Thinking Outside the (Big) Box When Buying a Computer

OncologyLive, January 2008, Volume 9, Issue 1

In case you hadn't noticed, CompUSA, the largest computer specialty retailer in the country, closed more than half of its domestic stores back in February. I wasn't that surprised, given how empty...

In case you hadn’t noticed, CompUSA, the largest computer specialty retailer in the country, closed more than half of its domestic stores back in February. I wasn’t that surprised, given how empty my local CompUSA always seems to be, how they never seem to have the computer I want in stock, and how the salespeople push extended warranties (on which they make commission). In fact, I would say that nearly all brick-and-mortar computer retailers fail at providing that truly excellent customer experience for which we always hope, but which is oh-so-elusive. For me, the ultimate customer experience is to walk into a clean, large, well-lighted store with lots of hardware and software on display and in stock; speak to someone knowledgeable; and then walk out the door with my new purchase. Unfortunately, I have rarely had that experience and you probably haven’t, either.

Mom-and-pop computer shops are great if you want a custom-built computer. But they tend to have quirky store hours (and occasionally quirky staff ), and you may have to wait a week or two to take delivery of your (often non-brand-name) computer. These stores also tend to be limited in their display items and available stock of merchandise.

At the other end of the spectrum are the big-box electronics stores (like Best Buy and Circuit City), which have taken over as the principal merchants of computers in malls and stand-alone stores across America. Because they tend to have large product demonstration and display areas, they are ideal for browsing computer equipment. However, there are several factors that often detract from the overall shopping experience at these stores.

Price - You can often save 10% or more off the brick-and-mortar store price by shopping online, assuming you know exactly what you want—just type the product name into a shopping-specific search engine like Froogle or PriceGrabber. Always do your homework and ensure the merchant you are buying from has a good customer satisfaction rating.

Staff knowledge - Let’s face it, your average salesperson doesn’t know much about computers. Even worse are the salespeople who think they do, but provide only incorrect information. It’s hard to be confident about your purchase when you realize you know more about the product than the person from whom you are about to buy it.

Out-of-stock items - Is there anything worse than really wanting something, driving 20 minutes to the store, spending another 10 minutes waiting for someone to help you, only to find out that the item is out of stock?

Extended warranties - One of the biggest scams in retail. In November 2006, Consumer Reports launched a public awareness campaign to educate shoppers about the often misleading information surrounding extended warranties. According to this trusted watchdog, stores are pushing extended warranties like never before because they are revenue drivers. But the dirty little secret retailers don’t want you to know is that most products don’t break down often enough to make warranties worthwhile. When repairs are necessary, they are usually affordable, and, in many cases, cost less than the warranty. Besides, many electronics retailers don’t even provide technical service or support themselves—they just ship the goods back to the manufacturer.

I still visit the big-name computer stores, but only to play with products in their demonstration areas and figure out what I really want. Then I go home and order it online. This not only saves me money, it also lets me avoid the dreaded extended warranty sales pitch.

Oh, and One More Thing…

Apple Stores are the exception to the rule, a model for what the computer retail experience should be for everyone. Although they also try to push extended warranties, unlike other tech stores, the Apple “genius” staff is usually quite knowledgeable, and the range of products on display and in stock is often impressive.

Dr. Bertman is Physician Editor-in-Chief of MDNG: Primary Care/ Cardiology Edition. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts, a leading developer of Electronic Health Record (EHR) software. He also is the founder and president of, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI