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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

Perspective: An answer to dumb PC salespeople

When shopping for a new computer, congenital mall-haters such as CNET News.com's Charles Cooper no longer have to grin and bear outrageous incompetence. Consumers have an option--and it's only a single keystroke away.

Just like every other red-blooded American with a job this time of the year, I've been out shopping of late. As my wife will attest, I relish this seasonal rite as much as I do an extended root canal. But there are gift lists to fill and, as my president says, it's the patriotic thing to do.

It so happened that I found myself in the market for a PC and a personal digital assistant. If I could pick up a bargain in the process, so much the better, but all I really wanted was to get in and out with a minimum of fuss while making sure the salesman didn't con me into buying a lemon.

But on visits to retail stores on both the East Coast and West Coast, it was the same depressing story: The salespeople may have been scrubbed, cheerful and polite--but they were utterly incompetent when it came to explaining the ins and outs of the products they were selling or the underlying technologies.

Even worse, they pretended they really knew what they were talking about.

On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I got a first taste of what I was up against on a visit to a consumer-electronics chain advertising a too-good-to-be-true deal.

Asked to explain the difference between a couple of computer systems that struck my fancy, an eager salesman who had attached himself to me declared that configuration A was preferable because "it had more storage and that is good, especially if you want to store files in a computer."

(Note to self: Check with Microsoft if they know anything about that. Storing files in a computer. Good point for future story.)

When I insisted that a 1.8GHz was more than enough for my needs, he began sounding a lot like Steven, the guy who used to do the Dell advertising spots.
I let that one go, chalking it up to holiday spirit. When I inquired why he thought the higher-priced ATI Radeon 9700 Pro graphics included with one system was so much better than the Matrox Parhelia that came with another, a cloud enveloped my interlocutor.

"Well, um, the Matrox board is less expensive, so that's important to keep in mind."

"Yes it is," I said. "But I want to buy this for somebody who is big into gaming, so how do they stack up when it comes to 2D and 3D performance?"

"You can play games on either one, so it's not going to be a big deal."

On a basic level, he was actually right. It's not going to be a big deal. The Parhelia is considered to be Matrox's best product in the high-performance, 3D-graphics market in at least a couple of years. But I only learned that after later going online to do my homework. The salesman was only guessing.

At another store (part of a national outlet whose advertisements get stuffed into my Sunday newspaper), someone twenty years my junior tried to sell me on the merits of a 3GHz system with all the shuck and jive at his disposal. When I insisted that a 1.8GHz was more than enough for my needs, he began sounding a lot like Steven, the guy who used to do the Dell advertising spots.

"Dude, it's a chance to get a system that's going to be super fast," he said. I respectfully held my ground. We quibbled a bit more about whether the extra speed--and higher price--would bring me any closer to computing nirvana. Then I wished him happy holidays and headed for the exits.

The sales help in the computer specialty stores I later visited was far more knowledgeable, but prices at those stores were correspondingly much higher.

But now congenital mall-haters such as me no longer have to grin and bear it. We have an option--and it's only a single keystroke away.
In the end, I gave up and finished my shopping via the Internet. As a card-carrying homebody, it didn't take much to convince me that self-service has the edge on poor or overrated service--not to mention battling long lines and driving from store to store--any day.

Maybe it was a string of particularly bad luck, though I have a hunch that my personal experience reflected the rule rather than the exception. More than two decades since the IBM PC first hit the shelves, service shouldn't be this abysmal. It is all the more remarkable because the youthful sales folk of today belong to a generation raised on--and supposedly well-versed in--computing technology.

But now congenital mall-haters such as me no longer have to grin and bear it. We have an option--and it's only a single keystroke away.