One PC To Go, Please

Buying a mail-order PC can be a breeze if you ask the right questions

Are you ready to purchase a computer but don’t want to haggle with pushy sales people? So, why not pick up the phone and have the computer you want shipped right to your door? Today there are more mail-order options than ever and more opportunities to save money.

There are two ways to purchase a computer by mail: direct from the manufacturer or through a mail order company. Gateway 2000, Dell and, more recently, Compaq are among the computer manufacturers that sell directly to consumers. This allows the manufacturer to keep closer tabs on inventory and eliminate the costs associated with stocking the shelves of retail stores.

Mail-order companies like Multiple Zones International, which includes the PC Zone and Mac Zone catalogs, sell hardware and software from various manufacturers. This allows a greater selection and better deals, since these companies spend less on distribution and warehouse expensive. "Currently, retail stores like Computer City and CompUSA are offering prices comparable to mail order companies," says Kevin Knox, a research analyst for the Gartner Group, a computer research firm in Stamford, Connecticut. "But it’s hard to predict just how much you can save since prices are constantly changing." Additional savings are possible, for instance, when a company is trying to get rid of stock that’s at the end of its life cycle.

In addition to saving you money, shopping by mail offers flexibility. Buying direct from the manufacturer gives you the option of having a computer built to your exact specifications, a trend that manufacturers have embraced in the past year. On the other hand, while mail-order companies generally don’t build computers to spec, there’s a better chance of finding what you want. Retail stores may offer 2,000-3,000 different products while mail-order companies could offer up to 20,000, says Tim Carroll, vice president of investor relations at Multiple Zones International in Renton, Washington.

There has been no great stampede to the direct-mail computer industry, although it’s a growing segment of the computer sales market. Mike Berman, a spokesperson for Houston-based Compaq, says that most customers, especially first-time buyers, prefer retail so they can try out the computer and personally compare the specifications to the competition.

However, Dataquest, a San Jose, California-based information technology market research firm, reports that through the third quarter of 1997, the top three U.S. PC vendors in the direct market arena–Gateway, Dell and Micron–have sold Multiple Zone International’s Carroll attributes 80% of these sales to "move-up" buyers, computer-savvy consumers who don’t need help from sales associates. But does this mean first-time buyers should stick to retail? "Absolutely not," says Carroll. "With the right information, it’s very possible for a first-time buyer to shop through a mail-order company."

Whether you’re a first-time or seasoned computer buyer, here are some tips to make your purchase a direct hit.

Get everything in writing. Have the mail-order company fax or send you the complete details of your

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