If you've been thinking about getting a new HDTV but have been putting off your purchase, now might be the best time to get a great deal on a new set, especially one with step-up features. And you might not want to think about it for too long.
One reason is that this is normally the time of year (March and early April) when the new 2012 models start to arrive in stores, so many retailers may be looking to sell off any inventory of older 2011 sets to make room for the newer models.
But this year there's another compelling reason: Several major manufacturers are moving away from MAP (or Minimum Advertised Pricing) to something called Unilateral Pricing Policy (UPP), which penalizes retailers for selling a TV below the manufacturer's preset price. Our friends at HD Guru first reported that both Samsung and then Sony are moving to UPP-style policies with step-up 2012 models. Apparently, the new policies go into effect on April 1st of this year.
Many of Samsung's Internet-enabled Smart TVs, which have a new Smart Hub interface, will be subject to "Unilateral" pricing.
Here's the big difference between the two pricing policies: With MAP pricing, a manufacturer can cut off co-op advertising funds if a retailer advertised a TV below a minimum price, which is why you often have to actually go through an online retailer's checkout before the price become visible. If the retailer is willing to lose those funds, it can sell the TV for whatever price it wants.
But with UPP, a manufacturer can cut off a retailer's product supplies if the retailer advertises or sells the TV for less than the predetermined minimum price. So basically, the TV's actual selling price is being set by the manufacturer, leaving little wiggle room for dealers to out-discount their competitors.
The move to UPP is seen as way to help brick-and-mortar storefronts, which have higher operating costs, remain competitive with online retailers, which can generally afford to sell TVs at lower prices. Both Samsung and Sony are imposing UPP on higher-end products with features that benefit from presentations and demos that can be done in showrooms and on sales floors with trained salespeople. These products typically have higher margins for both the manufacturer and retailer.
According to industry sources, the Samsung TVs that will be affected are in its step-up UNES6000, UNES7000, and flagship ES8000 LED-backlit LCD series, as well as E6000, E7000, and E8000 plasma models. All are 3D-capable Smart TVs. Sony's policies apply to similarly featured EX-, HX-, and flagship XBR models.
In addition to the UPP moves by Samsung and Sony, Panasonic recently cut the number of dealers it sells directly to and has restricted the sale of its products via third-party resellers. Once again the goal is to provide some pricing stability for its products in the market.
What all this means for those of us looking for a new TV is that prices on certain 2012 sets from a number of manufacturers will soon be "fixed," much the way products from Apple and Bose tend to be sold at the same prices, regardless of the retailer. Of course, we'll have to wait and see if these companies stick to their guns, especially if other major competitors don't adopt more rigorous pricing policies and the companies' market share starts to suffer.
The good news for those of us now in the market for a new HDTV is that if you're willing to consider a leftover 2011 set, you probably won't have to live without any key new features, as most of the improvements we saw at CES from 2012 models were largely incremental. And the first really novel advances, such as the first "4K" sets and OLED TVs, won't hit until later in the year. And sets with these features are expected to command significantly higher prices.
If you're looking for a new TV, let us know what you think about the move to one-price policies, and whether it will spur you to make a purchase before April 1st instead of waiting. And if so, let us know what you decide to buy.
—James K. Willcox