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
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
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
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
is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org