Shopping: Let Your Fingers Do The Walking

More PC buyers are turning to the Net, mail order--even door-to-door reps

If you're like most PC shoppers this holiday season, it won't be your first time; some 60% of home-PC buyers already own a PC. And, like many of those experienced PC owners, you may dread the ordeal ahead: days of schlepping from store to store, searching for a bargain--or a knowledgeable salesperson.

Fortunately, you can prevent headaches and save money by checking into some new options. Encouraged by a growing population of PC-literate shoppers, mail-order houses offer more brands than ever. Internet entrepreneurs operate online shops and PC auctions. There's even an outfit in Texas that sells door-to-door. "There are a lot more choices than most people know about," says James Taylor, senior vice-president at Gateway 2000 in Sioux Falls, S.D. Gateway, for example, now has showrooms in Charlotte, N.C., and New Haven where shoppers can try models before phoning in their orders.

NO MYSTERY. The proliferation of direct-marketing outlets means that you can choose among lots of brands--not just the Dells, Gateways, and Microns that build PCs and sell through the mail. MicroSystems Warehouse (800 660-3222) and Computer Discount Warehouse (800 400-4CDW) now carry a wider selection than most retailers, including Compaq Computer's Presario and IBM's Aptiva.

For a knowledgeable buyer, these outlets are a good choice: You save a bit on price and, usually, sales tax. Telephone salespeople are often better informed than those in a retail store, and there's no mystery about pricing: You get a simple list price, period.

The Internet is another important stop for PC shoppers. Almost every PC maker keeps a Web site full of product information, along with lists of its retailers. You can also buy online at sites such as Cyberian Outpost ( and NECx ( Both offer plenty of deals--often on last year's hot models, with a sprinkling of newer fare as well. Prices can be as much as 20% below retail, according to Merrin Information Services. "There are super prices across the board," says Seymour Merrin, president of the market research firm. Some stores such as Dakco (, lack the graphics and product information, but Cyberian and NECx provide clear information and pictures of most products--plus handy links to accessories.

If you're not in a hurry and you're willing to go for used or oddball models, try one of the latest Web crazes: the online auction. Each week, offers bidders everything from PCs to mouse pads at substantial bargains. On Oct. 18, for instance, a 133-Mhz IBM Aptiva went for $1,480, or about 28% below retail. Neophytes need not apply, warns ONSALE President Jerry Kaplan, "but the rest of us should order PCs like we order pizza. You'll get the lowest price, the best selection, and it'll be delivered fresh."

HUNDREDS LESS. For the ultimate in freshness, of course, you still can't beat the direct-marketers that build PCs to order. Gateway, Dell Computer, and Micron Electronics usually sell top-of-the-line configurations for hundreds of dollars less than brands such as IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard. An HP Pavilion with a 200 Mhz Pentium chip and 17-in. monitor would cost $3,750 at a superstore; a Micron machine with similar specs goes for $2,899.

A couple of caveats: You won't get as much free software, and you may have to pack up your machine and pay to ship it back if there's a problem.

The direct-marketers are also on the Web. Gateway (, Dell (, and Micron ( have software to spec out and price various systems. Just click through the options--24 megabytes of memory rather than 16, fancy speakers--and it instantly calculates the price.

Direct marketing, in all its permutations, is gaining favor. Packard Bell just began direct sales (800 554-6741). And Acer (800 558-ACER) will offer its Aspire models directly in November. Overall, Dataquest says that direct sales accounted for 17.4% of all PC shipments in mid-1995, but rose to 21% last March. Meanwhile, sales through PC dealers and superstores have dropped from nearly 29% of the total to 20%, while sales through electronics chains went from 21% to nearly 32%.

"OVERWHELMING." Even newbies are buying direct. Consider Deirdre Slattery, a lawyer from Hauppauge, N.Y. Convinced that she needed to join the PC revolution, Slattery and her husband hit a nearby CompUSA--and left in frustration. "It was overwhelming. We just wandered around aimlessly," she says. On a friend's advice, they tried Gateway 2000 (800 846-2000) and wound up buying a $3,200 Pentium 133 that arrived on schedule 10 days later. "We don't have a lot of time to spend in stores," she says, "so this was much easier for us."

Still, most folks like to see what they're getting. So 80% of home computers are bought in stores. The good news, however, is that because there are so many choices for buyers, "retailers are stumbling all over themselves for customers right now," says Michael D. Culver, general manager of Acer America's home-PC division.

One result: Dealers are paying more attention to training their sales reps. In a survey of 2,198 shoppers by Dallas-based Channel Marketing, 64.2% said the retail salespeople were extremely helpful. Hal Compton, chief operating officer of CompUSA, concedes that dealers have a way to go. But, having invested millions of dollars in training, "we're the tallest pygmy in the jungle," he says.

DING-DONG. One area where stores still excel is after-sale support. These days, you'll wind up paying more, but you'll have more options. Best Buy offers a host of training courses, and CompUSA will deliver and install your PC for $69 and install 10 CD-ROM programs for $29. In the past six months, a third of PC buyers have used the installation service, says CEO James Halpin.

What if all these shopping methods still scare the devil out of you? Stay home and wait for the traveling PC salesperson. Hand Technologies, the brainchild of Andrew Harris, a former Dell executive, has begun dispatching sales reps from its Austin headquarters to hawk IBM Aptivas door-to-door. Harris claims that his legions close a deal 84% of the time when they make it into the living room--because the consumer is in a comfortable environment.

The moral? Whether it's on the phone, on the Net, or in the living room, there's no place like home to shop for a home PC.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.