With the proliferation of small independent retailers in Australia, including a great many that are also systems assemblers, customers have an enormous degree of choice in the computer they buy. Even so, computer superstores such as Harvey Norman offer a range of big-name brands at often comparable prices.
The question is, which offers the best experience for customers? Which approach offers the best service, and which offers the best value? Naomi Jackson and Gerard Norsa recently went undercover to observe the different approaches to satisfying consumer demand taken by a mass merchant and an independent dealerThe computer we wanted was to cost less than $3000 including operating system and a basic get-started software pack. We wanted it for word processing, Internet access and gaming and thought a desktop printer was a must. Being able to add and use peripherals at a later date seemed like obvious investment protection.
The sort of characteristics we wanted to observe from each retail outlet included the quality of service provided, store layout and how well informed staff were. We also wanted to see how well they upsold and whether they could provide the right sort of computer for our needs.
Store 1: Harvey Norman, Gordon, NSW
Finding the computer section is fairly easy for the customer in this store. Getting service is not quite so easy. I walked around the department for more than five minutes without anyone enquiring if I needed help, before I decided to approach three staff and ask for their assistance.
The staff member closest to me was chosen as the one who should tend to me. He followed me to the Compaq and IBM display, where I had spent the majority of my time until then.
Having advised the sales assistant of my budget - $3000 - and my basic requirements, he had no hesitation in shuffling me towards the Hewlett-Packard display on the other side of the aisle instead.
It soon became clear why, with HP offering a special on its range of AMD-based Pavilion 6300 models (See the sidebar: "What you get for your money").
The sales assistant and I then briefly discussed my printer requirements. However, with only 400-odd dollars left in my kitty, I was pretty well limited to a standard HP or Canon dual-cartridge 600x 600dpi bubble jet printer.
I doubt the sales assistant would have bothered showing me the Compaq and IBM offerings after that had I not requested him to. But that was not surprising, given that while the low-end Compaq models were competitive with the Pavilions in base price, the bundled software, Internet access and support included with the HP products made them far better value.
IBM's Aptiva range, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on audio/video features and its base models were way too expensive to get value for my $3000.
In the guise of a home user with little knowledge of PCs, the assistant was careful to talk to me in layman's terms and answered my questions in a patient and understanding manner.
However, when I persisted with my queries about the quality of AMD processors as opposed to Intel processors, upgradeability and the differences between "AMD K6-2 300MMX" and "AMD K6-2 300 with 3D Now!" processors, he decided he was out of his depth and instead introduced me to the resident "computer whiz" for more information.
Needless to say, the computer whiz was more technical and spoke accordingly. If I were computer illiterate, most of what he said would have gone over my head, but he at least clarified that the two AMD labels did indeed belong to the same product, upgradeability is possible, and AMD is cheaper because, amongst other things, it is the company's policy to undercut Intel.
His other claim, that AMD has 40 per cent of the US market, would also have reassured me if I were actually making a purchase.
Once I was satisfied with the verbal information I had received - and had photocopies of each vendor's deals to take home with me - the sales assistant who had been serving me from the outset offered me his card for any follow-up enquiries I may have had.
Overall, I found the experience quite informative as a consumer. Ideally, a sales assistant would have come to me first instead of me having to approach them of my own accord.
But aside from that, I found little to fault in Harvey Norman's service delivery.
There was no attempt to get me to exceed my nominated budget, despite the availability of finance packages and six month interest-free terms, and though the sales assistant was not highly technical, his understanding would most likely satisfy the majority of customers who shop for PCs at Harvey Norman. Most importantly though, I felt the sales assistant genuinely tried to provide me with the best package given the amount of money I had to spend.
Store 2: Meghead, Chatswood, NSW
There was something very comforting about the willing and confident salesperson at Meghead telling me: "We can build you just about anything you want," in answer to my query about customisation. They're not the sort of words you hear from a mass merchant, and just the reason why small independent computer stores remain a vibrant part of the reselling channel.
From personal observation, the difference between independent dealers and most of the mass merchant retailers is glaringly evident on first contact. On my many visits to large chain computer stores, this first contact can take forever and is often prompted by the buyer rather than the seller. In a specialist store it is the other way around, and they generally welcome you straight away.
With a high profile site at Sydney's busy Chatswood railway station, Meghead is a well laid out store catering to geeks, suits, novices and serious gamers alike - a good cross-section of the consumer market. With a lot of school and office commuter traffic passing through the bus and train interchange, an attractive window display does well in catching the attention of passers-by.
A quick peek through the windows and doors revealed an array of gaming, education and productivity software titles and bundles. From the outside looking in, window art proclaiming "Notebooks and Computer Systems" was the only hint to me that I could also get consumer PC technology from the store.
Maybe there's a security problem, or it's not a lucrative market for Meghead, but I couldn't see a lot of monitors, keyboards or complete systems in the shop to make me feel it was a core competency. At first, this had me wondering whether they even sold complete systems and I may have kept walking, had I not already selected the store for this article.
I was pleasantly surprised when a salesperson quickly swooped and asked whether assistance was needed. Once we had established I was there for a computer for both work and entertainment, he quickly ascertained what my budget was.
He then produced a double-sided price guide to the MCT-brand PCs the store assembles and sells. One side included four standard Win98/Pentium II or Celeron-based systems ranging from $1588 to $2118 with two year parts warranty.
The standard models all needed external modems, which was not a problem. But with a 15in CTX monitor, 32MB SDRAM and basic 16-bit sound card as standard, upgrades were needed for the better quality game playing I was after. The basic systems weren't bad value for most home computing purposes, but every computer should have a modem these days. My patient attendant then showed me how I could manipulate the components to much better gaming specs and still remain within the $3000 budget including a $250 Canon desktop printer.
We repeated the exercise with the list of build-to-order components. There is cheaper stuff around, but not by too much. It included options right up to the hottest, most expensive PC goodies, but revealed that the computer I really wanted for great gaming and Internet access actually broke the budget by a long shot.
At this stage, enthusiasm and obvious hands-on product knowledge displayed by the salesperson served the store very well. He was able to explain the pros and cons of each component on the list, whether it was the motherboard, sound card or memory - although I felt the benefits of 56Kbps modems were over-stated. He also took the time to explain that having tech people on-site meant the system could be easily upgraded if and when required.
I was impressed by the way a couple of simple printed pages with basic components and upgrades were manipulated for me into the specifications of the computer I wanted. Computer simulators are all very well, but a simple price list easily trans-lated into an order form after being filled out during sales consulting reveals much more information.
Unfortunately, the bundle includes Lotus SmartSuite, which isn't supported at my work. Microsoft's Office suite is, but it includes plenty of tools I didn't really need or want. I only really wanted Word and would have jumped at a bundle that offered it with a few utilities and maybe some image editing, voice recognition, antivirus protection, video and sound playing software.
One criticism I have of the Meghead store is the lack of working models. One big advantage mass merchants have is the ability to demonstrate the power of the computers they are selling, which allows customers to look, touch and experience their purchases in advance.
I would also have liked a finance or rental option.
With a bit of background knowledge supporting me, I felt I received good advice on what was suited to my com- puting needs now and options for the future. I was ready to spend more money to get better quality.
There were, however, two areas in which the salesperson at Meghead erred. Firstly, he took too long over a phone call that interrupted the consultation, leaving me waiting several minutes.
Secondly, he never tried to close the sale. Even though I told him I was just looking, he knew I had been checking around and I showed ample interest in their offerings. He could have, and should have, tried more to help me settle on the exact package I wanted and sold it to me on the warranty and after-sales service and benefits of on-site technical support. However, I was very impressed with the shop on the whole and enjoyed going there.
What you get for your money
HP Pavilion 6308 from Harvey Norman
AMD K6-2 300MMX processor;
6GB hard disk drive;
16-bit stereo sound;
56Kbps fax/data modem;
64-bit graphics accelerator;
2MB video RAM;
50 hours free Internet access
one year on-site warranty
MS Office software
MCT PC from Meghead
Intel Pentium 11-333
32MB high speed RAM
4.3GB hard disk
32x speed CD-ROM
16-bit stereo sound
64-bit video card
Two year warranty
MS Office software