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When buying locally makes sense

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

When buying locally makes sense, and when it doesn't

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

A local store owner recently complained that I was driving business away by recommending mail-order bargains to readers. Not so, as I will explain.

First, I have been recommending bargains, not mail-order bargains as such.

I have repeatedly stated in the many years of these columns that local stores can often offer a better deal when all aspects are considered. That means price, service, warranty, and that difficult-to-define quality that you sense when you can walk into a nearby store and ask questions or get help face-to-face.

But let's face reality here. Mail-order companies usually sell consumer products for less than local retail stores do. If you shop on price alone—which is not necessarily a bad idea for some products, as I'll get to later—you'll probably find the best deal by mail-order. Check local stores first, however, since they sometimes have close-outs that match the mail-order companies' deals.

In general, I buy locally if the local store can come within 8 to 10 percent of the price of a mail-order purchase on a $1,000 item. For costlier purchases, I'd put that figure at 5 percent.

That assumes that the local store employs knowledgeable sales and technical personnel. Many do, and some don't. Finding out which ones fall into which category isn't easy, but you can start by using my standard catch-the-dummy method.

As soon as you strike up a conversation with a sales representative, ask this question: "What computer do you recommend?" If the response does not include something resembling, "What are you planning to use the computer for?" you should head out the door. No one can offer help without knowing what you are going to do with the item you want to buy.

When is it smart to shop on price alone? That's easy. If you already know what you want and have no serious questions about the product's reliability, mail-order buying can save a lot of money.

The best example in this category is a bulk purchase of floppy disks.

Locally, prices range from about $13 to $33 for a box of 10 high-density 3.5-inch floppies. (Some stores may have deals that are better than this, but I haven't seen them.) By mail, you can get the same disks for $5.90 for 10 (when you buy at least 25) from one reputable dealer I checked. You have to add the cost of shipping, of course, but you're still way ahead by mail-order.

Modems, which are generally trouble-free, are also typical mail-order bargains. So are hard disk drives.

A final caution: Many PC vendors insist on advertising computer systems without a video monitor—without a screen, in other words.

A PC without a screen is a little more difficult to use, to say the least.

I'm sure this practice will never end, but one thing I think should be illegal is the ploy of picturing a full PC system (with monitor) in an ad while giving a price that does not include the monitor. If you see this sort of advertising malpractice, vote with your wallet and buy elsewhere.

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