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Sun tries to entice groups with server discounts

The techonology giant is letting customers at educational institutions buy its Unix servers and other high-end computer systems on group-buying site Mercata.

First came online auctions. Now Sun Microsystems is tapping into a second novel Internet sales strategy.

Sun is letting customers at educational institutions buy its Unix servers and other high-end computer systems on Mercata, a site that offers lower prices to groups that band together to get discounts.

It's not the first time Sun has tested unusual sales methods.

Sun began experimenting with auction sales of hardware in December by putting several servers, workstations and storage devices for bid at online auction giant eBay. In March, Sun set up a program with online auction site TekSell.

Auctions themselves are not new, although they have gotten a boost with the arrival of the Internet. But the group-buying technique--the foundation for companies such as Mercata, MobShop, ActBig, Zwirl.com and C-Tribe.com--is unique to the Internet.

Those sites, however, mostly sell digital cameras or items far less expensive than, for example, a Sun E250 server costing more than $12,000.

But expensive items aren't unheard of. MobShop sold 10 Toyotas in a testing-the-waters project in March. While less expensive items naturally draw larger audiences and are easier fits with group-buying sites, MobShop is looking at more expensive products such as copiers or cruise tickets, said spokeswoman Brooke Hammerling.

"Higher-ticket items will be more interesting toward a smaller group of customers who have already done the research," she said.

In addition to the E250 server, Sun is selling its low-end Ultra 5 workstations and its midrange Ultra 60 workstations on Mercata. The program is designed to make Sun products more familiar to students, the next crop of computer-savvy employees and entrepreneurs.

Its products in the auction and group-buying programs are covered by Sun warrantees, the company said.