Now before you laugh, this isn't as silly a question as it would appear. Of course, the simple answer to how to buy a ukulele is to go to a shop and buy one, but actually I get asked for advice on this subject an awful lot.
What most beginners worry about is whether they are buying the right ukulele, or whether the uke they buy will be ok, be damaged etc. The simple fact is this, not everybody lives near to a shop with a huge range of ukuleles, and some people may struggle with travelling to a store - this is where the world of mail order and the internet comes in to play, but understandably, people worry about that.
My thoughts are provided below from your best options to worst. I fully appreciate you may be forced in to the worst category, but hope my tips help you out and ease any worries!
1. The BEST option
The best option is, understandably, to go to an actual store and choose a ukulele. By doing this, not only will you have chance to actually pick up and play the ukulele you want, but you will be able to compare the uke to other models and seek advice from the store owner. Pick it up, check it over for any flaws, and most importantly play it! If you haven't learned to play yet, just give it some strums, or better still, ask the shop owner to play it for you. How does it sound to your ears? Do you like the tone? How does it compare to other ukuleles in the store?
Importantly, if you have any concerns about the set up of the instrument, say so. If the uke is buzzing, cannot be tuned, or has problems with intonation you should either reject it, or ask the shop owner if he can adjust it to improve it. In my view a dealer who refuses to do this for you is not worth your money as these tweaks should be second nature to a good uke dealer. If there are any imperfections or scratches on the uke, point them out to the dealer and see if he has another in the storeroom (or maybe haggle for a slight discount!). Remember, this is your choice and don't be bullied into buying something you are not happy with.
2. The MIDDLE option
If, like me, you live nowhere near a ukulele shop, (in my case, the nearest store with a good range is 2 hours drive away) you may need to rely on mail order. If you are doing this, the middle ground is to go with a store you can trust. Use the internet to ask questions about the shop in question, search for reviews about them. Mail order that falls in the middle ground can only mean, in my opinion, a store you can call and actually discuss the ukulele in question. If the store is simply a sales team and a warehouse and dont have a clue what you are talking about, avoid them. A good private store with an owner who understands the instrument will be willing and keen to talk to you about the ukulele and give you recommendations. Ask the dealer on the telephone to ensure he looks over the models he has and sends you one with no flaws. Also, ask the dealer to give the ukulele a once over to ensure there are no issues with tuning, action, buzzing and the like. As I said above, a dealer who refuses to do this is not worth your money. You may also ask your dealer to put better strings on the instrument for you - again, whilst you should have to pay for the strings, a good store will fit them for you.
But having secured a good store, how can you know what the ukulele sounds like? Well you can't very easily and this is why this option is the middle ground. The internet is again the best resource for you. Read reviews of your chosen instrument, use YouTube to find videos of the uke in question being played and use internet forums to ask the question of what others think about the uke. Your dealer will also be able to offer advice. Tell him what you have to spend and what you are thinking of and ask him whether he thinks this is a good choice or not. Again - a warehouse sales team will not be able to answer this question for you but a REAL shop will.
When buying mail order, ask the dealer to sell you a case as well whilst you are at it, and ask him to ship the ukulele inside the case - this will provide added protection when the box is being thrown about by the courier!
I have bought most of my ukes this way.
3. The WORST option
Occasionally you get your heart set on a certain ukulele and you can only find it at the sort of mass market store where you will not be able to speak to somebody who understands the instrument. Amazon for example sell ukes, but you wont find anybody on their Customer Services team who can talk to you about the instrument, let alone set it up! Ebay is another option people choose. On Ebay, I am not talking about those real shops with an ebay presence (they fall in the category above as you can speak to them) but again the mass market dealers who sell instruments in their thousands.
The problem with this option is that the ukulele will be sat in a warehouse alongside hundreds of others that came from the factory. When you order one, a chap in the warehouse simply takes the box down, labels it and ships it. No checking of the instrument will take place, and therefore at the cheaper end of the uke scale, there is a good chance that the uke may have some flaws or need some setting up when you receive it. This method is also next to impossible to ensure the instrument is shipped inside a case.
I have ordered in this way when there was a certain uke I really wanted, but could not find a friendly store who stocked one. I did this though, happy in the knowledge that I know how to set an instrument up, and in my case the uke DID need work. If you are uncomfortable doing this, I would only recommend ordering this way if you know somebody who can do the set up for you.
I hope the above help you. There are of course variations on this theme - certainly if you are buying a premium instrument I would urge you to try to play it before spending hundreds. If you are looking at international shipping, consider whether there are any import taxes, and be happy that the instrument will be packed in bombproof packing to avoid a messy costly return. In fact, returns my mail order are a real pain, but you do have customer rights and dont be afraid to complain!