Attention, PC Shoppers : Computer Buying Can Be an Adventure : THE CUTTING EDGE: CONSUMER’S COMPUTER GUIDE


So you have your eye on the Pentium 75 with the quad-speed CD-ROM, 8-MB RAM, three-button mouse, enhanced keyboard and the really, really big speakers.

You’ve read all the magazines. You’ve been to 12 stores, succeeded in making eye contact with no fewer than four salespeople and you think maybe you’re ready to commit.

But wait. Is 8 megs really enough? Is the color monitor that comes with the setup too pricey? Could you get a better deal at Circuit City? Would CompUSA throw in power locks and windows?? And what the *%$# is an enhanced keyboard, anyway?

Welcome to the surreal world of computer retailing, where good credit, a desire to buy and an aptitude for geek-speak are only the beginning of what’s required to actually purchase a product.


With 6 million households expected to buy a PC by the end of this year, the computer industry is celebrating its ascendancy to the mass market. Computer executives like to note that dollar sales of personal computers exceeded those of television sets in the United States last year.

But retail experts say such statistics are more testimony to the stamina and fortitude of the would-be computer owner than anything else. Mass market or no, buying a personal computer is about as much like buying a TV as buying a house is like buying a box of cereal.

“It’s worse than buying a car,” says Margaret Scully of Redondo Beach, who has been to more than 10 stores over the last three months in her PC quest. “You go around to enough people and try to get them to say what the other guy told you, and you never get the same answer. When it does coincide, I write it down real fast.”

At Best Buy, Scully says, she was abandoned mid-question by a salesman who never returned. At CompUSA, she spent an hour nailing down a quote that came within her budget, only to realize afterward that the software she wanted would cost several hundred dollars more.

Scully ended up at PC Solutions, a smaller specialty store that builds custom computers for its customers. She’s leaning toward a Hewlett-Packard multimedia computer, but she’s worried that it’s still too expensive.

“Plus there’s the Soundblaster question,” she says. “I still don’t know what Soundblaster is or if I need it.”

Still, as stalwart consumers set out to find a computer this holiday season, analysts and those who have recently survived the PC shopper hazing ritual say there are a few key tips that can make the experience less harrowing.

One of the most mind-boggling parts of the process is deciding where to look. In the 1980s, computers were purchased at palatial retail outlets like Businessland, which primarily marketed to small businesses. Then specialty computer stores sprang up, aiming at individuals and families.

Now consumers can choose from a huge range of outlets, including discount superstores such as Fry’s Electronics and Computer City, warehouses such as Price Club, mass merchants such as Sears or Staples, home electronics stores such as Circuit City and, for the truly brave, mail order.

The new assortment of retailers selling PCs can be a boon to consumers--if they’re able to match their needs to the type of outlet most likely to meet them.

“You’ve got a real mixed environment out there, which works to the consumer’s advantage,” says Van Baker, a computer retailing analyst at Dataquest in San Jose. “But if the novice gets drawn into the superstore, chances are they’re going to be a little more intimidated. People start speaking in terms of bits and bytes real quick.”

According to Dataquest surveys, first-time computer buyers are more likely to be drawn to Circuit City-type stores, where they won’t be confronted with aisles and aisles of blank screens and scary-looking motherboards on display. For a second computer purchase, Baker says, the same consumer is more likely to essay the superstore.

Specialty stores tend to be more expensive, but service and customer support are usually better than at other outlets. The main advantages of the Computer Citys of the world are selection and price. The salespeople can be more knowledgeable about computers than those whose job also involves selling toasters and stereo systems, but shoppers say don’t count on it.

Larry Dardick, a Santa Monica physician who bought a Macintosh Performa 6200 last week after an extensive search, says he got the best advice when he was able to leapfrog the salespeople and find the technicians in the back.

“My sense is the salespeople all could have been selling Hondas the day before,” Dardick says. “At one store, I was still trying to decide whether to get an IBM or a Macintosh. I asked the salesman what he thought, and he said get the Mac. I said, ‘Well, you also sell IBM-compatibles,’ and he said, ‘Those are good too.’ The attitude is basically, ‘If you want to write us a check, we’ll take it.’ ”

Dardick says he did learn from eavesdropping on another negotiation between a salesman and a customer that, as in buying a car, it pays to haggle over price. He says he was able to talk Compu America down to well within his budget of $2,000.

For experienced computer users who know just what they want, mail-order outfits--whose listings can be found in a monthly tome called Computer Shopper--are often the least expensive way to go. Another option is computer fairs, advertised in newspapers and magazines, where independent vendors gather nearly every weekend in the Los Angeles area.

Ken Bolingbroke, a free-lance programmer who lives in Northridge, says he has learned from experience to shop at local fairs instead of patronizing the retail stores.

“Just about all computer ads I see locally--whether they’re from the big stores like Fry’s Electronics, CompUSA or from the small mom-and-pop stores--all of them typically advertise an extremely low-priced computer system but they hide in small print or not at all the fact that no monitor is included, no memory, cheapo no-name parts are used in it,” Bolingbroke says. “The ads for a computer system are almost never a good deal.”

But for the majority of shoppers who don’t know precisely how much RAM they need or what is the difference between an 8-bit and 16-bit sound card, probably the best option is to just expect to shop around. And even then, there may be some surprises once you get the machine home.

“It’s been a great education,” says Dardick, who visited about five stores and talked to two mail-order firms. He plans to use his computer for word processing, money management and access to the Internet, and to run educational software for his 5-year-old son.

“But quite honestly,” he said, “I don’t think I’m going to know how fast it is or how slow it is or what the colors look like until I get it out of the box.”