Computer makers are discounting madly right now. But there's one way to get rock-bottom prices all year: computer flea markets. These shows are hacker heaven. Hundreds of dealers--many of them mom-and-pop operations--gather in a convention hall for a day to offer every component that conceivably could go in or on a computer, at discounts of up to 80% off retail. Occasionally, you can find good buys on used equipment, but most merchandise is new.
Try this on for size: A brand-new IBM clone with an Intel 486DX chip, 33 megahertz, a 170-megabyte hard drive, and a top-quality super VGA monitor for only $1,695. Dell Computer, a major mail-order house that also discounts, sells a comparable system for $2,508. Or how about an Epson LQ-870 letter-quality printer that spews 330 characters a second for $275? This printer sells for $481 in a leading electronics store. "If it's used in a computer, it's sold there," says Ken Gordon, whose KGP Computer Show (800 631-0062) stages 35 flea markets a year in towns from Massachusetts to Virginia. "You'll find everything you can imagine."
Everything, that is, except name brands. Most of the systems sold are clones, custom-built by the vendors with the standardized parts you find inside any PC. You're more likely to see a Salcon--assembled by Sam Secondo of Enfield, Conn.--than an IBM or an Apple. That's one reason prices are so low.
LEMON AID. Although hackers haunt these shows, don't be intimidated if you're not one. Attend a few shows before you buy and ask lots of questions. You can also learn a lot from talking to dealers, comparing information and prices.And you'll get a sense of which dealers come back time after time: You'll want to buy from them. Just as important, the vendor should be based in your area, in case you have to return your purchase for replacement or repair.
Get a receipt for anything you buy. You'll need it if you wind up with a lemon and the vendor gives you the runaround. Show promoters such as Gordon will follow up for you until you receive satisfaction--either in goods or cash. Besides KGP, other shows include Computer Central in Chicago (708 940-7547), PC Fest in Florida (407 746-4414), and California Computer (415 340-9113). For more names, check Nuts & Volts magazine (714 371-8497).
Fortunately, most vendors at established flea markets are reputable. Bob Ardis, a business analyst at Shearson Lehman Brothers, bought a powerful PC at a KGP show in New Jersey for $1,650 (vs. $2,500 retail). But a glitch in his system sent him back to the dealer. The vendor, whose store was about an hour from Ardis' home, replaced the faulty parts promptly--and, Ardis says, "he didn't charge me a cent."