Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 2 NO. 2 / FALL 1987


How Not To Run A Computer Store

Or, the trials and tribulations of a
Northern California computer consumer



Buying a computer looks easy, and it should be. But at some computer stores, you pay your money and take your chances. Frank Kofsky made the rounds of his local dealers, and he shows the danger signs to watch out for--and what to do if you're sold a lemon.

It's common knowledge that the personal computer industry is in a slump these days. After I bought an Atari 1040 ST system, the experience led me to wonder whether some computer-store owners aren't trying to turn the slump into a funeral.

Not all computer stores are contributing to this trend, of course, but for those who are, I've formulated a few well-intentioned suggestions for how to speed up the process--and send the computer business straight into the ground.

If you don't stock it, knock it.

I decided early on that I wanted an Atari ST and an Epson printer. (Those are the only real brand names in this story, by the way--all other names have been changed.) One of my first stops was the local outlet of a well-known chain of business-oriented computer stores--I'II call it CompuBiz--to look at Epson printers. All went well with the salesman until I mentioned the word "Atari."

At this, the salesman curled his lip-his whole face, in fact-and gave me a look of consummate disdain. "We can't guarantee that any of our printers would be compatible with (sniff) an Atari," he said, then turned on his heel and marched rapidly toward the rear of the store. End of discussion, evidently.

Had I bathed that day? Were my armpits appropriately cleansed and scented? Was I emitting harmful amounts of gamma radiation? Reassuring myself on all counts (yes, yes, and no), I reflected on what had just transpired. Computer novice that I am, even I know that almost all word-processing programs for the ST include Epson printer drivers, and some even use Epson codes as their default settings. But the CompuBiz salestroll wasn't interested in whether most software would be compatible. Apparently, he wasn't even interested in selling me a printer. He didn't sell Ataris, and that was the end of that.

If you don't stock it, knock it.

I observed a variant on this theme when I bought my ST from a nearby Atari dealer, The Chip Shop. I'd already managed to procure my printer of choice--an Epson LQ 800--and when I mentioned this to the store's manager, she rejoined with, "Dear me, I hope you have better luck with your Epson than most of our customers have."

Imagine how thrilled I was to hear these words. What was the problem with Epson? I asked, heart filled with dread. Oh, nothing much, really--it was just impossible to get parts, tractors, ribbons, and so on. But all was not lost! Since I had not yet opened the carton, I could still return it and buy a different printer-- for example, one of the brands her store happened to sell. I told her I'd get back to her.

(Later I did a bit of research on Epson--which, yes, I should have done before, but better late, etc. A few telephone calls demonstrated to my satisfaction that Epson accoutrements were widely available, and the scare-story about their scarcity was, to put it charitably, wide of the mark. But if you don't stock it. . .)

No profit in computers? Try usury.

But before I left the store, the manager made me another offer she hoped I couldn't refuse. Reluctant to see me leave with anything resembling a positive balance in my checking account, she suggested I might like to buy a few accessories-- a RAMdisk, say, or another monitor. I explained that my financial situation wouldn't permit that at the moment. Ah, said the manager, but The Chip Shop might be induced to help me out by financing my additional purchases.

But once we left the realm of encouraging abstractions for that of the coldly concrete, it turned out that the "assistance" came at a stiff price. For a three-month loan of $169, I would pay interest of only $27. That's a paltry 15.97 percent interest for three months (which, multiplied by four to get the annual interest rate, is. . .).

Need I explain why I haven't been back since?

Always stand behind what you sell -- as far behind as possible.

The main reason I wanted a computer in the first place was for writing historical books and articles. I was especially keen on a word processing program that would put footnotes at the bottom of the page and still set the page breaks automatically; I also hoped to be able to go back and forth from double-spaced text that I had written to single-spaced and indented quotations, again with automatic pagination preserved. After sniffing around a bit, I came across Zippywriter II, a program that, the salesman assured me, would give me just the capabilities I needed.

You can imagine what came next. I learned what I like to think of as the Fundamental Theorem of software: There can be a big difference between the promotional claims made for a program and what the program can actually do. So, alas, it was for Zippywriter--wonderful in the describing, not so hot in its performance. Suffice to say that Zippywriter did almost all the things it was supposed to--almost, but not quite.

After fiddling with Zippywriter for a week, I finally gave up and decided to return it. Thus I encountered the First Corollary to the Fundamental Theorem: Just try to get a refund on software after you've removed the shrinkwrap. I now have a word-processing program that's a serviceable paperweight, but isn't good for much more. My pain is only somewhat diminished if I call this a learning experience.

There's a sequel to the tale, by the way. After the fiasco with Zippywriter, a friend told me about Wordslicer, a word processor that's versatile, easy to use, and generally lives up to the claims made for it--it had everything I needed except the ability to place footnotes at the bottom of the page and maintain automatic pagination. Unfortunately, the spelling-checker that comes with the program doesn't allow the user to add to the dictionary, and I needed to do just that. For reasons that time has dimmed from my memory, I ended up back at the store where I bought Zippywriter, and wrote out a check for a spell-checker called Blitz. Blitz was fast (I expected that from the name) but it proved to be not fully compatible with Wordslicer (and by now I was beginning to expect that, too).

Back to the store I went, and once again I heard the familiar chant: "We can't take back any software package that's been opened. " This time, though, I'd used a modicum of forethought. "That's a pity," I said. "I've stopped payment on the check."

The ensuing silence was broken only by the sound of jaws hitting the floor. They were still there when I walked out of the place.

Don't ask me -- I only work here.

Just because a store has an Atari franchise and sells ST computers and software, is that any reason to expect that someone--anyone--in the store knows anything about the ST?

My wife Bonnie and I watched a demonstration of Splotch, a popular ST drawing program, and we were both intrigued. Even though my monitor is monochrome, I thought Bonnie might strike up a friendship with the ST if she could play around with this fascinating software. My one reservation was that my Epson printer was a 24-pin model, while the printer drivers included with Splotch are for 9-pin printers. I decided the logical place to get advice was at Slipped Disk, the store where I bought the printer, which has a franchise to sell both Atari and Epson products.

I went into the store on a Monday. The person who could help me--the resident specialist in Atari, as it were--wasn't there. And when would this person return, I asked. Charlie comes in on Saturday. Saturday? I said. Only one day a week? You're an Atari dealer and you don't have anyone here during the week to answer questions about Atari computers and software? Unbelievable! Can you imagine an auto showroom where, for five days out of six, the person who can demonstrate, say, a Mazda, a Mercury or a Maserati is unavailable?

Later that week, we decided to try Stumpp's, a chain of stores oriented toward home computing--Macintosh, Amiga, Atari. . and, it turned out, caveat emptor. Will Splotch print properly on an Epson LQ 800? Gee, I don't know. Any chance we could look at the owner's manual? Oh, yeah--good idea. And so it went. The manual, it turned out, was uninformative on the subject of printer drivers, so it was back to the salesman: Can we return this program if it doesn't work with our printer? Sorry, we can't, etc. Sorry yourself--and no sale!

If computer stores had well-informed sales personnel, perhaps I could understand a no-refund policy. But too often we're confronted with salespeople who don't know nearly enough about what they're selling and a store policy that denies the hapless customer a refund when products don't do what they should. (Or do software retailers honestly expect that we'll trade in our hardware every time they sell us a program that won't work on what we already own?)

Don't ask me. . . period.

At the other extreme is TechTime, a store with the most knowledgeable staff I've ever seen. They like their computers. I mean, they really like their computers. I honestly don't understand how this place stays in business--I don't think I've ever seen the owner bestir himself to actually wait on a customer, and his sales staff, if that's the appropriate term, takes its cues from him. They obviously know about their wares; the problem is that they're more interested in using the equipment themselves than in selling it to any would-be customer. They sit with their faces glued to the screens of their respective monitors, letting customers fend for themselves as best they can. There have been times when I've come into the store, with no other customers present, and stood for ten minutes waiting for one of the salesmen to get off his, er, chair. No, I don't go to TechTime anymore; my willingness to bang my head against a brick wall is distinctly limited.

My question: Just what is the point in conducting a retail business this way? Or have I stumbled on a Mafia money-laundering operation disguised as a computer store?

And now, a few words by way of conclusion.

I won't pretend the current slump in the computer industry is directly related to the kinds of experiences I have been recounting. As a historian, I know that the industry is going through the kind of shake-out that sooner or later overtakes virtually every industry in a capitalist economy. In its early days an industry consists of many small companies producing for the same market. Because of the uncoordinated nature of this production, sooner or later supply outstrips demand, and weaker companies disappear through bankruptcy, merger or takeover. Ultimately, if the cycle is not interrupted (by agreements to fix minimum prices, restrict output, etc.), the industry becomes mature - that is, it's dominated by a handful of very large oligopolistic corporations.

The automobile industry provides a textbook illustration: dozens of auto makers before World War II, about 10 or 12 immediately after the war; the consolidation of individual companies into General Motors, American Motors, and so on. It's clear that this "maturation" cycle is currently running its course among computer manufacturers, and nothing this or that comparatively tiny retailer does will affect the outcome one whit.

Still, a retailer isn't completely tossed on the salad of fortune, as it were. Whatever happens to the industry as a whole, some computer stores survive and thrive. Yes, their prices are higher than mail-order companies that sell the same products--but prices, after all, are not everything. Many people prefer to pay a little more in exchange for the service that a local merchant can (and a mail-order company cannot) provide.

Unfortunately, compared with photography and stereo stores, some computer retailers offer service that is at best unsatisfactory and at worst non-existent. Last year, for example, I helped some friends upgrade their stereo system; I had no problem finding stores whose personnel I could trust to steer us in the right direction. I have done the same for other friends who were interested in getting started in photography.

But so long as computer stores don't have employees who can answer reasonable questions, and provide reasonable support, as a computer consumer I have to protect myself as best I can. My number-one rule now? Never pay cash. Checks can be stopped. Credit-card transactions can be canceled if the product is returned--and most credit-card companies don't look kindly on retailers that abuse their customers. Perhaps if enough computer purchasers take advantage of these facts to avoid being stuck with hardware and software they can't use, computer store owners will wise up and begin insisting that their employees know what they're selling.

I enjoy going to stores and picking out the merchandise. But right now if I had to advise people in the market for a computer, I would counsel them to buy an ST and a couple of the outstanding software packages--and do most of their shopping by mail. I'd make that recommendation with some reluctance, but I don't enjoy paying higher prices for the privilege of having my intelligence insulted by salespeople who are insufficiently informed about the products they handle, and having my presence ignored by people who would rather play with their toys than assist the customers--with no assurance that I will receive either satisfaction or the return of my money.

As long as these practices persist at my local computer stores, I'm afraid I can't muster much sympathy for those mourning the decline of their business. As far as I can see, their fate is richly deserved, for they have helped bring it upon themselves.

Frank Kofsky teaches history, and is now living happily with his ST and several mail-order software packages.