As a state university TV producer, I don't have the extravagant, throw-caution-to-the-wind budget to buy anything I set my mind on, but I do get the thrill of researching equipment to find the best product available for a given price range. I probably love saving money even more than I love spending it! Have you ever listened to someone talk about getting a great deal on something? They brag about it as if they, alone, possess the power to get a good deal. It doesn't matter if it is a car or a lawnmower; people love talking about all the money they saved in comparison to what "most people pay."
For some reason that I have yet to understand, I have always been the guy assigned to purchase all of the video gear for the outfits I've worked for. The quality and price of this gear I buy would seem like a fortune to some and pittance to others, but the concept of savings holds true across the board. After years of phone calls, Web browsing, shows, demos, etc., I have developed a philosophy and approach that has saved my employers a lot of money and heartache.
Once I moved to an academic setting I learned rather quickly to speak up and inquire about "academic" pricing. This, alone, can make a huge difference in the purchase price of a lot of different types of gear. Most people know that educators get price incentives for buying computers and software, but very few people take the time to research other products with academic price incentives, which range from lights to bags. There are some exceptions, I'm sure, but what really shocks me are colleagues that have no idea that such incentives are available.
It's usually good to cut out as many middlemen as you can, which means starting at the top with the manufacturers, whenever possible. Usually they will not deal directly by selling to you at reduced prices but it never hurts to ask, and if they are not able to deal directly, they will usually put you in contact with a dealer that can. This is one of the big benefits of going to a trade expo such as NAB; it can put you in contact with the people who can get you the best deal.
Even though businesses outside academia can't take advantage of academic discounts, you don't need to pay MSRP for everything you buy. But you'll probably need to do a little more research to find a deal. Relationships are just as valuable as price incentives. We have several vendors who give us great deal because we have been buying from them since they opened their doors.
Fantastic prices can come with hidden costs, so beware. Look for a reputable vendor that you trust. Don't judge a vendor by how they treat you before your purchase, but rather after the check has been cashed. Not surprisingly, the vendors I favor are always willing to help out with problems or answer questions, even if it doesn't mean getting a sale.
One thing that has worked for me is that I usually try to work with as few vendors as I can. For example, let's say I want to outfit a field package with camera, lights, microphone, batteries, etc. So I bid it out to 3-5 vendors. My favorite vendor isn't the lowest, isn't the highest, but somewhere in the middle. His price on the camera (the biggest-ticket item) is as good as the others and the vendor can get me everything I need. In this case, I would go with them because they were competitive and I don't have to worry about the time it will take to search for different vendors for everything I need to purchase.
Time is money! Another plus in making a big purchase through a single vendor is when problems come up. They are uniquely motivated to keep me happy by helping to resolve problems and I am able to build on that relationship by rewarding them with my future business for their efforts. I also suggest being honest with current and potential vendors. If you're looking around at other products or places, tell them the truth. I find that the more honest I am, the more honest they are with me. Also, if you do a little research and know some information about the product beforehand, they are usually less guarded and more willing to talk about product features (the good points and the bad).
While I would love to give a shout out to all the great vendors and manufacturers that I've dealt with through the years, I won't in fear of forgetting someone or saying that something might be misinterpreted. If you're interested in finding out who's saved me a bundle while I was spending a bundle, drop me a line. Have fun shopping.