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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Understanding PC Sources, Vendors and Prices | Sources For PC Systems and Components | Retail Sources ]

Department Stores

The first retail outlet to consider (if but briefly) is the general department store. Many department stores have started carrying computers in their electronics department. I'm referring to the types of stores that carry everything from laundry detergent to garden supplies to clothing to cameras. If you can buy a bottle of shampoo, a new pair of shoes and a new PC in the same store, that's the sort of place I am discussing here. :^) They range from rather high-end stores to discount outlet chains; companies like Sears and Wal-mart fall into this category.

I've mentioned before that many consumers buy PCs the way they would buy a toaster or a blender; these are the customers these stores cater to, because that's exactly how they sell computers. For many of these companies, computers are an after-thought, or something they sell because the chain down the road does too. For all, computers are not their specialty.

Here are the advantages of department stores when buying a PC:

  • Personalized Shopping, No Shipping Costs, No Order Tracking Hassles, Relatively Easy Returns, Speed and "Instant Gratification": See the general discussion of retail sources for details.
  • Large Company Support: If you are buying from a major department store chain, you have some advantages that accrue due to their presence across the country. This is particularly useful if you ever move, or if you are buying a system for someone who lives in another town.
  • Occasional Good Deal: Rarely, these stores will run a close-out special, or a store-wide discount day that includes computers and can net you a good deal. The deals are unusual, and often apply only to older merchandise. But if you know what you are doing, you can get yourself a good deal.

The disadvantage list for department stores though is lengthy:

  • Sales Tax, Overhead and Pricing: See the general discussion of retail sources for details. Pricing is often particularly very poor at department stores, even compared to other to other retail sources.
  • Poor Quality Systems: These stores only sell pre-packaged retail PCs. Some are of good quality, but in order to get prices down, more often than not you will find rather low-quality systems sold at these stores. They use the cheapest components because they know most customers won't know the difference, and they cut corners in every conceivable way to keep the cost as low as possible.
  • Imbalanced Systems: Almost all of these systems are poorly balanced; see this discussion of system balance. Again to keep costs down and the perception of value high, the CPU and other "high-profile" items are emphasized, while important support components are neglected, damaging overall performance.
  • Outdated Systems: As if the two previous points weren't bad enough, many of the PCs sold at these stores are well behind the leading edge of technology. This is often due to the delays needed to get them through the supply chain, or because stores won't order new stock until they move their older product.
  • Low Variety: There is generally a low variety of different makes and models at most stores. Some may carry models from only one or two manufacturers.
  • No Component Choices or Configurability: What you see is what you get. There are no choices or options for configuring systems, beyond the simplest of upgrades (they may sell you additional memory if you are willing to install it yourself.)
  • Utterly Clueless Salespeople: The people who work in these stores generally know almost nothing about computers. If you're lucky, they'll only be of no help in your shopping; if you're unlucky they will unwittingly hinder you as you try to shop. If you're really unlucky, you'll run into a salesperson whose ego is such that he would rather intentionally mislead you than admit he doesn't know something.
  • High-Pressure Sales Tactics: If there is anything worse than an utterly clueless salesperson, it is an unscrupulous commissioned salesperson. Fortunately no longer found in many department stores, they are still out there. See this section for more.
  • No Technical Support: These stores provide no support at all. If you have problems with your machine, you'll have to call the technical support department for the manufacturer of the unit. Be sure to research that company's technical support record before buying.
  • No Service: Ditto what I just said about technical support.

The list above probably tells you clearly where I stand on buying a PC from a department store. I'm not going to mince words here: it's probably the worst choice of all the retail options. If you're going to buy retail, you can almost always do better than this. If you have no other retail options in the town where you live--and that's atypical, since all but the smallest towns today have at least one local PC shop--buy online or mail order.

Discount department stores can be a good place to get some types of media or supplies, though warehouse stores usually have better prices on these items.

Next: Membership Warehouse Stores


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