When was the last time you went around looking at the way other people sell PCs? I don't mean just reading their ads, but actually getting in your car and driving around town to check out the way they do it. When was the last time you looked at the way they do it over in the US - the land of the slick PC sell? Let me tell you, it's become pretty wild and woolly over there.
I visited six retail stores in the San Francisco Bay Area representing a cross- section of the retail establishments selling PCs today. Interestingly, the three types of store I visited have parallels in Australia. I went to home electronics stores Circuit City and The Good Guys (like Dick Smith Electronics' new PowerHouse in Sydney's Bankstown), computer superstores CompUSA and Computer City (like Harvey Norman Computer Superstores), and office supply superstores Office Depot and OfficeMax (like Coles Myers OfficeWorks).
Pen and notepad in hand, I took an inventory of the stores' offerings and prices, quizzed their sales staff for information and recommendations, and asked about important extras like extended warranties, optional service plans, and credit options.
The results were surprising. I'll offer detailed critiques of each emporium a little later, but first some general observations: selection varies considerably across stores. Even when two outlets carry the same line - say, Digital's Starion PCs - they may be offering slightly different versions. This makes it tough to compare prices, and next to impossible to take stores up on their touted price-protection guarantees. And thanks to spifs (special cash premiums that are given to salespeople for selling certain goods) or other special deals, the store with the best price on one product doesn't necessarily offer a great deal on another.
Some examples: Circuit City sold an NEC Ready 7022 (Pentium-75, 8Mb of RAM, 1.08Gb hard drive, 4X CD-ROM drive) for $US200 less than CompUSA but charged $US100 more than that computer superstore for Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion 7050. An IBM Aptiva M71 (Pentium-133, 16Mb of RAM, 1.6Gb hard drive, 4X CD-ROM) was $US100 more at Office Depot than at The Good Guys, but Office Depot had the lowest price on Compaq's Presario 7180 (Pentium-100, 8Mb of RAM, 1.2Gb hard drive, 4X CD-ROM).
I was most surprised by the deals that a shopper could pick up at the two office supply superstores I visited. Although the selection was not always as good - or as nicely displayed - as it was in other stores, the prices were very competitive. And the small-business owner or person who works out of a home office can get just about anything else they'll need for their office at the same time.
Though I spent more than an hour in each store, I had to ask for help - several times in some cases - in all except Circuit City. The knowledge level of the salespeople varied considerably - from the clerk at Office Depot who recommended an IBM Aptiva but couldn't say why, to the salesperson at CompUSA who spent 15 minutes coaching me on how to be a smart consumer ("If there's anything wrong with the computer when you get it home, take it back - chances are it's a lemon").
For some general advice on handling this daunting shopping experience, see my checklist below. Now on with the store-by-store evaluations.
The first thing you're struck by when you walk into the store is its huge selection of computers - 26 different models, from Apple, Compaq, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC, and Packard Bell. The second thing you notice is the hungry salespeople, who hover around the displays like piranha. With a few exceptions, prices were comparable to those of other stores. One in-store special was particularly attractive - buy any PC system, including monitor, and you get a free low-end colour printer or $US150 off the printer of your choice. The biggest plus: unlike many other stores, Circuit City had fairly complete displays. Most computers were on and useable, and manufacturer spec sheets were available, providing detailed information about the warranty, hardware, and software.
The good guys
This home electronics store hasn't been selling computers for as long as competitor Circuit City - and it shows. There were fewer PCs to choose from, and the displays were cramped and often bereft of supporting materials. It was sometimes difficult to figure out pricing, since the tags were often hidden by the PCs themselves. As it turns out, though, the store had the lowest price on just about every model it sold in common with other retail outlets: an entry-level Presario for $US200 less than CompUSA, Computer City, or Circuit City; an Aptiva for $US100 less than Office Depot or CompUSA; and an Aspire for $US50 less than Office Depot. It's too bad the selection was so limited: two Compaq Presarios, two IBM Aptivas, five Acer Aspires, and eight Packard Bell Legends (including a huge tower unit - a Pentium-133 with 32Mb of RAM for a whopping $US3,299).
As expected, selection was good at this com-puter superstore. Acer's Aspire was the only major brand not represented. Unlike many other stores, CompUSA organises its displays by brand, rather than by processor. Unless you're set on buying from a particular manufacturer, this makes it harder to compare prices across brands. Prices were all over the map: a Pavilion for $US100 less than Computer City; a Presario for $US200 more than Office Depot. Every store offers extended warranties - it's where they make the big bucks - but CompUSA really pushes its plan, prominently posting the warranty costs with just about every PC sold. My biggest complaint: literature was available for only five of the 27 PCs on display. I had writer's cramp by the time I left.
Though the Computer City I visited was not as big as CompUSA, it had a larger selection of systems, including several from AST, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Packard Bell, and clone maker U.S. Logic. Computers were neatly organised by processor, with signs directing buyers to each class of system (133 or 100MHz Pentiums, for example). Literature was scarce, though, as were the sales staff. The salesperson who ultimately helped me kept apologising for not knowing the inventory or pricing very well, noting that she had been travelling to other stores and was not up to speed on her store's offerings. I appreciated the honesty but would have preferred someone who could answer my questions. Prices weren't great, either. None of the PCs were priced lower here than identical units at other stores.
This was the most crowded and least appealing store that I visited. PCs were packed into one narrow aisle - as were the customers trying to shop for them. There were three HP Pavilions, but I almost missed them entirely because they were in a different area. Literature was spotty, and the salespeople seemed uninterested in selling computers. I had to request that someone be called to the PC section twice before anyone showed up to answer my questions. There was one positive note, though: prices were good. This store, in some cases, matched or beat the price listed for identical computers sold at all the other stores I visited. Too bad it was such an unpleasant place to shop.
All in all, the selection here was unremarkable: There were only 14 PCs to choose from, seven of which were from just one brand - Packard Bell. The salesperson seemed to know his stuff, but he didn't seem particularly interested in answering my questions. Displays were relatively complete, however, and prices were comparable to those of OfficeMax's competitors. The best deals here were the prices for peripherals. The store sells all the major printers, fax machines, and combination units. And the prices were better than those of just about anyone in town.
It's not easy . . .
If it sounds like shopping for a new PC is hard work, it is. I left each store feeling exhausted and a little confused. It wasn't until I'd finished all my shopping and compiled a fairly detailed spreadsheet on each store that I knew where I could get the best deal. I haven't spent this much time researching a purchase since I bought a new car two years ago - and even that seems easier in retrospect. Pity the poor first-time PC buyer who doesn't just want to buy the first thing he or she sees. Oh, and let me ask you one last question - did you see your store in this list?