You can look all you want, big sales on Apple products are few and far between. So when it comes to the term "bargain," set your expectations accordingly.
Why no sales, you ask? Part of reason is that Apple operates its own retail channels, so allowing third-party retailers to undercut them just doesn't make sense. There's also the fact that Apple positions itself as a premium brand. You don't see blowout sales on Burberry trench coats or Louis Vuitton handbags, so don't expect 50%-off Macbooks.
I tracked a dozen of the most popular Apple products across multiple retailers to determine if there's an outright winner. The short answer: yes, but with caveats. Here's what you need to know.
The short version
Go to the Apple Store and benchmark the price. This should be the highest price you'll ever see, so don't get tricked into paying more.
If you don't mind a previously-owned product, the Apple Store's refurbished products are always the best bargain, usually 15% off.
If you want it brand new, or if Apple doesn't carry refurbished versions of what you want, go to the Apple section of Amazon. Most products are discounted, but they don't carry everything.
If Amazon doesn't have it, try Best Buy. Some, but not all, products are discounted.
If you're a student, parent buying for a student, or a teacher, the Apple Store has a meager educational discount on computers and iPads.
Buying refurbs from Apple saves the most money
If you don't need the latest and greatest, the Apple Store's refurbished products, or refurbs, are my top recommendations for snagging a deal. Now let's be clear: "refurbished" means used, and maybe that's not everybody's cup of tea. But all refurbs from Apple are certified and carry a one-year warranty. I've purchased over a dozen laptops this way and never had a problem.
The Apple Store's refurbished products are consistently the cheapest deals you can get—around 15% off. At least they're the cheapest consistently legitimate source for pre-owned products.
Lots of other retailers sell "certified" refurbs of Apple products, but just who are these retailers and who's doing those supposed certifications? If it's a major retailer like Best Buy, it's probably fine. But always be sure to check the fine print on the return policies, including restocking fees.
Buying used products on Amazon is particularly complicated because Amazon probably isn't the seller—they're just providing a marketplace for others to sell. Those sellers could be legit or they could be scammers. The same goes for buying used products on Walmart.com.
Refurbs from the Apple Store are, in my experience, easy to get serviced if something goes wrong in the first year.
If you gotta buy it new, go to Amazon and Best Buy
If buying a used product isn't your thing, the the Apple section on Amazon.com should be your first stop. Generally speaking, Amazon offers a small but appreciable discount on every Apple product. I found an average of 8% off, but the data is a little spotty.
The problem is that Amazon, great mega-store that it may be, doesn't sell every Apple product. In a corporate act of crossing its arms and harrumphing, Amazon refuses to carry new iPhones and Apple TVs, likely because they compete with their own Fire products. (Jump down to iPhone buying tips.)
Amazon does carry every variety of Macbook, but be sure to check that it's a legitimate seller. I found some instances where the seller on Amazon was actually charging more than what the Apple Store charged.
The majority of Apple products on Amazon are perfectly legitimate and modestly discounted. Even if the discount is meager, a lot of people buy from Amazon regardless because Amazon has pretty much perfected the seamless shopping experience. Prime shipping and a very lax return policy make it a safe choice.
Best Buy, sometimes matched or even bested the Amazon sale price, but several products—including iPhones, Apple TV, and Watch—didn't garner any discount.
Walmart and B&H are two other reputable retailers, but their prices are generally the same as Amazon's, give or take the occasional promotion. Walmart was the least likely to carry what I was looking for. Also be aware that Walmart.com, like Amazon, has a robust marketplace for 3rd-party vendors, each with its own return policy and special fees.
MacMall is another popular online-only retailer, but with a 14-day return window, restocking fees, and a less-than-stellar customer service reputation, buyer beware.
If a price is suspiciously low, be suspicious.
Why would you ever buy new at the Apple Store?
The official Apple Store, both the online and the brick-and-mortars, simply doesn't offer sales (with very rare exceptions). That said, walking into an Apple store can be a unique and pleasant experience.
There's more than just the fancy glass and marble to admire. You can spend as much time as you like playing with the products. If you're patient, you can snag a salesperson to answer your long, tedious, and complicated questions. Heck, they'll even smile while they do it.
What you choose to do with those free resources is up to you, of course. You can buy the product from the Apple Store right then and there because it's easy, or perhaps as a token of your appreciation. Or you can whip out your phone and order it from another retailer at a cheaper price. Theoretically, you could even buy it from another retailer while using one of Apple's display laptops, but that seems unnecessarily cruel.
What are those rare exceptions for a sale at the Apple Store?
If you're a student, parent buying for a student, or a teacher, the Apple Store offers an educational discount, sometimes throwing in a bonus iTunes gift card. The educational discount is hardly worth pursuing though, averaging a measly 5% discount.
There's also the annual Black Friday sale, but it's only a small percentage off, and if you need the product at any other time of the year, that doesn't do you much good.
Apple laptops: Bargain hunting tips
Apple makes it stupidly hard to cross-compare its laptops with other retailers, simply because they hide the model names on the Apple Store website. What do I mean by this?
The Apple Store carries a 12-inch Macbook with a 1.2Ghz dual-core Intel Core m5 processor processor, a 512GB solid state drive, and 8GB RAM. And for clarity's sake, let's say it's the Silver-colored version.
Every retailer identifies this laptop as Apple Order Number "MLHC2LL/A"—every one except the Apple Store. Having the model name (or in this case the equally specific Apple Order Number) makes it easy to find and compare on other retailers' sites.
Maybe Apple doesn't include it because they want to inhibit this practice. Maybe it's because model names are ugly and don't fit in with the Apple aesthetic. Maybe it's because they don't want you thinking about the previous iteration of the Macbook compared to future Macbooks—they're all just a single, unending dynasty of "Macbook-dom".
The only way to really be sure that it's the same laptop is to painstakingly check all the specs. That's precisely what we recommend: jot down the screen size, processor specs, memory specs, storage specs, etc. Double and triple check everything before you click buy. Those specs are fidgety little things to pin down, especially when trying to buy used equipment. A lot of the Amazon listings are accidentally (or deliberately, in some cases) inaccurate.
The Apple Macbook Air is the laptop we recommend for most people, despite its age. Starting at $999 at the Apple Store for the 13-inch, the Air has been discontinued and effectively replaced by the Macbook. Sure, the screen resolution is a little low, but battery life is great and the keyboard is vastly superior to the Macbook. Of course Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy have it a little cheaper most of the time.
There are no deals on new iPhones
The retailers that do sell them, like Best Buy, charge the same price as the Apple Store. Walmart sells carrier-sponsored phones, but my local Walmart required me to come into the store rather than doing it online.
Buying from the Apple Store or direct from your cell carrier is the most straightforward method. The Apple Store has even created an incentive program with the iPhone Upgrade Program. You can trade in your old phone—at modest rates—and apply the credit towards a replacement.
The iPhone SE is the one we recommend for most people, being a tremendous value in the pricey world of iPhones. My co-worker Michael wrote what amounts to a love letter all about the SE. The 4-inch screen is smaller than its big siblings, but 128GB of storage goes a long way. Sure, you won't get the water-resistance, the 3D Touch functionality, and the improved battery life of the brand new iPhone 7, but you'll pay significantly less for an iPhone that still gets the job done. Even a year after its release, it's still a zippy smartphone with killer good looks and a friendly user interface.
The iPhone SE is new at Apple Store for $499, and pretty much anywhere else for the same price.
Apple TVs, Watches, and all that other Apple stuff
Buying an iPad seems insanely complicated ever since Apple stopped numbering each new generation. Once you add in the iPad Pro, iPad Mini, and discontinued iPad Air, it feels like a boatload of tablet options for an ever-dwindling market.
Chances are, you don't need the latest and greatest version of an iPad if it's primarily an entertainment device, so the Apple refurbished store is a good place to start.
The Apple Watch remains the best selling smartwatch, despite the entire smartwatch category having been declared dead by multiple outlets. The newer Series 2 isn't substantially different from its predecessor, adding GPS and the ability to take it in the pool. If you don't need those options, save a few bucks and buy the Series 1 new starting at $269 / $299 (38mm / 42mm) at the Apple Store. Occasional discounts of varying amounts—not much, really—can be found on Amazon.
The Apple TV is the most clear-cut of all. Buy the new one—also known as the 4th Generation—in the 64GB capacity. The Apple Store sells it new for $199 and refurbished for 15% off. Amazon doesn't carry them at all, and Walmart carries them new for about 12% off.
Oh, and let's not forget cables. Apple products have a seemingly endless supply of cables and adapters, and it's really hard not to feel like you're getting gouged by Apple. There's a whole world of third-party cables out there, but we recommend the Anker brand for cords. Just be sure to always buy Apple-branded MagSafe adapters for your laptop. Yes, they're overpriced, but you're paying for some pretty sophisticated design that's making sure not to fry your computer or burn the house down.