Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 2 NO. 3 / WINTER 1987

How Not To Shop At A Computer Store

Or, the trials and tribulations of a computer store owner


Last issue, Frank Kofsky complained about some of the abuses and poor service he encountered in the course of buying his ST system. Now, here's the other side of the story. . .

After reading Frank Kofsky's perspectives on computer stores and their employees, I was steamed. Oh, was I steamed! After all, Mr. Koisky was poking fun at me and my associates. But after my mind calmed a bit, 1 realized that he did make some well-deserved points-though not as many as he may have thought.

This set me to thinking about my store, and the way our employees interact with the public. It didn't take long before I figured out that, just as there are distinct types of computer stores- each with its own problems - there are also several distinct categories that many of our customers fit into.

There's no such thing as a perfect customer, of course-and everyone has little quirks that may take some getting used to. But some customers can make a sales clerk's life nothing hut misery. And those, naturally enough, are the people who make it harder to give everyone else the kind of service they want and deserve.

First, the worst: what I call the "armed and dangerous family."

Picture a pleasant weekend afternoon in a computer store. Salespeople are showing customers products, answering the questions they can and trying to find the answers when they can't. Customers are trying out hardware and software, doing their best to make sure what they buy will work with what they own. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?

But that's all about to change. In walks what appears to be a typical computer-using family-Mom, Dad, and their two darling children-bearing what appears to be an Epson printer. Wrong and wrong, it turns out: The children are anything hut darling, and the printer turns out to be not an Epson but one of those off-brand trans-Pacific bargains you've had nightmares about.

While the kids (hereafter known as Thing 1 and Thing 2) spread out to flip every switch in the store, Mom and Dad explain their simple problem. They don't really know what they're doing, and they'd like you to help them get their printer up and running.

Well, you think, they didn't buy the printer here. But maybe if 1 put in a few minutes of work helping set up this printer, they'll come back to buy other hardware or software. Besides, it should be a pretty simple matter of showing Mom and Dad how to hook a parallel cable from the ST to the printer, and then installing a standard Epson driver on their various pieces of software. While Thing 1 begins playing hide-and-seek under another customer's skirt and Thing 2 begins chewing on the drapes, you set to work.

Simple. . . right. Two hours later, Thing 2 is trying to feed Thing 1 into a laser printer, and Mom and Dad are beginning to get peeved that you still haven't got things working with this mail-order budget printer. Your boss is ready to feed you through a paper shredder and mail Thing 1 and Thing 2 to Hong Kong. It's turned out that the printer isn't Epson compatible, the kids aren't compatible with anything resembling civilization, and the parents don't understand why you can't play the role of technical wizard and babysitter at the same time,

By the time they storm out, the store is nearly a shambles, Mom and Dad are no closer to having a working printer, and you're hanging onto your job by your fingernails. Chances are good that this family will never come back to your store again-and thank heaven for that!

The worst thing about this entire scenario is that absolutely no one has gained anything. Mom and Dad haven't got their printer working. Your store hasn't made a penny either from sales or service. Everyone's time has been wasted, everyone's nerves have been frayed, and you've lucky if these are the only customers you've lost on this weekend afternoon.

Whoops, there's one guy who's made out like a bandit: the fellow who runs the mail-order business that originally sold Mom and Dad this bargain. He not only turned a profit. but also has no worries about supporting a useless printer. Clearly he understands that you have to make a profit to stay in business-and, just as clearly, he doesn't care anything about his customers. All he wants is his profit- the problems, he leaves with his customers, to find whatever help they can.

Profits are essential for a regular computer store to stay in business, as well-and we have to face the customers, too.

favorite customers-
the ones who don't
even know what kind of
computer they own!

Of all the kinds of customers that wander into the store, my favorites are the computer illiterates. They never stop amazing me. I'm not referring here to people who are a little unaware of what their computers can do. I'm talking about the kind of customer who, besides not knowing much about computers, lacks such vital information as which computer he owns!

One customer sticks in my mind. He knew all about his computer, sort of. He was certain he knew all the crucial facts: specifically that the "television thing" said Atari SC1224 on the front-that's pronounced "Ataree South Carolina one, two, two, four."

He spent 15 minutes reciting what I'm sure he thought were critical details about his computer-where the keys were, all about the red lights on the computer and the monitor, and so on. It would have been genuinely funny except that after a while, he became irate that, given such a wealth of detailed information. I couldn't figure out how much memory his ST had.

Hard as it is for some people to believe, there are lots of ways a computer can be configured. Very often, it's impossible for computer store staff to help you if you don't know the technical information about your computer-or, at the very least, the model numbers. If I know you've got a 520 ST with one SF 514 disk drive. I've got a basis for telling you how much memory you've got and what software will work. Without that kind of information, it's practically impossible.

I really do like helping computer illiterates, though. Even occasional troubles with people like the Atari man don't outweigh the fact that these people can be greatly entertaining- and most have a genuine enthusiasm for getting a better understanding of their computer. Sometimes they're funny hut mostly they really appreciate the information and helpful tips we can give them.

customers can
make a sales clerk's life
nothing but misery.

They're good folks-and, when they've learned a little more, they'll be good customers, too.

Although the computer illiterate can be difficult to work with, no one is quite as bothersome as a Techie. This type of customer will talk your'ear off, trying to impress you along with any unsuspecting computer illiterate who happens to be in the area.

The Techie speaks Technese. He will try to wow you with random clumps of jargon and computer mumbo-jumbo. He'll casually throw out terms like "BIOS" and "TOS error" and "AES." He'll spend every available moment telling you all manner of information you'd rather not know anyway as if the idea of anyone just using a computer to do something practical is more than he can bear.

If they just burned up time speaking this foreign language, Techies would be a minor nuisance. Unfortunately. Techies tend to do the one thing that causes them to cross from mere annoyance into the realm of sales hazard: Suddenly without warning, they may decide to Help You Do Your job.

It's every computer salesperson's greatest fear: I've got an interested customer whose needs will be well-served by an ST, but just as I'm coming to the close of my sales pitch, a Techic steps in to drop a few helpful technical details about the machine the customer is about to buy. Out of nowhere he appears, nattering innocently about the essentialness of owning a hard drive. Within seconds this escalates from a one-sided conversation into a full discourse on disk problems with TOS and the limits of the ST's error handling.

By the time the Techie is gone, so is the sale. "Gee," says the customer, "I think I'll wait until the new version of TOS is released," and staggers off, head spinning.

Not all technically knowledgeable ST owners are Techies, of course. And even the most incoherent Technesiacs have at least one good feature: They always have up-to-the-minute information on the status of GDOS, the blitter chip, the new Megas and of course the Atari laser printer.

Then there's the biggest problem of all: the customer who has opened a software package and wants to return it for a refund.

Yes, it's a problem -for the customer and for the store. Most computer stores adhere to a strict rule: If you break the shrinkwrap, it can't he returned. The reason is the painfully simple fact that it is incredibly easy to copy any piece of software. Once the shrinkwrap is broken, there's no way of knowing whether the customer is really just returning the package. and keeping the really valuable part-a copy of the program.

What happens to a computer store that doesn't have such a policy? The computer store I work for is a perfect example. We once had a return policy that made K-Mart look strict. We would take hack almost anything-with or without a receipt, shrinkwrapped or not.

The customers loved it. We were popular-very popular. Word spread about our liberal return policies, and pretty soon there were lots of people buying software from us.

Unfortunately, lots of those people brought back the software, too. We had people returning programs constantly- programs that people said wouldn't load properly, programs they said didn't do what they needed, programs they said they just didn't like, (It's funny, hut the programs that wouldn't load properly on those customers' computers worked fine when we checked the disks at the store. And some of the customers who complained about missing features didn't seem to have read very far into the manual-because often enough the features were there.)

Pretty soon we had a backroom full of software packages from programs that people said they either didn't like or had trouble loading. Of course, no one wanted to buy software that wasn't shrinkwrapped-and of course, the software publishers wouldn't take back items that had been opened and weren't obviously defective.

It didn't take long to figure out that those crowds of customers were using us as a lending library-"Ralph's Rent-A-Program." but without the rental charge. Sure, we were gaining customers-but we were losing money. The store got nothing but a pile of useless, and costly software packages- and the bills for them. For all we knew the customers ended up with disk files full of pirated software.

It is sad that everyone suffers because of the greed of some. But piracy is a problem with no easy solution. Until someone comes up with a better way, broken shrinkwrap will still mean no return.

Frank Kofsky finally decided on Rule Number One for dealing with computer stores: Never pay cash. After all, checks can be stopped and credit-card charges can be cancelled if the product is returned. Unfortunately that can be hazardous to the health of a computer store.- even a store that genuinely tries to serve the needs of its customers.

I'd like to propose an alternative Rule Number One: Never Buy in Ignorance.

Yes, sometimes computer software doesn't live up to your expectations -hardware, too. Occasionally that's the fault of a salesperson who misled you. But more often it's because the product does what it claims to do-it just doesn't do what you wish it could do.

Whose fault is that? It's not the fault of the local software store. Maybe it's the fault of the manufacturer. for not creating a perfect product. Or- more likely- maybe it's the fault of a customer with unrealistic expectations.

Be realistic when you walk into a computer store. Be a smart consumer-you're spending a lot of money on something you should be able to use a long time.

Do some research into the product you're considering buying. Check around town at several different computer stores. If all of them recommend a particular program, printer or modem, chances are good that it's going to be a winner.

All Atari ST magazines have reviews of the different software and hardware available for any application. Take the time to do some homework-it may save you some money and grief. Ask friends and user group members their opinions. Then ask the salesperson questions, and for a demonstration if possible. You can't get that from a mail-order house-it takes a real computer store.

And when you find a real computer store where you can get your questions answered, patronize it. You'll save more in time and frustration than a mail-order house will ever save you in money.

Rick Giampietro, former computer store employee, is now a student at Michigan State University where he is majoring in English and Film.