorecard at these stores:

OTA gear selection: Limited. Best Buy has about 1-2 models of basic converter boxes and a few indoor antennas available online and in store. The store display was limited to shelving at the back end of a row. It wasn’t easy finding it.

Stock: The locations I visited all had good had stock of a few indoor RCA antennas. Only one type of converter box was available though. Limited accessories.

The Good: Friendly and eager staff, always ready to answer my questions. 30-day return policy.

The Bad: Very limited knowledge of OTA DTV technology and limited options to match. The staff seemed confused and different associates gave conflicting information.

Prices: Ouch!

Recommended: NO

The two stores I visited were well stocked (albeit limited in selection). The staff was friendly and eager to help. I liked that they encouraged me to try out an antenna, as I could bring it back within 30 days if I didn’t like it.
Despite being eager to help, the staff generally wasn’t very informed on OTA and OTA gear.

Although all staff members were aware of the digital transition date, unfortunately no one was able to tell me which stations were and will be available in my area. At least one associate mentioned that unlike satellite or cable, the station selection could not be guaranteed and varied per location. When I asked if I could get TSN on this antenna, most said I would have to try it out and see (hmmm not really sure where the cable-only TSN broadcast tower is though).

When I specified that I was interested in also getting the channels south of the border, no associates were able to tell me what the ranges were on their indoor antennas and if they could recommend the antennas they had in stock. However, one optimistic fellow said I shouldn’t have any issues as it was the same broadcast tower that served the entire area so if I could get the locals I should get the Americans as well. Yikes. Another associate recommended their most expensive model; when I asked what the difference was he said that it could support 1080 while the others couldn’t. (For the record, an antenna has nothing to do with the resolution of the picture being transmitted to your TV. It can improve the reception of the signal but not the image format of the signal! I’ve received 1080i on an old UHF loop antenna from the 80’s.)

As for the prices – they were overblown and over-rated. Online searches for the same equipment showed that it could be procured for cheaper even with shipping rates from most online retailers. For the same price range, several other better options also existed from more specialized stores.

In the end, Best Buy doesn’t even qualify as an Adequate Purchase for OTA gear.

OTA gear selection: While slightly better than its sister store Best Buy, very limited selections with some locations being worse. Expect the same basic converter boxes and indoor antennas. Converter boxes were separated from the antennas. One store had a display with a guide for selecting based on reception strength.

Stock: Poor in general. Two locations I visited were ransacked with almost empty racks; in some cases, certain antennas at another location were placed under the wrong price tags.

The Good: Friendly staff, 30-day return policy.

The Bad: Again, a lack of DTV knowledge. Several employees questioned my choice of OTA and tried to upsell a pay service so that I could get the most out of HDTV. Another suggested I buy a new TV instead of a converter box for my analog clunker.

If you listen closely you can hear my wallet crying

Recommended: NO

It seems Future Shop and Best Buy employees attended the same DTV training course. Although the staff was friendly and professional at all times, they just didn’t have the goods to help me with basic questions. Most associates recommended their premium indoor antenna for my basement TV. (Considering I can barely get 2 bars of cell service down there I don’t think this was the best advice)

As for extra OTA gear and accessories, some associates were able to tell me that my LCD HDTV I purchased last year did not require a converter box except for one fellow who still wasn’t sure. Unfortunately no one was able to tell me how (or sell me items) to set up two TVs off the same antenna, with most advising to just buy two antennas. Most associates didn’t know of the existence of DVRs for OTA and referred me to subscribe to a pay service to get a free PVR rental on promotion. Others said none existed while one other advised me to go to another store (hey, kudos for being honest at least).

If I thought Best Buy was bad price-wise, I was fast forwarded into financial debt by Future Shop. Again, your dollars are just better spent elsewhere.

PLEASE think twice before you buy your converter box from Best Buy or Future Shop. A quick Google search online can save you serious dough, just compare the price of this converter box from Future Shop (top) to the exact same one from another online-only Canadian retailer (below).

OTA gear selection: For a mall retail store, there is an honest effort to stock some selection in indoor antennas and converter boxes. One location actually had an outdoor antenna in stock in the back room. The online selection gets even better and they are the only of the big bunch of retailers that carries an OTA DVR (online only).

Stock: While one store I visited was running on empty, the others were adequate. What really saves them here is their online merchandise which was ready to roll.

The Good: Don’t mistake them for experts, but the friendly staff here is actually knowledgeable. 30-day return policy and free in-store pickup for items ordered online is enough to get on my good side.

The Bad: They are unfortunately in bed with their pay-TV parent company so watch out for the upsell.

Prices: Still somewhat high but at least they have different products of better quality to back it up. Research before buying, please.

Recommended: Soft Yes - if you want to go retail, this is your best bet compared to the two above. Specialized stores will have better prices and guidance though.

I was pleasantly surprised with The Source when I visited their locations. The staff was overall quite knowledgeable and correctly recommended outdoor antennas to have the best chance of catching distant signals from across the border. Unfortunately, most staff could not tell me what those channels were or where the signals were coming from (important as I would get them from two directions and most likely need a rotor). At one location one member actually had an OTA setup at home and was able to rattle off the channels he caught and gave me some tips based on his setup. There were no major gaffes or bumbled responses, despite one location that tried to upsell me to satellite service to get guaranteed reception… and of course the guaranteed monthly bills that go with it.

Despite the blatant cross advertising for their parent company, they also have a much wider variety of products available on their website such as larger antennas from reputable manufacturers, and a DVR/PVR made for over-the-air broadcasts.

Guess who owns The Source? Believe it or not, this is the first thing that pops up on their digital conversion webpage.

Prices for some items were a bit over what I was expecting, but for their online items the fact that it is shipped for free to the store for pick-up offsets certain differences with online-only retails that would charge a fortune to ship large items. Again, it’s just a matter of doing your research.


So in the end, it was an interesting experience to see how some stores can make a half-hearted attempt at selling OTA gear. I can only think of the impression this must give to new, uneducated consumers looking to try OTA DTV for the first time. Imagine dishing out almost $100 for a store-recommended indoor antenna for use in your basement (of all places) and only bringing in 2 strong local channels. What would you think about OTA TV? I can also imagine these stores scooping up these disappointed and misinformed clients when they come back to return the equipment with the higher-margin pay TV services as well.

Next time we’ll discuss what other resources are out there to help the average consumer make his purchasing decisions and get the support he needs to make an informed decision for OTA DTV. As always, stay tuned!