Watchdog bodies are running out of patience with PC dealer rip-offs, with another consumer protection group scheduling a summit to consider methods of tackling the problem.
Following over 300 complaints from disgruntled computer buyers during 1998, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) last week announced a two-day think-tank to "identify the industry's problems".
Legitimate PC dealers know all too well the chaos generated by a minority of shonky practitioners. Protection authorities are learning and starting to act.
This latest meeting follows the ACCC's logging of the usual complaints over deal- ers taking large deposits and not delivering goods, consumers not getting what they paid for, receiving poor advice and after-sales service, and companies disappearing.
Resellers contacted by ARN last week were keen to see more consumer awareness and education about the importance of carefully considering their first forays into the computer market.
Consent for a national regulatory body to monitor the industry was unanimous as was the claim that two days wasn't nearly enough time to scope the problem.
Sasan Rahmani, manager of Adelaide Computer Superstore, sells between four and 50 PCs a week and says he has a lot of competition from "dodgy dealers".
"Everybody in the industry knows about them, but the consumers don't," Rahmani said. "They are being preyed upon.
"The most important thing that can be done at the moment [by the ACCC] is to educate consumers that price doesn't mean everything. Consumers need to be taught the most important aspect of their transaction is receiving the right advice and after-sales service.
"We also need a national industry body to act as a watchdog making sure people do the right thing by the consumers. This step is very good as long as something gets achieved," he added.
Alexa Bowen, sales and marketing director at Brisbane's The Business Equipment, said it was a timely inquiry and that state-by-state attention to the matter is not the way to go.
"I definitely think that it is a federal issue rather than a state one," Bowen said.
"I don't think they will find out much in two days though. I would have said a couple of weeks to take information and then maybe another couple of weeks to consider it and formulate some recommendations.
"Once a consumer has a bad experience, they are very wary about everybody. One of the things we see constantly is dealers selling at what are obviously very low margins, so they can't possibly back up and support the sale," she said.
It would seem chain store retailers and their branded product lines stand to benefit from increased awareness of the potential dangers in buying PCs.
Gary Smith, Retravision's NSW development and merchandising manager, echoed the call for consumer education. He felt that because the industry is growing so rapidly and attracting so much money, it is always going to have a share of "fly-by-nighters".
"Most consumers coming into this area are very apprehensive, scared and unknowledgeable. They really need to deal with retailers they know they can come back to with any problems and be looked after," Smith said.
"Consumers need to be made aware of the rate of change in products and it is certainly time for such action to be taken. It is very much in support of the major retailers and brand name systems, so we are happy to hear about it."
Smith thought there should be a separate body to look out for computer dealers not doing the right thing and said the "body should be funded by the industry and consist of major retailers and suppliers".
"Such a move should be supported by every legitimate business," he said.
Initiative would be welcome
A spokesperson for Dick Smith Electronics said it "would welcome any initiative by the ACCC that would improve the personal computer market".
Allan Asher, acting ACCC chairman, said: "The industry must take responsibility for the problems encountered by consumers and weed out any 'cowboys' ruining the reputation of a solid industry. Australians are enthusiastic users of technology and have the right to expect high standards in the industry."
The March 30-31 summit in Melbourne will be sponsored by ACCC and hosted by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business.
Presentations will be made by Compaq UK's European director, service channels, Dr Paul Gardner as well as Phil Marchioni, who chaired a NSW Fair Trading inquiry into dodgy PC dealers, and Australian Information Industry Association executive director Peter Upton.
Representatives of consumers, regulators and the commercial sector will also engage in open forums.