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Retail Computer Purchasing Experiences
||Monday , April 24, 2006
||Stuff / Miscellaneous
Chances are that you or someone you know will shop for a computer soon. You may be shopping for a sleek gaming machine or you might be looking for something to handle your email and digital picture needs. Whatever its use may be, many of us feel locked into purchasing from major Brick and Mortar (B&M) retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, or Fry’s Electronics. When it comes to shopping for a computer, just what exactly do you need to know before walking into the store?
Margins on computer hardware are razor thin and B&M stores have rent and salaries to pay. What quality of service can you expect when the sale of one service plan can make the difference between a day in the black or in the red? More importantly, can these retail companies provide a good purchasing experience alternative for those who choose not to purchase a system directly from a manufacturer such as Dell, or Gateway?
A less tech-savvy crowd will most likely not read hardware review websites and may even rely on their neighborhood electronics chain for the latest information on computer hardware. To gauge a mainstream purchaser’s overall buying experience, we decided to talk to sales representatives at larger retailers and determine the level of advice and service the customer is getting. Are sales staffers helpful, unsure, or just plain wrong? To find the answers to these questions, we purchased computers from four different local Austin, Texas retailers: Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and Fry’s Electronics. We supplied each retailer the same purchasing conditions: we already have a monitor, we’re buying a computer to check email, use Microsoft Office, and process photos from a digital camera, and we’d prefer the cost of the machine to stay under $500. We were armed with pen, paper, and questions ranging in difficulty from “where’s the on switch” to “talk to me about Windows Vista.”
The article on the following pages represents a snapshot of our buying experiences at each location. We simply visited each retail store and documented the experience we were presented with. Please keep in mind that our chronicle published here is not suggested to be an in-depth case study, it simply tells about our purchasing experience, the same one you might experience if walking into these B&M retailers today. We’re simply offering up our real shopping scenarios along with our thoughts on how anyone searching for a computer to fit their needs should navigate the somewhat treacherous waters of a local retailer.
9607 Research Blvd - Austin, Texas
On this particular early Tuesday morning, we had trouble getting good help from Best Buy representatives. After we stood by an eMachines T3410 system for five minutes, we finally had to approach a sales representative and ask for assistance. She left for a brochure and returned with the brochure for the T3418, not the machine we were looking at. She handed us the brochure and then walked away. After flagging down a second Best Buy representative and asking about upgrading the memory in the particular system, he explained we could upgrade the memory, but he didn’t know the price. He told us he would find out, and promptly left. He never returned with the information.
At this point, we decided to flag down another representative, and while doing that our original representative happened to walk by and we got her attention. We asked her about the prices for a memory upgrade, and she left to find out as well. While we waited, we talked to the third representative that we had previously waved down. We asked him how to connect the T3410 to a printer, and he responded by saying, “the USB port.” We asked what to do if we had a printer that only had a parallel port, and he suggested a USB to parallel port adapter. At this time, the second representative we asked about upgraded memory pricing returned with an answer.
We then continued talking to the representative that suggested the USB adapter, about 32-bit and 64-bit processors and Windows Vista. He incorrectly stated that the T3410 had only a 32-bit processor and made no mention of the fact that it was 64-bit capable. We probed further, and he claimed that all AMD Semprons were only 32-bit chips (the truth is that some are and some aren’t – our particular model was capable of both 32- and 64-bit operations). When we asked about the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit and what that would mean to us, he said he wasn’t sure and shrugged. Then he said that it might have something to do with “computations.” We asked how so? He said that he wasn’t sure on specifics.
We asked what the sticker “Windows Vista Capable” meant and he responded that it was a new Windows OS, scheduled for released in January 2007. We asked if we could install this new OS on a T3410 and he said that we could. We asked if they had any other machines meeting such requirements, eMachines or otherwise, and they both waved towards the general Computer department and made no move to show us another machine. They did not mention warranties nor did we ask.
Despite the fact that only one or two customers were in the department, we ended up with three different sales representatives, and none of them seemed to want to close the sale.
It should be pointed out that from an operations standpoint Best Buy is very efficient. Getting the physical product is easy, and if a system isn’t within arm’s reach they have someone at the ready with a “lift” to pull the product down for you. Furthermore, the Geek Squad will, for no extra charge, unpack your system, turn it on, and verify that you do not have a dead-on-arrival product. Also, any rebates you may have are conveniently printed at the register. If you’re just going to walk in and pull a system off the shelf, Best Buy is very easy to deal with.
Exchanges are quick and easy – although we initially purchased the T3410, we called later and verified that they had the T3418 in stock, so we took our system back and exchanged it. Even if you happen to lose your receipt (as we did), you can just bring your credit card back in, and they will print another copy of the receipt for you. We tested Best Buy on this policy and they passed with flying colors.
9333 Research Boulevard - Austin, Texas
Our shopping at Circuit City was easily the best of any of the four stores we shopped at, but our experience was a bit different. Instead of talking to a sales representative, we were approached by a technician who was filling in for a sales representative who called in sick. We told him our needs, and he confidently recommended the eMachines T6528 for $450, and Compaq’s SR1800NX with an Intel Celeron D for $349, both prices were after a $50 mail in rebate. He easily aced our test questions, telling us that we would be able to upgrade our memory, as there was at least one addition memory slot was free. He also explained that we would be able to upgrade our graphics capabilities as both systems were equipped with PCI-Express slots. When we asked about upgrading our video card specifically for gaming, he asked what games, and we told him F.E.A.R. and Oblivion (both are very aggressive graphically). He explained that the two machines in question have insufficient processors for playing such games at high resolutions with all the eye candy turned on, but if he were forced to recommend something, he told us to go for a GeForce 6500 or GeForce 6600 –a balanced recommendation considering our system choices and our “budget.” Suggesting we put in a $500 video card would have been irresponsible without an accompanying recommendation to purchase a better system.
He accurately explained the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit and what it would mean to me. First of all, he explained that Vista is a 64-bit OS. We asked if Vista came in 32-bit as well. He said it will, but we’d be running a 32-bit OS on 64-bit processor. As such, we wouldn’t notice any advance in speed.
We asked what this 32-bit and 64-bit means to us, your average Internet and Office users. He said a 64-bit processor can handle larger numbers of calculations in a single pass than its 32-bit counterpart. He also said that this factor would be important when your machine is crunching some serious numbers, as in games. By reducing the number of processor cycles for computations, 64-bit operation allows software to run more efficiently – in theory. He also told us that very few software manufacturers have started compiling their software for 64-bit, particularly with games. So even if your machine has a 64-bit Windows, unless the software is compiled for 64-bits, you won’t get the full advantage.
Such an experience brings up a good point. If you feel that the answers you’re getting aren’t what you want or sound glossed over, try and seek out their technician. Technicians, typically, have an upper hand in some of the more complicated technology arenas.
Our representative did not try to push a warranty on us, but was helpful in discerning the various options available and their cost to us.
9503 Research Blvd - Austin, Texas
CompUSA actually provided us with a good purchasing experience. We were approached immediately by a CompUSA salesperson. The salesman asked what we were looking for in a system, and based on our answers - we requested a basic email and digital pictures machine - he showed us two options: the eMachines T6528 Minitower and the Compaq Presario SR1820NX Minitower, both for $499. The eMachines had a $50 mail in rebate. He passed the test on all the basics: what “RW” stood for on the DVD burner, how to connect to a printer and upgraded memory options. He wasn’t so sure of eMachines’ potential for upgrading video cards, so instead of making up an answer, he admitted it wasn’t his forte and politely excused himself to go ask someone else.
There were some areas where he was shaky. He couldn’t explain what the “64-bit ready” sticker meant. He said it would be useful when Longhorn (Vista’s codename) comes out, but he couldn’t explain what Longhorn was or how it would impact my daily computing experience. Also, he mentioned that Compaq came with LightScribe. Again, he was fuzzy on the details, but promised it was “cool.” (LightScribe is a program that can burn text and pictures onto the tops of your DVD/CDs instead of having to use paper labels.)
He didn’t bring up CompUSA’s Service Performance Warranty until we asked about warranties, which made for a less pressured shopping experience. He stated that to get your system fixed under the eMachines warranty alone, you must mail your computer to eMachines and pay for shipping out of your own pocket. From our eMachines testing experience, this is simply not true. We suggest you research not only the computer, but also its accompanying warranties that are included by the retailer and the manufacturer. CompUSA representatives heavily pushed their retailer’s extended warranty, which is becoming commonplace. In their zeal to make the sale, however, they misrepresented (accidentally or otherwise) the manufacturer’s warranty and shared incorrect information. So be sure to know what your system’s warranty promises and then decide for yourself if the retailer’s extended warranty adds anything that will be of value to you.
Overall, on that particular day, we enjoyed very helpful and astute customer service from CompUSA. We liked that they came to us, asked me how we planned to use the computer, and recommended appropriate machines. And as we were leaving, our guy handed us printed Web pages of various video cards and their info, which we thought was a nice touch.
12707 North Mopac - Austin, Texas
We visited Fry’s Electronics at lunchtime and the store was fairly crowded. The salesman did seek me out (a plus), but when we explained our requirements for a computer, he said that the only computer system within our $500 price range was a “Refurbished HP A1330N” for $579.99. Interestingly, there were plenty of computers that fit our needs in the $500 range that weren’t refurbished, so we weren’t sure why we were shown only that particular one. His sales pitch was confusing: as we were shown a different model that shared some features with the refurbished A1330N that he suggested, but not all, so we were never entirely sure what features the A1330N would include.
The answers to our questions were quick and glib (maybe because of the noon crowd?), saying the difference between Sempron and Athlon 64 processors was the Sempron was slow and the Athlon was fast. When asked what a Sempron was, he said it was a “base Internet surfing system.” When asked about upgrading graphics cards, he knew it was upgradeable with the PCI-Express slot, but when we asked if there were any video cards he recommended, he said, “I’m not a gamer.”
While at Fry’s Electronics, we asked another rep about video cards. He asked our favorite games, and when we told him F.E.A.R. and Oblivion, he recommended: an older mid-level card, the 6800 GS for 249.99 and high-end 7800 GTX for $600.00. We liked that he ascertained our gaming preferences, and his answers showed familiarity with gaming hardware.
At no time did either of the representatives try to sell or push an extended warranty on us, but did explain the options when we asked.
We also noted that Fry’s Electronics has incredible deals on closeout models. We purchased an HP Pavilion with an Athlon 64 3800+*, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB HDD, and a LightScribe DVD burner for $449 after a $50 mail-in rebate. It was originally priced at $719.99.
Editor's Note: Originally we stated that the HP system we purchased had an Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor. We were mistaken, and indeed it is an Athlon 64 3800+ single core processor. It's still a very good deal compared to the other systems we purchased that day.
Fry’s Electronics had almost a dozen closeout models and is constantly rotating out “discontinued” models. One should keep in mind that even though these closeout models have a red tag, most of the time they are brand-new machines in their original box. At the retail level, manufacturers tend to change model numbers more often than the actual specifications – so one may find almost the same computer bearing a different model number, albeit with a full price tag on it.
None of the other retailers that we visited offered a similar deal.
As discount PC’s become more ubiquitous, retailers are scrambling to come up with the best deals to coax (or confuse) you into purchasing their extended warranties. We thought we’d navigate through all the addendums and sub-clauses to present you with the quick-and-dirty on whose warranty does what. Keep in mind, the warranties presented to us were based on the systems we purchased and may differ from product to product.
Best Buy’s Performance Service Plan is a three-year extended warranty and costs $119 for service center work (return to depot) and $159 to have a techie truck out to your house and repair it for you in your living room. Either way, if Best Buy can’t fix it, they claim they’ll replace it. According to their documentation, warranty covers normal wear and tear, power surge, and failure due to excessive heat, dust, and humidity—pretty much any reason your computer can die, as long as you aren’t the culprit. When we called to ask about their warranty plans, a customer associate explained to us, “If your computer broke and you didn’t put a hammer to it, it’ll be covered.” Best Buy’s warranty should be procured within 30 days of machine’s purchase date.
Best Buy’s plan primarily covers repairs. However, if they service a part three times and the device fails a fourth time, they’ll exchange it out. At which point you may be eligible for an upgrade. This upgrade may be a discount or even free of charge, based on the system.
A Circuit City Advantage Protection Plan for your desktop PC includes tech support over the phone, 24/7. For desktop PCs, Circuit City Advantage provides in-home service scheduled at your convenience. According to their website, “The Circuit City Advantage Protection Plan for computer products begins on the date of purchase with power surge protection and notebook PC battery coverage. However, all other benefits begin with the expiration of the manufacturer’s warranty or one year, whichever comes first, and extends for the remaining life of the plan.”
Like the others we visited, if Circuit City can’t fix it, they claim they’ll replace it. The warranty covers power surges and defects as well as normal wear and tear. A four-year plan goes for a hefty 149.99 and two years for 99.99. The warranty needs to be purchased within two weeks of the date you bought your machine.
A Circuit City Advantage Protection Plan for your desktop comes with a Resource Kit, which is apparently a giant coupon book for computer nerds. Sounds like a nice stocking stuffer, but it doesn’t exactly stack up to a loaner coming with a warranty almost half the price.
CompUSA separated their Technology Assistance Plan (TAP) into four levels and opted for a mostly Olympic naming convention: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Your basic plan, Bronze, covers component repair, parts and labor, 24/7 technical support, and carry-in repair service. With Silver, they’ll come out to your home or office. Gold gives you “Dial-A-Tech,” which allows you to talk with A+ certified agents and in-store services. These services include a one-time Windows OS system reinstall, a “Power Clean” (meaning they’ll dust your computer’s internals), and an installation of your choice of store-purchased software. Platinum gets your system “professionally” installed by their techs as well as provides you access to the Platinum-only support line. Prices range from $79 for a two-year Bronze to $269 for a three-year Platinum. You have 21 days to purchase the warranty after buying your computer.
For the most part, Fry’s Electronics sells your typical retailer warranty. It needs to be procured within 30 days of purchasing your computer, service takes place only at a Fry’s Electronics store, and warranty covers repairs. But here’s what sets these guys apart: If Fry’s Electronics needs more than 24 hours to fix your computer; they will give you a machine on loan while they fix it. And it won’t be a clunky, out-of-date loaner that nobody else wanted. Fry’s Electronics' loaner will be equivalent to your system, feature-for-feature, and if their techs can’t fix your machine, the loaner’s all yours.
Fry’s Electronics' warranty prices are the lowest of the four, at $49 for two years, $69 for three, and $89 for five. Interestingly, if your computer is stolen, your warranty will apply to your new computer.
Navigating these retail stores isn’t for the faint of heart or those not armed with the right knowledge beforehand. As much as you’d like to go to your closest strip mall, have a salesperson discern your hardware needs, and walk out with a shiny new computer that does everything but load your dishwasher, such an experience is just not going to happen. Most retail sales people are simply not going to possess the necessary knowledge to correctly recommend or explain every nuance of a piece of hardware. Even if a sales rep has all that down, a greater skill is required from them: relating that 64-bit-Lightscribe-GeForce knowledge in a non-condescending, helpful way to someone who is unsure what his hardware needs even are. The potent combo of techie know-how and properly relating it to an “everyday” consumer is a difficult knack to develop. Most sales reps you’ll encounter are polishing one or the other, if not both of those skills, if they posses them to begin with.
Even if a salesperson seeks you out, listens to your requirements, and shows you a machine, that computer may not really be the one you want. Like everyone else in the world, salespeople have their agenda and might be pushing a certain model for a plethora of reasons. Maybe they’ll earn a raise, get a promotion, or win sales competition if they sell you. Then there is sometimes commissioned sales as well. Who knows? Our experiences reinforce the need to do your research. Also, don’t hesitate to ask several people in the store the same question, just to ensure you aren’t getting wildly different answers.
The Bottom Line
Some retailers’ sale forces do not have the time, training, or, unfortunately, the motivation to give all their customers personalized advice and, accordingly, act more as a warehouse than a customer service/support center. As such, we cannot stress enough the importance of completing your own independent research before going to a store.
So read up on your own. Do some cost comparisons. Look over some warranties. Read articles from our Systems Evaluation Program. And if all else fails – take a friendly geek with you when you go. If you are that friendly geek and you’re suggesting a system for a friend or family member, recommend the right computer to them before they go shopping and spare them from the wide range of experiences—and the headaches—that we went through.
Please join us in our forum thread dedicated to this topic.
The two themes that were prevalent during our experience were the tremendously varying levels of knowledge and service between salespersons, even at the same store. There was surely a general overall lack of technical knowledge when it came to forward-looking technologies or gaming-specific hardware and upgrades.
The simple fact is that your mileage will vary at these stores. Your experience may hinge on a department manager who excels in team building, has motivated his staff, and makes sure that they are up to speed on the technology that they are selling. Given the pay of these retail sales positions, that can be hard to do.
One thing that I noticed when I went along with Jennifer is that those positions that pays commission, or provides some sort of profit sharing; tend to have representatives that are more professional. Most people would think that these people would be pushy in areas of sticker tags and warranties, but that was not the case in our experience. That does not mean you will not encounter a snake-oil salesperson at one point or another, but it was interesting to see the difference in age and professionalism between these two realms, and it was definitely not what I was expecting.
Finally, I would like to tell you that we kept our eMachines, HP, and Compaq systems for evaluation, and we will be sharing our experiences with you in the near future.
Chris Morley - [H] Consumer Managing Editor