Where to buy a PC mail-order firm or retail store? Know the pros and cons

Your computer

once you have computer, check it before big day

November 30, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

THE CHRISTMAS computer rush is on, which means millions of families are shopping for their first PC -- or just as often these days, their second or third computer.

Those buyers are more comfortable with technology than they once were, so along with the usual "What-should-I-buy" calls, I'm getting more questions from people who are considering a mail-order PC. They want to know whether buying through the mail is smart or safe.

The answer: Yes and yes, provided you do some research and understand the pros and cons of mail-order shopping.

It's true that mail-order computers were once the realm of true geeks who wanted cheap computers and didn't care if there was somebody on the other end of the line to hold their hands when things went wrong.

But today the "direct market," as it's known, has gone upscale. The top mail-order firms deliver state-of-the-art machines and have 24-hour technical support lines that are just as good as (or certainly no worse than) those offered by makers of computers sold through retailers. They offer the same warranties as the old-line firms, and they'll send someone to your home or business to fix the machine if it breaks.

In fact, the Big Three mail-order PC makers -- Dell, Gateway and Micron Electronics -- are just as likely to sell to Fortune 500 corporations as they are to individual buyers. And they sell a lot of computers: about $9 billion worth last year for Dell, $5 billion for Gateway and $2 billion for Micron. Dell, which is now the country's No. 2 PC maker behind Compaq, sells $3 million worth of computers a day on the Internet alone.

While buying a PC over the phone (or online) isn't for everyone, mail-order computers have some distinct advantages for buyers and sellers alike. You can usually have your machine built to order -- with exactly the processor, memory, hard-drive capacity, video display, audio system and speakers you want. Typically, it takes 10 days for the computer to arrive at your home or office, although backlogs can delay your order by two to three weeks during the holidays.

Because mail-order sellers don't build a PC until they have a customer for it, they can offer the latest technology and avoid costly inventory buildups. They also avoid the retail middleman. That means they can sell PCs for less money and still make a profit -- although the price advantage isn't as great as it once was.

The success of direct marketers has galvanized traditional PC makers and retailers. To boost profits and recapture market share, Apple recently began selling its Macintosh computers online. Compaq, the leader in traditional retail sales, is hawking computers on the Web too, along with smaller competitors such as NEC Computer Systems.

CompUSA, the computer superstore chain, now gives customers the option of configuring and buying its house brand PCs over the Internet. And are you ready for the real mind-blower? You can log onto Wal-Mart's Web site and order a Pentium II system along with a case of muffin dough, a set of wire-wheel hubcaps and a Tickle Me Elmo.

But there are still good reasons for buying a PC from traditional retailers. I've bought machines through both channels, but I still like the idea of getting my hands on a computer and trying it before I buy it. In particular, I like to see the monitor. That's the most personal part of a computer system because no two pairs of eyes see the world in exactly the same way. A monitor that looks great to me may be terrible for you -- and there's no way to tell by looking at the specs.

If you're a first-time buyer, retailers offer a better choice of "user-friendly" computers loaded with software that makes it easy for novices to get started. Bargain hunters looking for complete systems in the $1,000 range are more likely to find them in stores than online. Gadget lovers will also find a larger selection of PCs with goodies such as built-in TV tuners, answering machines and scanners on retailers' shelves. Of course, you can add these to any PC, but it's a lot easier to buy a fancy system than put one together yourself.

And what happens in the unlikely event that your PC is dead on arrival? If it's a mail-order computer, you'll have to wait for somebody to come and fix it or go through the hassle of shipping it back. If you bought it from a store, chances are good that you can drive back to the showroom and exchange it on the spot.

My advice is to shop both ways and see which makes you more comfortable. While you'll usually get more computer for the money through the mail, the difference is likely to be only 10 percent to 15 percent for similar machines. That's $200 or $300 on a well-equipped PC, and like most people, I'd rather keep that money in my bank account.

But if I'm going to use a computer every day for three or four years, getting the right machine is more important than squeezing the last nickel out of the deal.

One last word of advice. There's nothing worse than spending Christmas morning waiting on hold for technical support while a bunch of antsy kids peer over your shoulder. If you buy the family a PC, open it up ahead of time one night while the youngsters are asleep and make sure everything works. If there's a problem, you'll have time to return it for a new one or get it fixed. Once you're sure it's OK, pack it up again, wrap it and enjoy your holiday.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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