Sorry it took me a while, but I'm going to offer a double-serving of guides today to make up for the delay. Once again, the icons are completely unrelated due to lack of a fitting icon.
Greetings, comrades! I return today with another write-up to help you get into figure-collecting. So you've decided on a figure you want, but have no idea how to go about actually obtaining it? Well, this guide will deal with the various retailers out there to help you buy with confidence!
Japanese webshops are by far the most common choice for folks buying Japanese figures. They have a wider selection than their domestic counterparts, and are often considerably cheaper. They get items in far earlier, and sometimes carry exclusives. However, their two biggest flaws are the fact that they price in Japanese Yen, and some countries charge customs fees. The Japanese yen is stronger (against the US dollar, British pound, and several other currencies) than it's been in years and continues to grow, meaning that the amount you're actually paying has been slowly rising. Likewise, some countries charge customs fees for imported items. However, the pros of Japanese webshops generally outweigh the cons.
Amiami is the largest figure retailer in Japan, and opened their doors to the rest of the world last fall. Because they move such a huge amount of product, they can afford to offer lower prices than the competition (usually 10%-30% off the MSRP, depending on the item). Their customer service is also top-notch - despite their website stating that they can't cancel preorders, they'll happily do so if you ask politely. If you receive a defective item (like the infamous Ultra-Act Ultraman, they'll send you a free replacement if you send a photo of the defect and proof-of-purchase. They offer three shipping methods; EMS, Registered SAL, and normal SAL. Overall, Amiami is top-tier in terms of prices and service - however, due to their popularity, they also sell out of items very quickly.
Hobby Search, or 1999.co.jp, is one of the longest-running of the "big four." They're pretty solid - nothing to make them worse than the competition, but nothing to make them better, either. They've recently started accepting Paypal, and are now offering a consistent 15% discount. However, their customer service is far from amazing, and they don't allow preorder cancellation on some orders. In the end, though, if you know you're not gonna cancel a preorder and Amiami is sold out, HS is a solid choice. Also, they're rather prone to misspelling listing names - until very recently, S.H. Figuarts were "SH Figurets," and they were convinced for several months that Woody from Toy Story was called Woddy.
HLJ is kind-of a mixed bag. On one hand, they have no major discounts to speak of, making them more expensive than the competition. To make up for it, though, they offer wonderful customer service, and are the only major webshop to let you cancel and shuffle around preorders however you want. They're also fond of putting items on clearance (for example, they have a number of Revoltechs from late last year to early this year for 40%-off), and do shipping sales quite often. If you're willing to deal with the slightly higher prices, HLJ provides wonderful service and flexibility.
Otacute is... meh. Their biggest benefit is that they price in USD, so international buyers aren't hit as heavily by the rising yen. However, their prices aren't spectacular, and there have been various reports of people receiving smooshed boxes from them (fragile packing materials - they even used beer boxes for a while). They don't allow preorder cancellations, and they refuse to ship preorders shipping in the same month together (unlike every other retailer). Their biggest advantage is that they offer exclusive items, like the Touhou Project Figmas and the many exclusive Figuarts (Nazca Dopant *sniff*). With most orders, they'll throw in a tiny little bonus like some Revoltech stickers or a keychain featuring a character from some obscure VN). Overall, though, I'd avoid them unless you have no other choice.
Domestic webshops are a mixed bag. On one hand, they offer much faster, cheaper shipping with no customs fees. On the other hand, their prices can sometimes get ridiculous (I saw a Revoltech Kenshiro for $55). However, if the price of an item is close to what the Japanese retailers are offering, you may as well take the bait and save a bunch on shipping. They also sometimes carry items that are long-sold-out on the Japanese sites (it's how I found my Revoltech Yotsuba last year), but just be careful about bootlegs (especially with garage and resin kits).
So I hope this article helped you gain some perspective on the pros and cons of the various retailers. Happy shopping, and don't let the Woody get you!