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Local PC Shops
It is an ironic fact of the PC world that one of the best sources for excellent values
in PC systems is also one that is unknown to many people: local PC shops. These are
stores that don't sell pre-packaged name-brand PCs the way all other retail sources do.
Instead, they specialize in building and selling
"house brand" PCs that they assemble themselves from components they
purchase. They will then usually put their own names on the systems, and support and
service them in-house as well.
In many ways, the people who run these shops can be thought of as "professional
home-builders". They do exactly the same thing that those who build PCs at home do:
they buy components and make them into PCs. However, they will do this for hundreds or
thousands of PCs a year, so they have more expertise than the typical homebuilder. These
companies almost always appeal to a local or sometimes small regional market, and they
range in size from hundreds of employees for the largest shops down to single-person
operations. The smaller companies are more common than the larger ones, and you will find
them in almost every city or town.
The reason why these PC shops are relatively unknown is precisely because they are
small. They have a low profile; no national presence, no ads on prime-time TV, no big
corporate sponsorships. They get much of their business through referrals and word of
mouth, or from low-budget local advertising: regional newspapers, supporting community
events, and people looking through the yellow pages. Some also do walk-in business if they
are in malls or other high-traffic areas.
Why are these small shops something worth considering? For the simple reason that they
offer something you can't get at any other retail source: customized hardware and
personalized service. Here are the advantages of these PC shops:
- Personalized Shopping, No Shipping Costs, No Order Tracking Hassles, Relatively Easy
Returns, Speed and "Instant Gratification": While these attributes generally
apply to local PC shops as they do to other retail stores, they
depend to some extent on what the store stocks and what you choose to buy. Some stores
will have pre-made standard configurations available for immediate purchase, but others
only custom-build, which reduces the speed and "instant gratification"
advantages to some extent. Even if the store has already-built PCs, you will usually want
to custom-configure a machine to get the best quality and value.
- Control Over System Quality: These companies will pretty much build what you want
them to build using standard components, so if system quality is important to you, you can
get it here (assuming the company does a competent job of assembly, which most do.) On the
other hand, sometimes standard configurations are on the cheap end, so you have to do your
- Choice of Components and Configurations: You have the ability to choose many of
the components. If you want a particular brand of hard disk drive, for example, many of
these stores will let you use it (though you may pay more and/or have to wait for it to
- Expandable and Upgradeable Systems: PCs that are made from standard components,
which is all these places usually sell, are easier to upgrade or expand than proprietary
- Generally Good Value: The overhead of these stores is usually fairly low because
they are often family-run businesses and don't have fancy furniture and store fixtures.
These savings are usually passed on to the customer. In areas where many of these shops
exist they compete fiercely at times, keeping prices down.
- Most Clueful Salespeople: These stores usually have the most knowledgeable
salespeople of all the retail sources. Even better, they have on-site technicians who can
answer any questions you may have that the salespeople can't answer.
- In-Store, Local Support and Service: These companies do their own support and
service, and it is local. It's much easier--and faster--to resolve difficult
problems when you can bring the PC in to the manufacturer and say "here it is, please
fix it" than it is to deal with 800 numbers and shipping the PC cross-country. Some
stores also offer on-site service (usually for an extra fee.)
- Low-Priced Systems Available: These stores are often the only place you can find
very inexpensive systems, because large PC manufacturers generally avoid them (since they
don't make enough on them to be bothered). You will also sometimes see used PCs sold at these stores.
These stores do of course have some disadvantages as well:
- Sales Tax, Overhead and Pricing: See the general discussion
of retail sources for details. These stores do still have some overhead, though it is
less than any other retail sources, and value is generally the best as a result.
- Variability: This is the biggest disadvantage of these stores: if you just pick
one at random, you don't really know what you'll be getting. While most of these shops are
very good and offer excellent systems at good prices, there are some clunkers out there.
In contrast, if you buy a big-name PC you know what it is regardless of where you buy it.
The bottom line of this variability is simple: it just means you can't pick one of
these stores at random. You need a referral or recommendation. See below.
- Sometimes Poor Quality "Standard" Systems: Due to intense price
competition, these companies are not immune to corner-cutting in their base or
"standard configuration" systems. They will use no-name or lower-quality
components to keep their advertised prices down. You have to carefully check what is
included in standard configurations and customize where appropriate to ensure you get a
good quality unit. (This isn't true of all of these shops, but it is true of most of
- Tied To Local Company: If you move, you lose the advantages of local service and
support, and you may then have difficulties if you need help. PCs sold nationally are more
flexible in this regard. Local PC shops are also not the best choice if buying a system
for someone else, unless they live in the same place that you do.
- Poor Software Packages: These companies, lacking the buying power of the big
national retail and mail-order manufacturers, often do not provide the same quality and
quantity of software with their machines. This can
be significant if you don't already own the software you need.
While it takes a bit more work to buy from these stores, I often recommend them as
being one of the best places to get what you want or need from a PC, complemented by local
support and service. This is especially true if you already own your software. On the
other hand, they are often not the best places to buy individual components, since that
isn't their main business, and sometimes their stock can get very old. (I am amazed at
some of the truly ancient components that these places sometimes try to sell retail, items
they would never put in a new PC! Look to a computer superstore, or even better, online.)
The biggest fear that most people have with these companies is that they will
"pick the wrong one" and regret it. To this end, here are some particular points
to keep in mind when looking into using a local PC shop (you'll find much more general
information on vendor selection here):
- Referrals Are Mandatory: Don't select a store at random from the yellow pages. Get a referral from someone who has used the shop before.
- Visit In Person: Visit the store in person and check it out; determine if what
you see inspires your confidence--or your fear. If you find big stacks of boxes everywhere
and lots of very busy people, that's usually a good sign! :^) It means the place is
busy and working hard. If the store has only a P.O. box for an address, or they won't let
you visit the shop, be careful.
- Pre-Sales Support: Assess to what degree the company is willing to help you
design a system, and answer your questions. Do they care about making sure you are happy,
or are they just in a big hurry to get your credit card number and scoot your butt out the
- Determine Time In Business: This is critical for these stores. You want, if at
all possible, a store that has been in business for several
years. Remember that your warranty is only as good as the company's long-term
- Get Everything In Writing: When ordering a PC from one of these stores, get it all written down: exactly what will be built,
what components will be used, when the PC will be ready, warranty terms and conditions,
price, and so on. This avoids confusion and gives you some ammunition in the event of
problems down the road.
Note: Local PC shops often
also sell through computer shows, and some are starting to
dabble with online selling as well (though since they are mostly regional or local, they
don't get a lot of the advantages that the Web provides.)
Catalog and Mail Order Sources
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