Tips For The Shop Weary

One recent Sunday afternoon, I visited a CompUSA store in midtown Manhattan with a friend who was in the market for a notebook computer. Many machines were on display, but the first several we attempted to try out were either broken or password-protected, meaning we couldn't test them without flagging a salesperson. (Retailers may implement passwords to thwart people out to crash the system.) Problem No.1 was getting assistance. When a salesman finally arrived, he couldn't decipher the password, either. But rather than find someone who could, he tried to sell us one of the few models that was accessible. We headed downtown to J&R Computer World, where we found informed salespeople, machines that worked, and--not incidentally--reasonable prices.

"That's not the way it should have worked [at our place]," admits Hal Compton, CompUSA's chief operating officer. And it doesn't always work that way at CompUSA, of course. But a survey of my BUSINESS WEEK cohorts nationwide revealed that computer retailing nightmares are, in fact, all too common. A salesperson at Best Buy in Arlington, Va., told one of our writers that a printer he was considering would work on both IBM and Macintosh machines. It didn't. Another correspondent tried to return an Epson printer to Chicago's Elek-Tek after realizing that a salesperson exaggerated the unit's features. But the store stuck by its no-return policy, even though the writer offered to pay for a pricier model.

In a day when folks can purchase computers anywhere from department stores to electronics chains, where should you shop? To some degree, the answer is the same as always: Go on the advice of friends, and pick a convenient place with a wide choice of brands. But differences among sales outlets emerge.

COMFORT WARE. You'll usually find decent prices and the broadest selection of PCs, software, and assorted doodads at CompUSA and other superstores. The stores are equipped to handle repairs or add memory to a model you are considering. They also offer training classes. But in my experience, it's hit or miss whether you'll come across techno-savvy salespeople.

Chances are you won't get the hand-holding--or the precise model you want--at a mass merchant such as Sears. Prices may not be rock bottom, either (though quite a few stores match rivals' ads). But for many the comfort level is high, since they've been buying underwear there for years.

Mail order is a fine choice for seasoned buyers who know pretty much what they want. Prices are often excellent, and the goods are delivered to your door. The downside: You can't kick the tires, and if something breaks, you may have to box up the PC and go through the hassle of returning the darn thing. Folks buying on price alone can often get a good deal at a warehouse club. "But don't go there for the service," warns Kevin Ferguson, editor of Computer Retail Week, a trade paper that sends a "secret shopper" out each week.

In any store, consumers should be wary of sales types who seem to tout a particular brand. The store may be trying to move inventory, or the salesperson may earn a bigger commission. Anyone waiting on you should ask how you plan to use the computer. In turn, you should quiz salespeople on why they recommend the models they do.

If you're not confident that a salesperson knows what he's talking about, you might try another tactic. Ask questions that sound intelligent but that any techie knows are nonsensical. Example: Is this Pentium 100 going to give open-platform performance? If the salesperson says, "Sure," run out of the store as quickly as possible.