SAN JOSE,CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Attention, shoppers: There's some unusual merchandise moving onto store shelves alongside television sets, power tools and children's clothes -- Apple computers.
In the latest move by computer manufacturers to take their wares to where people shop, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Computer Inc. has announced a deal with Sears to let the retail giant sell several models of Macintosh computers.
Apple's Macintoshes will initially sell in 70 Sears stores that have Office Center outlets.
For Apple, this is the first time since the home computer bust of the mid-1980s that it has sold its computers through a general retailer such as Sears.
For an increasing number of consumers, however, the days of buying their computers in the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of a computer store are waning.
And in the process, analysts say, computers themselves may even get friendlier.
Until recently, personal computers have been sold almost exclusively at specialty computer stores. Within the past two years or so, however, a growing number of consumers with some computer experience have started shopping for the best price -- typically at discount stores, computer industry analysts say.
"As computers continue to get more pervasive in society, more and more people are comfortable buying them with less support and less complexity," Van Baker, an analyst at InfoCorp in Santa Clara, Calif., said.
As a result, sales at "mass merchandisers" -- stores from Sears to Wal-Mart to Price Club -- will account for 11 percent of all the personal computers sold in the U.S. this year, according to Data quest of San Jose.
By 1995, nearly half the personal computers and related products such as software will be purchased at mass merchants, office products dealers, warehouse clubs and computer super stores, according to Merrin Information Services Palo Alto.
For some manufacturers, getting their wares into mass merchandisers was a way to get precious shelf space that in computer stores is controlled by such giants as Apple, IBM Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp.
One computer manufacturer, Packard Bell of Chatsworth, Calif., has built an entire company geared to selling computers at such places as Price Club and Montgomery Ward.
But the market has changed dramatically in the past two years. Major computer manufacturers face a price squeeze from companies like Packard Bell, and finding ways to reach new customers is a matter of survival.
"Computers are no longer high-tech items, they are commodities," said Marcia Kaplan, director of research at Merrin Information. "Brand name has lost its significance."
Companies such as Apple must also establish their presence in stores such as Sears if they hope to be able to sell the coming generation of computerized consumer electronics, what Apple chairman John Sculley calls Personal Digital Assistants.
Those devices, an information appliance that could slip into your pocket, will sell for $500 or even less, far cheaper than the wares sold at most computer stores.
But analysts warn that, if they are to keep their new customers happy, computer manufacturers have to eliminate much of the difficulty in setting up and using the machines.
"When you're seeding this marketplace, the machines can't be clunky anymore," said Doug Kass, a Dataquest analyst. "All this stuff will only happen if the machines become easier to use."
Manufacturers seem to be trying. The machines Apple sells to Sears will be only their least complex, and will include basic productivity software from Claris Corp. already installed and ready to go.
IBM will begin selling machines with its OS/2 2.0 operating system already installed.
And disk drive maker Seagate Technology of Scotts Valley, Calif., recently announced a deal with Microsoft Corp. to begin selling hard disk drives with both the Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS 5.0 operating systems already loaded and ready to run.
While the drives will be sold directly to computer manufacturers, will likely mean even more computers will come ready to run out of the box, eliminating the need for users to spend hours reading manuals and installing disks just to get their new machine started.
"We call it instant-on," said Seagate Chairman Al Shugart. "It makes it easier for people to buy and use computers."