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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 ]

Computer Superstores

Computer "superstores" are basically huge stores dedicated to the sale of just computers and computer-related products. They often have thousands of different hardware and software products, and while they may dabble in other products, computers are their bread and butter. The most well-known chain of this type in the United States is CompUSA.

These stores are, frankly, usually the best place to buy pre-packaged PCs, and are also a great place to shop for peripherals--though prices are not always the best, selection is usually excellent. Here are the advantages of these stores:

  • 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: As with office stores, you can buy from one store and return the item at another store, and these companies often have good return policies. (But watch out for their software return policies.)
  • Generally Good Prices: These stores usually have competitive prices on many types of components and systems, though they are rarely the best, or as good as you can do online.
  • Very Good Selection: Of all the retail store types, you'll find the best selection at this type of store. Usually they carry an extensive range of different types of computers, peripherals, media, software and even items like computer books that you won't find in other stores that sell computers. Selection is still less than you can find online, however.
  • "Hands-On" Evaluation: Items like monitors are often displayed in a rack for easy comparison; printers have test print buttons so you can see what their output looks like. You can usually find a salesperson to demonstrate the capabilities of different equipment.
  • Reasonably Clueful Salespeople: They aren't computer experts by any means, and sometimes their recommendations may be a bit dubious, but they are a step above what you'll find in office or electronics stores, and almost always more knowledgeable than anyone who works in a department or warehouse store. Some people at these stores know little about PCs, but usually at least one or two employees there knows at least something about the products being sold. You may have to "go through" at least one clueless person to get to someone who knows what they are talking about, but that's more than can be said for most retail sources!. Note that it also varies greatly from one store to another.
  • In-Store Service and Support: Many of these stores have their own service and support departments. However, be sure to find out in advance what you get if you buy a pre-made PC there. Some stores only offer service and support for a fee; warranty coverage is still provided by the manufacturer of the PC as it is for other retail sources, largely negating this advantage during the warranty period.
  • Training, Assembly and Other Services: Some of these companies offer training programs, or will assemble your PC for you in your home. Others offer certification courses or other services. You of course will pay for these programs, but at least they are available, which is not the case for most other PC sources.

And of course, here are the disadvantages of these types of stores:

  • Sales Tax, Overhead and Pricing: See the general discussion of retail sources for details. Pricing is usually relatively good for a retail source, but not always. In some cases pricing can be rather poor, particularly for components and accessories like cables, which are often very overpriced compared to their online costs.
  • Poor to Moderate Quality Systems, Often Imbalanced Systems: These companies generally only sell prepackaged retail PCs, so they suffer from the limitations of these systems. Computer superstores generally have the highest quality retail PCs, but they are still retail PCs and most are not generally as good as the best PCs on the market. While at the low end you will still find the inferior systems sold in department stores (see that section for details) you at least have the choice here of buying more quality (albeit at sometimes unsavory prices). These stores do usually have good turnover and hence up-to-date systems.
  • No Component Choices or Configurability: As with other retail PC sources, you have no choice over what is in the box; you get whatever the manufacturer supplied with the system.
  • Crowds: These stores can get unbelievably crowded at times, resulting in long lines and sometimes making it impossible to get any assistance from employees! Stay away from computer superstores during their busiest times, especially during weekend days. The entire month of December is also usually a write-off unless you shop during periods when others are generally not shopping: weekday mornings may be the best. If you go into one of these stores to buy something on the Saturday before Christmas, bring a sleeping bag and a tent. :^)
  • Varying Technical Support and Service: As I mentioned above, these companies actually have support and service departments, but often they are not at your disposal unless you pay for them.

Overall, if you are going to buy a pre-packaged PC, you should try to buy it from one of these stores if they are at all price-competitive. I don't think you can get as good value or support as you can from a good local PC shop, but there are situations where a retail PC makes sense, and these stores have the best selection and at least some ability to help you with your choice.

These stores are also a great place to buy components that require you to get your "hands on" to make a good choice. If you are building your own PC, these are usually the best stores to buy monitors, printers, and input devices. They also sell other components such as hard disk drives and memory, but usually at prices far in excess of what online sources charge, so I don't recommend them for this. Similarly, if you are looking to buy components for an upgrade you can usually do better online.

Note: Some people who write buyer's guides recommend shopping in person at one of these stores to select what you like, and then buying it online (or at a warehouse store) for a lower price. This is of course a good "tactic" for figuring out what you want and getting it for the lowest possible cost. I can't fault the logic, but I don't recommend it for the simple reason that I consider it mildly unethical: the very reason that these stores charge more is that they have to cover all the costs of providing these "hands on" evaluation features that people find so valuable. TANSTAAFL: someone has to pay for the electricity, salaries, rent, paper, ink, "shrinkage" (read: theft) and damaged equipment that comes with running a retail store where the customers can interact with the products. If you find this service useful, shouldn't you give the store your business, assuming they are at least reasonable in price? If their prices are ludicrous that's one thing, and of course your decision is up to you, but consider that if you go into such a store with no intention of purchasing there, you are just taking advantage of them to save yourself a few bucks.

Next: Local PC Shops

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