As if choosing the right personal computer were not difficult enough, now comes the problem of choosing the right place to buy one.
Computers today are sold by electronics stores, computer superstores, mom and pop computer boutiques, giant chain stores, mail-order catalogs, 800 telephone numbers, office supply stores, cable-television shopping channels, newspaper classified ads and specialized dealers called value-added resellers. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
I have seen computers sold in supermarkets ("Let's see, a quart of milk, a box of cereal and a 386SX with four megs of RAM and an 80-meg hard drive"), department stores, pawn shops, bookstores and even in the back room of a sort of drugstore, just beyond the dental floss and ointments.
The choices can be more bewildering than the computers themselves.
People who work in the computer industry refer to the many sales outlets collectively as the "channel," and the channel is in the midst of a profound change.
The giant national chain stores are struggling, the mom and pop boutiques are disappearing, and the specialized dealers who remain are focusing their efforts on systems and networking schemes that go far beyond the needs of individuals and small businesses.
I still shop occasionally at the neighborhood computer boutique, mostly for sentimental reasons. It is nice to be able to run to the corner for a parallel cable or special adapter. The sales staff is usually knowledgeable and friendly.
But sentiment aside, the store is probably doomed, just as many a corner grocery vanished under the onslaught of supermarkets that offered lower prices on a greater selection of goods.
Computer superstores and direct sales companies are in the ascendant. Many computer companies that once sold exclusively through networks of authorized dealers are now trying to find the right balance between direct sales and superstore sales.
Direct-sales companies, such as Dell Computer Corp., Compuadd Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc., Zeos International Inc. and Northgate Computer Systems Inc., take orders by telephone and ship the PCs directly to the customer.
The better companies typically offer money-back guarantees, 24-hour telephone technical advice and support, and "free" or low-cost on-site service contracts that guarantee your computer will be fixed quickly if anything goes wrong.
Many people are surprised to learn that mail-order computers regularly outperform the more expensive models from "big name" companies.
In short, direct-sales companies often sell computers that cost less and work better than the major brands, and they offer superior support and service. It is no wonder, then, that companies such as IBM and Compaq are losing sales volume.
An emerging breed of direct-sales companies offer no-frills PCs at the lowest prices, with minimal service and support. If you are an experienced computer user, these no-frills companies may be just right.
When you look for rock-bottom prices, though, remember to look under the rock, too. Nasty surprises can lurk there. As the saying goes, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
If possible, always pay by credit card when dealing with mail-order companies. You retain the option of refusing payment if the merchandise is substandard or not delivered.
The best companies bill your card only after the system is shipped. Never, ever, deal with a company that lists only a post office box as an address.
The low prices of direct-sales companies are often matched, or at least challenged, in the big discount superstores that are found in major cities.
I have not found the customer service offered by the superstores to be any better than the service offered by a direct-sales company's telephone staff, but there is the added comfort of being able to see and touch the products and to rant in someone's face if bad things happen. There is also a greater opportunity for product comparisons.
In visits to several such superstores recently I saw customers crowding down aisles with shopping carts, grabbing hard disks, software, monitors, portable PCs and even network paraphernalia.
"Outlets like this are a more viable way to sell computers in the future," said John V. Roach, chairman of Tandy Corp., as he surveyed the opening festivities at a vast Computer City superstore in Texas.
Tandy is phasing out its Radio Shack Computer Centers and re
placing them with larger Computer City stores that carry Apple, IBM, Compaq, Toshiba, AST Research, Hewlett-Packard and other major brands, in addition to Tandy's own brand.
The idea of seeing a Compaq PC in a discount store was unthinkable even as recently as last year. But Compaq finally recognized that when people compare two roughly identical PCs, they will choose the one that is cheapest and that offers the best after-sale support.
Regardless of where you buy a PC, the goal is to get the right computer at a reasonable price, along with a guarantee that the machine will work properly and that it will be fixed easily and promptly when things go wrong.
If one store does not offer all that, there are others that will.