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"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"
-- Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
The phrase above is one of my most important personal "life rules" and one
that I urge you to keep close to the top of your mind when shopping for systems,
components... in fact, anything. Made popular by its use in the Heinlein classic and
commonly used by the abbreviation "TANSTAAFL", this phrase expresses a key,
inherent characteristic of most markets: you don't get something for nothing.
While this applies to most everything in life, it applies particularly to our effort at
PC purchasing in several ways:
- Beware the "Deal Too Good To Be True": If you are offered a deal that
seems too good to be true, there is a very real chance that it is, and you are in danger
of being scammed. If a hard disk costs between $200 and $250 at every vendor you check,
except for one that is selling it for $119, that should give you pause. Either the price
is a mistake, or the component is different, or something comparable is going on. If a new
component is out of stock at every retailer you check with, but a guy with a pseudonym on
an auction site claims to have one available for sale, money order in advance only,
the needle on your "dangerometer" should be pegged in the red zone!
- There Are Reasons For Market Niches: There are situations where Component X costs
twice as Component Y even though they seem to be no different. Or, there are some
companies that sell Product X for consistently far more than another company sells Product
X. "TANSTAAFL" in this context states that there are reasons why these
situations exist. While in the short term sometimes prices can get out of whack,
eventually the market corrects for this. If over a long period of time the price of
something seems too high to be justifiable, yet people continue to buy it, this often
means there's a characteristic of the product or how it is being sold that you have
yet to uncover. People often have surprisingly different reasons for buying different
- If It Costs, You Pay For It: I never cease to be amazed at how many people
"want to have it all" and expect to get it. They want the convenience of a
large, high-overhead retail store, but they don't understand why the products cost more
than they do at an online vendor. They like the personalized service of a small Internet
"one man shop", but expect him to match the prices of a huge Web retailer
selling at huge volume through automated systems with no personal customer interaction.
They actually believe that companies that offer as standard policy "free
shipping" are eating the shipping costs. It is far better to always bear in mind that
conveniences and services have costs, and that far more often than not, the customer pays
for them one way or another.
All of the above said, I should make one thing clear: "TANSTAAFL" doesn't
mean that there aren't good and bad deals out there. You still have to shop around and be
aware of better and worse ways of getting what you are looking for. Mostly, this concept
should keep you on your toes and always looking to understand why things are what
they are, particularly when it comes to pricing.
Note: There seems to be a new
exception to "TANSTAAFL". The Internet era has seemingly changed the rules by
introducing to the market companies that want to lose money! Some retailers are
intentionally selling at or even below cost in order to get new customers. So sometimes
you will be able to find a free lunch hiding out there somewhere, subsidized by the
investors and creditors of these risk-affine companies desperate for market share at any
cost. All I can say is this: enjoy it while it lasts, because it won't for long...
Ten Tips For Successful PC Buying
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