SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Almost moment by moment, computers get cheaper, faster, more feature-rich. So why don't they get any easier to buy? Alas, figuring out where to purchase a PC remains a tricky proposition. That's true even if you happen to know exactly what system you want--and only more so if you require some assistance zeroing in on the perfect PC.
Actually, deciding how and where to buy a PC is tougher than ever, since the distinctions between different varieties of computer seller are rapidly blurring. Already, mail-order titan Gateway 2000 Inc.-- which operates 240 Gateway Country retail stores nationwide--is getting ready to take over the PC departments in all 1000 OfficeMax locations.
At the same time, companies like Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp., long synonymous with store-bought PCs, are now selling custom-configured models by Web and phone. And CompUSA Inc., the nation's only computer superstore chain, is looking less like a computer superstore these days--it's added movies, MP3 players, and camcorders. (It also changed its Web store name to Cozone.com, then back to CompUSA.com, in less than six months.)In short, the times they are a-changin'. But the fundamental questions about shopping for a PC remain: Where can you find the facts and advice that you need to make the right choice? Should you schlep to a variety of retail stores, launch your Web browser, or pick up the phone to compare prices? How do the major players compare for selection, service, and price? Where should you spend your cash the next time you need a PC?
To find out, we asked some experts--namely, more than 3000 PC World subscribers who have purchased one or more computers in the last year. The majority of our survey respondents described themselves as either intermediate or advanced PC users. Using an online survey, we asked these battle-hardened consumers to rate their shopping experiences. And they reported back to us on important criteria like selection, salesperson knowledge and courtesy, and postpurchase service and support. Then we went shopping ourselves--at retail stores, on the Internet, and over the phone--to get a firsthand feeling for the state of the market. (Our experiences mostly jibed with what readers had to say.)On one level, our survey showed that most PC shoppers are content:
Approximately nine out of ten would buy again from the same seller. Even at CompUSA, the retail store with the lowest percentage of customers who would return, 79 percent would buy again.
Retail, Web, or Phone?
That's not to suggest that every seller pleases everyone equally. Far from it.
Customers had strikingly different things to say about the companies they bought from. Those who shopped by Web or phone reported better results in every major category than those who shopped at retail. And on average, the most satisfied buyers turned out to be phone shoppers.
Consider the evidence we report in "Happiness Is..." (below) and elsewhere throughout this article. Readers gave mail-order vendors Dell, Gateway, Micron, and Quantex above-average reviews for overall satisfaction. And the only retailer that rated as high is really a mail-order vendor in disguise: Gateway Country, which custom-builds PCs for later delivery. At the same time, Best Buy and CompUSA, two of the biggest retail chains, trailed the pack both in overall satisfaction and in critical categories such as salesperson knowledge and postsales support.
What about price? We found that costs often don't vary much from venue to venue. That's true whether you're shopping for a sleek home system packed with multimedia extras or an office workhorse that you configure yourself.
Nonetheless, you can still uncover a good deal if you do some research, a job that's much easier since the advent of shopping bots such as MySimon.com.
The bottom line: Shopping for a PC can be a grueling, time-consuming experience--or a surprisingly pleasant one. Read on, and we'll help make sure you emerge from the process unscathed.
From brick-and-mortar to click-and-order, our exclusive survey reveals where you should spend your money.
What's hot Drive to your nearest computer store and walk out with a PC.
What's not Service is often so-so, limited choice of brands and models at most chains.
Best for Shoppers who need a PC right away; those who want to try before they buy.
Before james popko, a social worker in West Hollywood, California, was ready to buy a new PC, he spent weekend after weekend scouring the Sunday circulars until he found the right computer at the right price. And then, advertisement in hand, he headed to the nearby Circuit City. Not to window shop, but to buy.
Contrary to the popular image of retail PC shoppers, Popko wasn't looking for advice or technical assistance. He just wanted a good deal and a friendly salesperson who would get him in and out of the store in short order, with a reliable PC in tow. Most of the retail shoppers we spoke to expressed similar wishes.
But instant gratification may be the sole meaningful advantage of retail shopping. Over 70 percent of all retail shoppers said that finding a salesperson was easy. But once they got help, less than half the shoppers gave their salesperson a Very Good knowledge rating--compared to 69 percent of those who bought by telephone.
As for selection, 54 percent of retail buyers said they were Very Satisfied with the store's range of PCs, compared to 69 percent of Web shoppers and 79 percent of phone customers. At most chains, the selection is remarkably similar: Preconfigured, home-oriented systems from Compaq, EMachines, and HP dominate the shelves. The exception is Gateway Country, which sells only custom-built Gateway PCs.
The Big Six
Although you can buy a PC just about anywhere these days--from Wal-Mart to Costco, Sears to a local mom-and-pop shop--six national retailers dominated our survey results: Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, Gateway Country, Office Depot, and Staples. Let's consider them in alphabetical order:
Best Buy: Between the competing sounds from the TV, audio, and video game departments, and the glare of the fluorescent lights, Best Buy isn't the best place to be if you feel a migraine coming on. And although more respondents bought from this retail chain than any other, they weren't enthusiastic about the service. Only 23 percent rated the knowledge of their salesperson as Very Good--the lowest (with CompUSA) for any store in this report. Courtesy marks were relatively low, too: Just 45 percent of respondents gave the sales staff a Very Good rating (compared with the 75 percent Very Good rating earned by Gateway Country sales staff).
To its credit, Best Buy does offer a little something for everyone--from serious business-oriented workhorses built by Compaq and Hewlett-Packard to inexpensive Emachines systems. The store's computer section is better organized than those of most retail outlets we visited. Rather than having one endless row of PCs, or several smaller displays with computers crammed together, Best Buy places its systems along both sides of the aisles, making it relatively easy to compare system prices and features.
Still, novice buyers would "be in a little bit of trouble" at Best Buy, concludes Gary Nelson (above), an operations officer with Arizona's Department of Transportation. Nelson purchased a Compaq Presario at Best Buy because its price was about $100 less than what he found at other stores. But his salesperson "didn't know what came with the advertised special I was looking at, and had to keep going back to the department manager," he recalls. And even after all the back and forth, the Best Buy salesperson brought out the wrong monitor and forgot the printer altogether.
Circuit City: The computer departments in this electronics chain are packed with everything from entry-level machines to fairly high-end ones. And its staffers were rated second only to their counterparts at Gateway Country stores for knowledge and courtesy. That's the good news.
The bad news is that Circuit City's sales displays were among the most confusing and disorganized of any store we visited. Some of its demonstration PCs were accompanied by three different prices: One that included rebates, another that included a printer and a monitor, and a third that represented the base price for the computer--sans rebates or monitor. Small wonder that just 64 percent of our survey respondents thought that it was Very Easy to find the product they were looking for at Circuit City.
CompUSA: Overall, respondents to our survey gave low marks to the country's only computer superstore chain. Just 42 percent of respondents reported being Very Satisfied with the selection of PCs, even though the CompUSA stores we visited carried more brands and models than the other computer retailers. Why the discrepancy? For starters, the enormous computer displays are daunting--often spanning the entire back of the store. Even more problematic:
Popular items were often out of stock when we visited.
Almost a third of CompUSA customers reported difficulty finding a salesperson, and staffers were rated among the least knowledgeable and courteous. Although our Boston-area shopper had a reasonably positive experience at his local CompUSA (see "Store Detective," page 165), salespeople at the San Francisco store we visited were scarce and--when we could track one down--unhelpful. When even a manager couldn't answer a question about the build-your-own-Compaq station, we were promised a phone call the next day. Two weeks later, we were still waiting. CompUSA, however, was recently sold, and its new owners could make improvements to the chain.
Gateway Country: Low-key and quiet, with farm-themed decor, Gateway's stores take an unorthodox approach to PC retailing, and judging from our survey, its customers are grateful. Gateway Country earned the highest marks of any retailer for salesperson knowledge and courtesy, and boasts one of the highest percentages of customers willing to buy again--91 percent of respondents said they'd head back to the store to purchase their next system. And as for service, ask Robert Williams, who purchased a Gateway PC at a southern California store: "It was excellent--five-star all the way down the line." More than three-quarters of its customers were Very Satisfied with the chain's selection, a figure that may seem surprising given that it sells only Gateway PCs. But Gateway Country's range of configurations is extremely broad--from the all-in-one Astro to a configured-to-order 1-GHz powerhouse. Each store typically features a weekly manager's special, as well as some standard configurations. And because Gateway builds all of its systems to order, you can customize just about everything.
We had pleasing experiences at Gateway Country, with one slightly unnerving exception. Our salesperson's price quote included several add-ons that we neither requested nor wanted: a DVD software pack, an Office 2000 training program, and an extended, three-year on-site warranty. The added cost: $359.
When questioned, the rep removed the extras. Still, we were left wondering if less observant purchasers might wind up with more than they originally bargained for. Before you buy, make sure you're getting the configuration you requested.
Office Depot, Staples: These similar office-supply chains don't stock many computers, and customers looking for more advanced systems are directed to in-store kiosks where they can order a custom PC from Compaq (both chains) or HP (Staples only). Neither measured up to Gateway Country in selection, salesperson knowledge, or after-sale service.
Still, despite these stores' limited inventory, survey respondents gave them better marks than other retailers in some key categories--from the ease with which customers were able to find the product they were looking for, to staffers' knowledge and courtesy. And no chains rated higher when we asked readers whether they'd buy again from the same seller.
Part of the attraction might be the low-pressure sales environment. None of the staffers we encountered at these stores were the least bit pushy--they simply answered our questions and explained our options. One Office Depot salesperson took nonchalance to the extreme. After about 5 minutes of questions and answers, he looked at his watch and asked if we were almost through, and then he took a call on his cell phone. Clearly, he was not on commission.
No Deposit, No Return
Regardless of where survey respondents purchased their PC--at retail, on the Web, or by phone--roughly a quarter of them reported some problem with their system. However, only 6 percent of all retail shoppers wound up returning their computers. Draconian store policies may explain this low return rate: At most major chains, consumers have just 14 days in which to return a PC for a refund, and several levy a hefty 15 percent restocking fee if the returned PC isn't defective.
Strict return policies certainly thwarted Circuit City customer James Popko, whose computer started acting up almost from the start. Though his salesperson was helpful and well informed, Popko had nothing but trouble trying to get his PC serviced when it had problems after he brought it home. The problems started with frequent keyboard freeze-ups. Then he had trouble accessing the Internet.
Finally, after he experienced several other problems, a technician told him that the hard drive was bad. After two weeks of conflicting phone conversations with technicians, Popko was told he would have to send the entire CPU back to Compaq for evaluation and repair. The estimated turnaround time: one long month.
Check The Fine Print
Discouraged that he couldn't use his brand-new computer, Popko contacted Circuit City to ask about exchanging it for another model. But he was too late--Circuit City's brief 14-day window for returns or exchanges had already elapsed. "I told them I wasn't asking for a refund," recalls a still-frustrated Popko. "All I want is a unit that works."
What's hot Around-the-clock shopping at an endless array of sellers; many brands and models, custom configurations.
What's not Some sites lack product detail; getting questions answered by a real person can be tough.
Best for Self-sufficient shoppers who want lots of choices and customization options.
If the retail shopping experience is so often uninspiring, should savvy PC buyers leave it all behind? Absolutely, says Michael Winckler, an Omaha software developer who recently purchased a notebook from Gateway's Web site.
In fact, he says he wouldn't have bought it any other way. "Gateway's site was a breeze to move around in, and its custom configurator was easy to use," he reports. "I had plenty of options for building the laptop the way I wanted it, with a certain screen size and a special pointing device." And the best part:
"I didn't have to talk to any salespeople."
For Web shoppers like Winckler, convenience is key. You can shop at any hour of the day or night, in clothes you would not dare wear in public. Long lines, pushy salespeople, and voice-menu black holes are unknown. If a site has the exact system you want, you can probably click and buy it in just a few minutes; if not, you can order one built to your specifications.
In general, survey respondents who bought on the Web rated the experience favorably: 68 percent said they came away Very Satisfied, compared to 55 percent of retail shoppers. Of course, no sales venue is perfect. Information on components can be skimpy at some sites, and many sites provide little in the way of buying advice. And your e-mail queries to the sales department (if such a department even exists) may go unanswered. All in all, Web shopping is better suited to self-sufficient PC veterans than first-time buyers.
Selection, Selection, Selection
If shopping for a PC on the Web has one decisive advantage over buying retail, it's the wealth of choices. If you buy online from a direct manufacturer such as Dell, Gateway, or Micron, you can tailor a system to your preferences. Or if you visit an online reseller you'll find that the selection of brands is far broader than what's available at local stores. PC Connection, for instance, offers 13 brand names, CDW offers 10, and PC Mall 7. Egghead.com seems to have a gazillion brands up for grabs (though some, like ATO and Racer, aren't exactly household names).
Just because a system is listed on a site doesn't mean it's ready for immediate shipment. Custom-configured PCs take time to build, and a reseller may or may not have the model you want in stock. Even if the site says it's available, be careful: A PC Mall phone rep told us that the company's site "can be slow" in updating item status. She advised us to phone and confirm that our requested system was in stock after we ordered on the Web. (Seems to us it would be even smarter to make that call before buying.)Still, most survey respondents who bought by mail order (either on the Web or by phone) got their systems relatively quickly. Just under half received their computers in a week or less; 75 percent received them within two weeks. And only one out of ten customers said their systems weren't delivered when promised. (One out of four Quantex buyers, however, reported late deliveries.)On A Clear Site You Can Shop ForeverJudging from what survey respondents told us, the Web sites they're shopping at are reasonably well-designed and informative. (See "Web: Easy as Pie for Shoppers," below.) We, too, found lots to like online--Dell, Gateway, Micron, and Quantex all have solid sites--but we also found a few stumbling blocks.
Gateway's site is particularly impressive. It's as tidy as a manicured lawn.
The lengthy configuration list is organized into neat groups such as Storage (which includes hard drives, DVD-ROM and CD-ROM drives), Multimedia (video, sound, speakers, and video capture), and so forth. That makes selecting options particularly easy.
Dell's Web store also has many useful features. Just ask Beth Cadenas, a consultant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "It was so easy to select the base system from lots of options, then customize it with the online help," she reports. And the site helped her select components that were compatible with the graphics card she wanted.
Another feature we liked at Dell's site was its Learn More links, which led us to glossaries, technical specs, and comparison charts. But it couldn't tell us how much we'd pay for tax (if applicable) and shipping; instead, buyers get this information in an e-mail, after they've bought a system. By contrast, Quantex's site asks for your zip code early in the process, then uses it to tally shipping and tax costs before you buy.
Other glitches: On Micron's site, we couldn't figure out how to ask for beefier speakers--they didn't seem to be an option. (A phone call to Micron's sales line cleared things up: We needed to click on a not-very-prominent All Options icon first.) And on IBM's site, we had trouble finding practical information on available components. A series of footnotes littered our PC's list of specs, but they pointed to disclaimers, not helpful explanations.
Anybody Out There?
Even at the best web stores, the available information isn't always an adequate substitute for dialogue between you and a salesperson. And if our difficulty getting personal responses via the Web is any indication, you could be in trouble if you need answers from a real human being.
When we e-mailed queries to Web-based sellers, asking about adding RAM to a system and installing Dragon's NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software, Compaq, Dell, and Quantex never responded at all. And when a seller did reply, the helpfulness was a bit underwhelming. IBM, for instance, sent us an automated note that didn't exactly answer our question. And CDW's response was even worse. We received a copy of a message sent from one CDW sales rep to another: "...please assist customer, thanks." We never did receive that assistance.
When you have the attention of a real person, you might want to ask about return policies and warranties--crucial information that's often buried deep within a site. Dell, Gateway, and Quantex allow returns and exchanges for 30 days after purchase, with no restocking fee. However, they won't refund your original shipping costs or pay for the PC's return trip, so you'll be stuck with a de facto restocking fee of up to $100 or more.
The news is often bleaker at other Web stores. Hewlett-Packard assesses a $150 restocking fee for systems returned to its HPShopping.com site. Micron's return policy allows a 15-day window to return the PC, but the grace period begins the moment the system leaves Micron's warehouse. Other resellers won't take systems back at all--even defective ones. After 30 days, if the Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, or Sony PC that you purchased from Zones.com is DOA, you're instructed to contact the manufacturer.
Despite such hitches and restrictions, 63 percent of Web buyers said that they were Very Satisfied with the seller's postsales service and support--compared to the 50 percent of retail buyers who said that they were Very Satisfied. But read on to get the scoop on a shopping alternative that respondents liked even better.
What's hot Same wealth of choices as the Web, but with assistance from a real person.
What's not Not every phone sales rep is an expert on every product.
Best for Shoppers with questions or special requests that the Web can't handle.
Maybe the web won't eliminate the need for salespeople after all. Although only one in five survey respondents bought their PC by phone, those who did were the happiest of the lot. (See "Phone: Beats Driving or Surfing," at right.)Our hunch: Some of those buyers picked up the phone only after being frustrated by other shopping options. Although Beth Cadenas used Dell's site to resolve potential compatibility problems, Bob Baxter, a Memphis-based engineer, reported a different experience. When Baxter decided to buy a PC, he began by configuring a model at Dell's Web site. However, he recalls, "the flags about some components working or not working with others left me a bit uncomfortable." So he continued his shopping by phone, speaking to a Dell sales rep who answered his compatibility questions.
In the end, Baxter says, "I liked being able to talk to a live salesperson."
And the benefits of speaking with a knowledgeable rep can be very tangible. If you need more facts about a PC than are readily available online, have an unusual configuration request, or would just rather talk than type, ordering by phone makes sense.
Aside from the human touch, shopping by phone is a lot like buying on the Web.
The range of sellers is practically identical--almost all vendors who sell on the Web also take phone orders (a handful discourage the practice by levying a fee--$25 at NECX, and $8 at Egghead.com after your first order). And you'll generally get the same products, prices, and shipping policies whether you click on a Web page or pick up the phone.
We'll Be Right With You
Buying by phone may bring to mind visions of endless voice menus and unbearable hold music, but most survey respondents said they were connected to a salesperson in less than a minute. Our hold times were usually brief; however, we did endure a 13-minute wait for a Quantex salesperson to answer the line.
When it comes to talking shop, phone buyers rated sales reps noticeably higher than retail buyers did. Almost 70 percent of phone shoppers said their salesperson's level of knowledge was Very Good, compared to just 47 percent of retail shoppers. And almost eight in ten phone buyers said their salesperson was Very Courteous, versus six in ten retail buyers.
For the most part, our shopping experience mirrored those verdicts. Phone representatives at direct manufacturers such as Dell and Gateway seemed genuinely interested in helping us select the right system. And when we asked them if they could take care of oddball requests--for instance, configuring a PC with 96MB of RAM--they usually could, even when the option was unavailable on their Web site.
Another plus: The sales reps at some resellers, including CDW, PC Connection, and PC Mall, offered to customize an off-the-shelf system and ship it the same day--as long as our requests weren't too demanding. Among the upgrades that qualified for this same-day service were adding extra memory, a hard drive, or software such as Quicken. (PC Connection and PC Mall charge a small fee--typically $30--for such upgrades, while CDW will do them for free.) Again, these customization options were not available when we checked these vendors' sites--proof that sometimes a quick phone call is all you need to get the configuration that you desire for your PC.
Understandably, sales staffers at online resellers--which deal in tens of thousands of products--delivered less personal attention than those at direct manufacturers. And in some cases, they couldn't provide enough information for us to make an informed buying decision. For instance, a rep at Egghead.com admitted she didn't have any information beyond the (often scanty) specs that she could pull up on the company's Web site.
Call On Me
Still, when phone buying works, it's hard to beat. It's certainly won a loyal fan in Aaron Hickmann, an information services manager at a fast-growing start-up company in Los Angeles. Hickmann recently bought ten PCs from reseller CDW, which assigned him a permanent account manager to call whenever he needs help (a useful service that not all phone-based sellers offer). "I value service more than anything," says Hickmann, "and I like being able to phone my rep and talk to him about new products that I haven't yet gotten my hands on. He'll go off, research the products' specs with the manufacturers, and come back to me with the one that will work for us."
Would you get that level of personal attention at a retail store? Probably not.
Nor can the automated world of Web shopping match it--not yet, anyhow. Count Hickmann among those lucky shoppers who have found what is--for them--the best place to buy a PC.
Roberta Furger is a PC World contributing editor. Aoife McEvoy is a senior associate editor and Harry McCracken is a senior editor for PC World.
Readers Rate Their Satisfaction With PC SellersWe asked PC World subscribers who took our survey to answer the all-important question, "Considering your overall buying experience with this PC, how satisfied are you with the seller?" Judging from their responses (on a scale from Very Satisfied to Very Dissatisfied), the happiest computer shoppers purchase products without leaving their home or office. Four major mail-order companies--Dell, Gateway, Micron, and Quantex--and one retail store, Gateway Country, emerged with above-average scores on the survey. However, three of the biggest retailers--Best Buy, CompUSA, and Staples--earned below-average scores.
SOURCE: February 2000 survey of 3186 verified PC World subscribers who had purchased one or more PCs in the preceding 12 months. Only sellers for whom we received a significant number of responses are rated. Companies are listed alphabetically within each tier.Shop Talk
Top 5 PC Shopping Tips
1 Do your homework. Rare indeed is the salesperson who offers expert, unbiased advice. So research your purchase by studying reviews (such as our Top 30 charts) and technical specs on manufacturer's Web sites.
2 Resist pushy salespeople. Retailers may strong-arm you to get costly extras such as an extended warranty, a surge protector, or a high-end mouse pad.
Ignore high-pressure sales tactics--buy such items only if you really need them.
3 Don't forget mom and pop. The best locally owned computer stores offer solid systems at low prices and uncommonly personal service. If you go this route, buy from a store that's been in business for at least five years (a good sign it's not a fly-by-night outfit).
4 Ask about discounts. Certain sellers give their sales reps leeway to negotiate. If you're the haggling type, try requesting a price break. Odds are you'll get a polite refusal--but hey, it can't hurt to ask.
5 Pay with plastic. Pay for the PC with a credit card, even if a seller offers a discount for check or cash purchases--your credit card company may mediate postsales disputes.
Notes From an Undercover Shopper
Some computer stores are like circuses. Others, ghost towns. At least those are the metaphors that came to mind during my whirlwind tour of Boston-area retailers one recent Sunday afternoon. True, there were some pleasant surprises along the way. But I finished the day appreciating why our survey respondents who shopped at retail tended to be less satisfied than those who bought by phone and Web. Herewith, some of the, ahem, highlights:
12:15 p.m. My trek begins at Staples, where the sales help is plentiful--except in the computer department. In fact, I wonder if anyone's been there lately, given that it's festooned with ads for long-expired promotions. I try to serve myself at a build-your-own-PC kiosk, but screens take ages to pop up, as if they were being downloaded via a 2400-bps modem.
12:56 p.m. CompUSA may tout itself as "the Computer Superstore," but I wade through aisles of game consoles, music CDs, and even walkie-talkies before reaching the PC department. On the plus side, the selection of systems is top-notch--everything from $400 econoboxes to $3000 luxury machines. And I'm quickly assisted by Dean, a ponytailed salesguy who knows his stuff.
Reassuringly, he suggests that I opt for a 533-MHz PC rather than a pricier 550-MHz model, advising that the speed difference will be imperceptible.
1:42 p.m. The frenzied atmosphere at Best Buy begins outside the store, where LeAnn Rimes music is pumped at high volume. Inside, I keep having to leap out of the way of staffers wheeling the towering stepladders they use to pluck products from lofty shelves. Although employees stress that they aren't on commission, their pitches smack of the used-car lot. One pressures shoppers to buy extended warranties within seconds of approaching them. Another extols the virtues of EMachines, stating that it was started by the founders of IBM and HP, and is Consumer Reports' favorite PC manufacturer--sheer fantasies, both.
2:25 p.m. At Gateway Country, there are no giant TVs or booming stereos to distract from the built-to-order PCs. With only four salespeople, however, the place seems understaffed. Eventually, I get solid advice from Gina. She even cheerfully admits that the store's selection of printers (a handful of HP and Epson models) is sparse.
3:02 p.m. Many of the desktop computers at Circuit City are shut off or sans mice, as if you aren't supposed to try them out; n