'Tis the season for tech

Rita Cumalander's wait for a flat-screen TV paid off.

The Chapin woman paid $1,089 for a 52-inch flat-screen for her family for Christmas this year and got a free Blu-ray DVD player.

If she had bought both when she started eyeing them last year, she would have paid more than $2,500.

Cumalander is among a growing number of consumers who are snapping up electronics this holiday season as prices plunge to unprecedented lows.

This is the first time in at least a quarter of a century that electronics have tied with toys as the best-selling holiday items, according to a new report.

"Electronics ... are flying out the door this Christmas season," Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, said in his report.

The Charleston-based consumer research group improved its prediction for holiday sales, on the basis of the spike in electronics sales. It is a bright spot for retailers coming off a two-year recession.

A recent survey by the group showed 30 percent of consumers were buying electronics for the majority of their gifts, and about 31 percent were buying toys as the top gift. Last year, about 24 percent named electronics, and about 34 percent said toys.

Beemer said flat-screen TVs are the hottest items on people's lists this year, as prices dip below $500 for some models.

"Twenty years ago, the same thing happened with VCRs when they hit the $249 price point," he said.

The trend was evident at Best Buy on Harbison Boulevard this week.

Manager Chris Carey said electronics normally selling at Christmas are digital cameras, iPods and GPS systems.

But this holiday, sales in the store's TV and computer departments have been "out of control."

In addition to flat-screen TVs, Blu-ray DVD players have been among the top-sellers, said Jason Sheppard, who has worked at the store for 10 years.

Price is the key factor. The Blu-ray DVD players, which play regular and Blu-ray DVDs with a crisper picture, start at $150. A year and a half ago, they cost $1,000.

"Nowadays, it is a lot more affordable," he said.

Also, Sheppard said more people are staying home in the down economy and trying to replicate the movie experience with home theater rooms. Taking a family to a movie and buying snacks twice would cost about as much as buying a Blu-ray player, he said.

Laptop computers also have been sought-after this year - especially the smaller netbooks - said Justin Morris, who has been with Best Buy for six years.

Those miniature laptops, which were introduced last year, typically sell for $250 to $400, usually to students or business people who need something portable with a long battery life.

"Five years ago, anything under $1,000, you were lucky if it turned on," Morris said. Now, he said, you can get a good computer for $299.

With the portability of laptops, social networking and free TV services, computers also have become more of an "enjoyment device" than an appliance, Morris said.

He said getting someone a computer for Christmas is no longer the equivalent of buying them a stove.

Harold Williams of Columbia was considering buying a laptop for his 12-year-old daughter to "keep her off mine," he said, while browsing the aisles at Best Buy.

He considered the lower-priced netbook but ruled it out because it doesn't play DVDs. The laptops with DVD capability he was eyeing were in the $400 to $500 price range.

Annette McIver of Swansea was shopping for a laptop for her college-age daughter. She chose one for $630 - about $300 less than she spent two years ago on a similar model that was stolen out of her daughter's car.

"Price is definitely a factor," she said.

Meanwhile, Cumalander saved so much on her TV and Blu-ray player, she picked up a laptop for $449, saving around $300 from what she would have spent last year.

She said she always researches her electronics purchases before committing.

"You get more for your money," she said.