Along with how to best use computers, knowing what, when, and where to buy is at the crux of what people want to learn about PCs. Deciding where to buy can be no less tricky than other buying decisions, with new options available where you can save money ... or get taken, depending.
The most conventional buying channel for computers, printers and other peripherals, and software is the neighborhood retail store. You can buy from a small mom-and-pop store or chain store or a larger store such as a computer superstore, office supply store, electronics store, department store, mass merchandise store, or warehouse store.
Buying a no-name “white box” from a small retail store can be a good choice if you like to see and feel what you buy before you buy it and the store you buy from has a good reputation. Surveys of buyers by computer magazines have repeatedly rated small retail stores near the top in terms of reliability and support.
Larger retail stores can be sources of good deals, but you have to be careful here as well. The salespeople at some stores may know less about computers than an average high school geek, and any recommendations you get could be based more on the store’s stock than your needs.
Some stores try to “sell up” customers, encouraging them to buy a more expensive system or printer or more software than they planned. It’s best to do your homework, reading articles and talking to colleagues or friends, so you know what you need and what you don’t.
If your needs aren’t run of the mill, you may be better off paying more by using a “value-added reseller.” These combination salespeople/consultants work with businesses in specific fields—doctors, lawyers, schools, government agencies, and others—who often require specialized products and who can benefit from training on how to best use them.
The oldest option in computer buying is mail-order. In 1975, you could buy through the mail a MITS Altair, the first PC to run Microsoft software, long before you could walk into a store and buy an IBM PC or Mac.
The “direct channel” has skyrocketed in popularity over the years, with manufacturers such as Dell and Gateway becoming household names. More recently the Internet has made mail-order shopping even more flexible by letting you quickly search for bargains from different vendors and quickly explore different configuration options from individual vendors.
If you don’t mind waiting from a few days to a few weeks for delivery, mail-order deals can be had. It’s better to stick with the better-known players or use recommendations from savvy colleagues, friends, or reviewers, since fly-by-nighters operate in the computer arena as in any other.
Make sure you read the fine print. This is where you’ll find details about warranties, shipping charges, technical support policies, restocking fees in case you need to make a return, and so on. If possible, use a credit card in case things go sour.
Fraud is a harsh reality with the latest computer-buying option, online auctions. Scams abound in particular on eBay, the largest online auction house by far, with 85 percent of the market. eBay boasts that “confirmed” fraud occurs with only 0.01 percent of its auctions, but eBay is reluctant to involve itself with individual auctions, describing itself as just a venue that brings buyers and sellers together. It sends a form e-mail message when complaints are made.
According to the FBI, online auction-fraud complaints and dollars lost tripled last year compared with 2001. Online auction fraud now accounts for a whopping 46 percent of all Internet fraud. Anecdotal reports indicate that the fraud rate on eBay involving the sale of computer equipment could be as high as 5 percent.
Still, deals can be had on eBay, whether you buy new or used products, provided you’re careful. eBay’s feedback system, in which buyers and sellers rate each other at the completion of a sale, can help but is far from foolproof.
A large percentage of negative feedback is a clear signal to stay away from a particular seller. Avoid sellers who keep their feedback private, whose feedback indicates they previously sold or bought only low-cost items when they’re suddenly selling a big-ticket item, or who begin selling big-ticket items totally different from previous items they sold.
Check out the following Web sites for more tips:
FTC’s E-Commerce & the Internet
FBI’s Internet Fraud Preventive Measures
Vendio’s Auction Tips and Tactics