There are a few common ways that consumers shop for new plumbing fixtures: a local “big box” store, a plumbing showroom, online vendors or through their plumber. Which way is best?
Let’s start with the “big box” stores (Home Depot, Lowes and such). These stores typically offer low prices and the opportunity to find the material in stock the day you want it. By limiting the number of brands and models they are able to keep prices low; in some cases they offer a competitive “house” brand. Many manufacturers create somewhat lower quality product for distribution only through these home centers, which allows them to offer product at a lower price with a recognized brand name. For example, I know of a hardware manufacturer which produces forged brass product for their main line and a forged product for their home center line that is made of a zinc alloy instead of brass. It looks good new but does not have the strength or durability of their main line.
If you are remodeling or building new, your contractor (or plumber) may include a list of fixtures as part of his quote. If you are primarily concerned with getting something functional and are less concerned with appearance this may be the best way to go. The fixtures are likely to be fairly basic and from a major brand like Moen or Delta. One plus is that, in many cases, the plumber may offer an additional warranty if he is supplying the products. The downside is that you may have little say in what you get.
The showroom is the place for people who want more choice and good information on which to make their selections. You will have the opportunity to see a lot of product “in the flesh” and may even be able to test faucets or showerheads before you buy. The showroom’s greatest assets are expert sales people who can guide you to the best options for your project; drawing on their experience good sales people help you identify what products best meet your needs and help you avoid pitfalls (like selecting a faucet with a spout too short to reach into the sink). They can also help you match you design ideals to your budget because they know where money can be saved without a big sacrifice of style or quality. Most showrooms will also help with parts and warranties when needed.
There is a little more to think about when buying plumbing on the Internet. Certainly there are huge numbers of product choices and one can usually find very competitive prices. Many online stores provide a lot of information in the form of pictures, written descriptions, technical drawings and online reviews; so if you have the time you can learn a lot. The Internet is great at providing information but requires that you work through a lot to find what you need. Successful online purchasing requires an investment of time, both in researching what to buy and, potentially, taking care of any issues of installation or warranty after purchase. If you have the time and inclination then the Internet may be for you.
In summary I would say this. Home centers generally offer low price and moderate quality. Using contractor provided product is generally moderate quality and good service with little design. A showroom will offer you a wide choice of product, price and quality along with in-person service. The Internet has lots of choice and good pricing but requires more work by the consumer. Which is best for you?