Buying by mail: convenience, price vs. quality of service


A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the different types of computer stores and what you can expect from them in terms of selection, price and service.

A half-dozen readers immediately took me to task for neglecting one of the fastest-growing channels of them all -- mail order.

There was a reason for my omission. There are plenty of good mail-order buys from companies with reputations for quality and service, but in most metropolitan areas you can get just as good a deal on a high-quality computer from a local retailer who can handle problems without making you ship 50 pounds of equipment a couple of thousand miles.

But my opinion is far from universally shared.

"Not everybody lives in a big city," said one irate caller from a small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "I can't always find what I want around here, and mail order is my only alternative.

"I hate to spend time shopping in computer stores," said another reader. "I know what I want and the easiest way to get it is to pick up the phone. You add a couple of dollars for Fed Ex and it's on your door the next day."

A computer services director from a medium-sized company wrote that his company had recently given up on its local dealer and was buying all its equipment from a large mail-order supplier.

"We've tested their computers and the quality control is excellent. They also provide on-site service [from a large national repair service], and it's better than what we got from the local dealer," he said.

Actually, I've bought quite a bit of equipment through the mail, although I usually stick to off-the-shelf stuff such as printers and disk drives. Mail-order software is also cheap and convenient.

I've also heard dozens of tales from satisfied mail order computer buyers, and just as many horror stories from people who bargains evaporated when they spent months trying to get their computers to work and hundreds of dollars shipping faulty machines across the country.

Actually, the term "mail order" describes a wide variety of computer marketers.

There are mail-order dealers who put together PCs in garages. There are companies that buy generic clones from offshore manufacturers and put their own labels on them. There are consumer electronics houses such as DAK or Damark who have branched into computers, and a new generation of PC makers, such as Dell, Zeos and Gateway, that design, build and sell their own equipment and can provide a variety of service options.

Even the big-time operators, such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corp. and Wang, have gotten into the mail-order business.

You can also find hundreds of mail-order businesses that deal in components and peripherals such as printers, video boards, monitors, disk drives, tape backups, scanners and other equipment.

A major plus for mail order is the convenience that has made it one of the country's biggest growth industries. If you know what you want, all you have to do is pick up the phone.

Price is another factor. Mail-order companies don't have to maintain large, high-rent retail sales outlets, so their overhead is lower.

While mail-order prices are still somewhat lower than you'll find at local retailers, the gap has been narrowing, thanks to competition from local dealers who assemble their own equipment and office warehouse chains and computer superstores that depend on volume to keep prices low.

Another advantage is that you can always find a mail-order house that carries the particular piece of equipment you want. A few months ago, I decided to buy a tape backup unit that would hook up to my computer's parallel port. The dealers near my home didn't stock it, but I spent a few minutes looking through computer magazines and found a mail order house that delivered it two days later.

On the down side, buying a computer through the mail is always something of a gamble. I'm not talking about paying your money and getting nothing in return -- the overwhelming majority of mail-order houses are reputable. I'm talking about your time and effort.

If the computer shows up and works as advertised, you've won hands down. But if there's a problem with the hardware or software configuration, you're in for a long bout of long-distance diagnosis.

The big mail-order sellers have developed an enviable reputation for on-line service in this regard, and they may be able to solve the problem in a few minutes. This kind of service is expensive, and it shows up in the price you'll pay for their PCs.

I've also heard tales of woe from buyers who find themselves put on hold for hours -- if they can get through to the dealer's overworked service department at all.

If the computer is defective, you may have to ship it back, which means you're without a machine for a week or two, or even a month. You may also be out the shipping charges on your end, which can be considerable.

Even some dealers who offer local service may not stock their local agent with parts, which means repairs can drag on forever.

If you find yourself in this kind of nightmare, you'll certainly wonder if it wouldn't have been better to buy the machine locally, drop it off on the way to work if it breaks and tell the guy, "Fix it now."

Obviously, the pluses outweigh the minuses for many buyers. If you're looking for mail-order computer equipment, the best place to start is the bible of the industry, Computer Shopper, which is available at most outlets that carry computer magazines.

The latest issue of this behemoth weighed in at 4 1/2 pounds and contained more than 900 pages of mail-order computer ads. If you can't find it there, you won't find it anywhere.

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