Trouble finding a converter box?

HOUSTON TRANSITION Q/A: What you need to know about the switch

In Houston, about 17 percent of homes that use an antenna aren't ready.

This is something that can really hurt the Houston area. The federal government is mandating the change to digital signals and the government is even handing out $40 dollar coupons to make it easy to buy a converter box.

You'll need the box if you watch TV using only an antenna, like many people in our area. But the problem comes in trying to find the actual converter boxes.

They're sold out of the converter boxes at one Wal-Mart we visited. They're out of them at Sears and they do not have the converter boxes at a Best Buy we visited, either.

"They were unavailable at every store I went to," said consumer Joe Lamer.

Lamer is not alone in his search for a DTV converter box. We've heard from dozens of TV owners who do not have cable or satellite service and who are watching TV using an older set. They, too, are having a hard time getting a converter box ahead of the February 2009 digital TV conversion.

"Best Buy, I have been there three weeks now and every time they say the next shipment should have some on it," said Lamer. "But the next shipment has come and gone and there are no more on it."

Stores report the converter boxes fly off shelves the moment the shipment arrives.

"We cannot keep them on the shelves right now," said Max Walker with Best Buy. "Customers come in, come in with their coupons, but most times, we are out of them."

For those looking to get a converter box using the government coupon, the clock is ticking. From the time the coupons arrive, consumers have just three months to buy a converter before the coupon expires.

"So you have 90 days to use in order to get it," said Lamer. "I am already about 35 days into it and I have been unable to find any of them."

While the boxes are hard to find, it is possible to get your hands on one. It's just going to take a lot of patience and probably a few phone calls. One Radio Shack on the Southwest Freeway got 40 converter boxes in stock Monday. In just 24 hours, there were only three left.

At a Circuit City near the Galleria, we found three dozen boxes in stock, but employees say they are faster sellers.

Another unlikely place to buy the boxes -- H-E-B grocery stores. The store on South Brasewood had them in stock in Tuesday morning, but sold out by the afternoon.

So what can you do if you are having a hard time finding the boxes? Call, call, call. Make a list of several stores in your area and start making phone calls. Most places get the boxes on Thursday or Friday, so call on those days and ask if they have the boxes in stock.

If you have a coupon that's about to expire, what can you do to get the box without paying full price? It is possible to order them online. The letter that comes with the coupons lists several online retailers and even DTV hotline numbers to call to make sure a store in your area has the boxes. We have the links and the phone numbers on my consumer blog.

And remember, you need a converter box if you do not have cable or satellite and are watching TV on a set that does not have a digital tuner. Those are typically sets that are more than three or four years old.

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