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Computer superstores today are the single most popular site where people buy personal computers retail, and they can be daunting places. Fail to prepare properly, take a false step, and you may get hit hard with a payment much higher than you had expected.To place things in perspective, you should first know about all of your shopping options if you want to go into a store and look at models of PCs with various configurations and various price points before you make a purchase decision. Here’s how the options and their respective market share break down, according to Tony Amico, an analyst for the market-research firm, International Data Corp., based in Framingham, Massachusetts.Fully 31% of consumers and businesses who buy retail do so from computer superstores, while 23% buy from consumer electronics stores (such as Circuit City). The remaining numbers are as follows: 20.3% from small computer specialty stores, 13.9% from mass merchants (such as Sears), and 11.8% from office product retailers (such as OfficeMax).Buying directly from manufacturers, third-party mail-order firms, Internet merchants, corporate resellers, value-added resellers, and system integrators are still other options, though these aren’t retail options-you can’t walk in off the street and kick the tires.Each option has its selling points, but I’ll focus here on computer superstores, which dominate the retail market. Superstores such as CompUSA and Computer City can be excellent places to buy a PC, as they provide a good selection at good prices. But there are caveats, which in many ways apply to other high-volume retail outlets as well.Caveat emptor-let the buyer beware-is definitely the right approach, says Brian McKim, currently a stand-up comedian and free lance screenwriter living in Merchantville, New Jersey. Before seeking fame and fortune through humor and words, McKim was a sales rep for one hardware and several software companies-he used to sell to computer superstores. And he picked up all the tricks they use.”Don’t get taken for a typical retail ride,” warns McKim. Too many people who walk into computer superstores get “sold up,” he says. This is retail lingo, and it means you wind up buying more than you had planned-more products or the same number of products but more expensive versions.It’s a salesperson’s job to sell you up. “Every purchase, from a salesperson’s viewpoint, is an opportunity to sell something else or the same thing more expensively,” says McKim. “It’s all part of the retail game. It’s totally understandable-there’s nothing wrong with it. Stores are in business to make money.”And as a consumer, of course, you want to hang onto as much of your hard-earned money as possible while still obtaining the goods and services you need. So what we have here is a basic conflict, or game. “It’s up to consumers to understand the nature of the game if they want to win,” says McKim.McKim has three pieces of winning advice:1. Equip yourself with information. This means knowing exactly what you want. Do your homework-read through articles and look at the ads in such computer magazines as PC World and Macworld, find the most recent computer-buying articles in Consumer Reports, and talk to colleagues and friends for advice.”A superstore’s best customers are people who haven’t done their homework,” says McKim. “The worst customers are those who come in with computer magazines that have Post-it notes marking pages and passages underlined.”2. Be wary of salespeople’s advice. One way salespeople try to sell you more than you need is by emphasizing upgradability. But most people will never make significant upgrades to their computers.Major upgrades can cause unpredictable incompatibilities with other components in your system. Also, it’s usually more economical to buy a new computer after three or four years than to upgrade the old one.Computers in the $1,000 to $1,250 range may not be as upgradable or have the longevity of those costing twice as much, but “for 90% of the population, they’ll provide enough capabilities for at least three years,” says McKim. This applies even more if you use your computer primarily for word processing and the Internet rather than high-end graphics or games.3. Don’t shop for a computer on a weekend. Computer superstores are jam-packed on weekends. “It’s madness in there,” says McKim.Go on a day or evening during the week, if possible. You’ll be more likely to have a salesperson’s undivided attention if you need questions answered-salespeople can be quite helpful here.Shopping during the week is a “less nerve-wracking experience,” says McKim. “You’re parting with a lot of money. You want to have your wits about you.”Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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