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Would you like fries with that?

by Simon Brew

Simon went to buy a laptop from a big shop. He has sent in this shocking report from the front-line…

Would you like fries with that? It probably serves me right. Recently, my brother had a pressing need for a brand new laptop, which for reasons I won’t bore you with, I pretty much ended up having to get there and then. Thus, I was out of options: I had to go to a large store that I don’t like, and try to buy a unit in the quickest possible time. My mission was to avoid eye contact with the sales assistant until the last possible minute, and to give monosyllabic answers to any questions I didn’t like the sound of.

I learned this trick in the Nineties, when, for further reasons I won’t bore you with, a friend of mine was buying a desktop PC in a large UK electrical chain. The assistant then was busying himself trying to sell my friend the after-care service, and I assured him that we had a further friend who would be able to resolve any problems should they arise. “Oh”, hissed the assistant in question, “so your friend is a qualified Mitac engineer is he?”. I played this one simply and succinctly. “Yes he is”, I calmly answered. The sales assistant gave up. I felt, in truth, really quite pleased with myself.

This time, though, I wasn’t quite so lucky. Once I’d found the laptop that I needed to get – with the only OSes on offer being Windows 7 and Mac OS – I called the assistant over. It was going well. “I’d like this one, please,” I said, expecting some favourable acknowledgement in return.

And then he threw me. I’d like to think that if I ever run a shop and someone wants to buy something, I’d show some appreciation, or courtesy, or something vaguely human. Here? The response was simply this: “What anti-virus package are you looking to use?”

All I’d asked for was a laptop. In return, I got a question about security software. An ironic one, given that the laptop in question actually came with some pre-bundled. I recovered my composure and replied: “I’m sorted thank you”. But the assistant wasn’t finished. “But which package are you using?”, as he hovered next to a Norton display. “I’m sorted thank you,” I repeated, with as much of a sinister glare as I could muster. It wasn’t very sinister, in all honesty, but it just about did the job.

At this stage, the assistant went off in search of easier prey. And I suspect it won’t have taken long to find some. But I couldn’t help but wonder: how did it come to this? How has the software industry got to a point where it’s the selling of two packages that matter, come what may? Does this chain get a bigger margin on selling security software than a laptop? I’d wager that’s very much the case, which would explain the desire to sell security software at the earliest opportunity. But what a screwed-up state of affairs that is.

I’ve talked before about the Windows ecosystem, and about how its existence keeps the anti-virus and security specialists very much in business. But I’m not naive, either. I know that whichever operating system owned 80 per cent of the market or higher would instantly become a target.

However, the ethos is plain wrong. A security package and an operating system should be the hidden tools that we barely notice, the platforms we look for in order to facilitate day-to-day computing. When people talk about computing and how it enthuses them, they talk about creating things, experimenting, playing games, that sort of thing. They don’t get charged at the idea of buying Norton’s latest yellow box, or in watching Windows install.

But, as the retail stores know, it’s easier to convince people that operating systems and security software matter, and that they should be invested in. Sadly, the latter now also seems to have taken priority over good manners.

I had to give up my once-hobby of hovering in electrical stores and correcting the bilge that sales assistants spat out, because it felt like an unwinnable war. I’d imagine I’m not alone in hearing stories of the 320GB of memory, of people being told they have to have Windows for their computer to work, or that they have to buy Microsoft Office if they want to write letters. Perhaps you might share some of yours with Linux User & Developer…

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    • Sylvia Monk

      In a rhyme:

      Oh, Simon Brew,
      How very, very true

      These “oiks” in retail stores really are infuriating and depressing. An acquaintance’s Dell laptop’s hard disk gave up the ghost a while ago. She returned it to the store. They would replace the hard disk they said within 7 days. 10 days passed with no result. She went to the store to complain and was told they had “lost” it.

      Two weeks later they rang to say the laptop was now ready. They had replaced the hard disk, battery and keyboard (!). But, the keyboard was not fitted correctly and the lid would not close.

      She left the laptop with them and two weeks later returned to collect it, complain to “the manager” and ask for some sort of compensation. This was refused (he even refused to accept her complaint) with the phrase “it was an honest mistake”.

      These experiences are exactly why I will only ever buy computer equipment from reputable online retailers unless, as you were, I’m in a situation where I absolutely have to go to a retail store.

    • I worked in a “big shop” selling laptops when I was younger.
      When I worked there, the PC sales had less than 10% markup, 10% on £400 isn’t much huh!
      Cables often had over 50% markup, and software was anything inbetween.

      8 out of 10 of the sales guys don’t have great technical knowledge, my manager didn’t even own his own computer, in fact never had in his life.

      But then you buy a car, and the sales person knows nothing more than what the brochure tells you, the same can be said when you buy a house, and these are both very large investments compared to a laptop.

      At the end of the day, these guys have a job to do, and thats make money, their commission is “topped up” by selling the product that the company wants you to push more due to the mark up.

      If you only look at any given situation with a single track mind, you’ll only ever find the negatives you looked for just so you can publish an article in your magazine.
      If you actually perform some research into the situation before spouting out your opinion, then what makes you any different from a PC sales guy? Nothing, you did no research or made any attempt to understand the situation, and yet started telling thousands of people you uninformed opinion. what kind of author does that? Poor ones.

    • John

      A few years back I was helping a friend’s parent pick out a new desktop. The sales assistant tried to tell us that he would be unable to browse the internet without a dual core processor. I proceeded to argue vehemently with the sales assistant and probably looked like a fool in front of everyone.

    • istok

      “80 per cent of the market or higher would instantly become a target”

      yes but would that instant target get constantly hit bulls-eye if it wasn’t inferior in every way?
      what a tired and fake argument in favor of microsoft.
      anyway i just recently bought a thinkpad with no OS as i opted out of something called “windows 7”.
      if you can’t opt out in your country there’s something wrong with your country and its consumer protection laws.

    • Fred G. Sanford

      no retailer will get a dime from me until they can show me a computer without a Windows or Apple logo anywhere on it. also they must demonstrate a Gnu/Linux operating system on it. until then i’ll keep refurbishing other people’s throw aways with a new, secure Linux distro.

    • There IS something wrong with my country, “opt out” isn’t the norm here in the US, and the biggest manufacturer of machines makes buying their boxes very attractive due to their financing, so for a small business you are inclined to buy them anyway, “Windows tax” and all, just to get that financing.

      There’s something WAY WRONG with that. I want to be able to go ANYWHERE, online or off, and say – I want that computer, hold the OS, please…

      Although, I must say that in the past, my Dell rep has always been good – he knows I put Ubuntu on everything, so when I do buy a machine, he typically gives me a discount, which is equal to the amount of the included Windows OS… but I had a whine a lot before that started to happen, lol…

    • GrueMaster

      It gets much worse, believe me. I had to buy some laptop drive enclosures for a specific project on an Arm based Linux system. They were to be USB 2.0 based, but have a separate source of power (not the usual USB Y cable) as the system under test didn’t supply enough power (and actually used less than the drive). After driving 65 miles to Fry’s Electronics (none of the closer stores had what I needed), I spent about 30 minutes going through each 2.5″ enclosure until I found one that both offered a 3.5mm barrel plug for power and had enough in stock (4) for my needs. Of course, Fry’s didn’t have the power plug I needed, so I spent the rest of the day searching various electronics shops on the way home. Radio Shack had a plug that fit, but they were out of stock, and it only had a type code, not actual dimensions of the plug. Nothing in the box for these enclosures had any reference to them either.

      The next step was to look it up on the manufacturer’s website. Failing that, I finally sent an email to their support department, detailing exactly what I needed and why. Their response: “Make sure you are using the right Windows drivers with your system. We have tested these enclosures extensively in our labs on Windows systems with no problem.”

      Erm, WTF does Windows Drivers have to do with power plug dimensions????

      I have them running now, but still…

    • Martin_E

      It didn’t take me long to realise that in a big computer shop, the only correct answer to the question “Can I help you ?” is: “I very much doubt it”.

    • Joseph

      I have to agree with Fred and istok. I have purchased one machine in my life, with a bundled software. Shortly there after, I installed Fedora 7, and have been upgrading ever since.

    • AC

      Read ‘Jennifer Government’ – though, the differences between current reality, and the fictional setting in the book, may be too subtle to pick up on today.

    • Jon

      I know what you mean, and How at the “big store” they want to sell you this and that, and how they think they know better than you. Well most people are idiots, and how you “have to” get this or that for your PC. I once mad a mistake in buying one of their services to clear off all the demo software, and such. They ended up rendering the Laptop not bootable, and it ended up getting all the way to the store manager in order to correct this. The tech told me that the mother board was bad, and I needed to send it in for warranty repair. I then took my trusty Ubuntu live USB, and booted the PC recovered enough of the registry to get the laptop booted up. I then demanded that they fix what they did wrong, and because I had to come back I felt they should have to earn my business again. After all was said , and done They kicked down a free laptop bag, and 500GB external hard-drive.

      I now only got to big stores to make people feel useless.

    • nonya

      First of all, Dell never makes the list at all when I am looking at buying a computer. Dell has become today’s e-machines…most cheaply made junk you can buy…except for (cr)apple’s vastly overpriced junk!

      I have a degree in electronics, and 2 degrees in computer science. Several years ago I was down on my luck jobwise, and applied at RatShack and several local computer/electronics stores. Needless to say, I was not hired…they all prefered people with sales experience over someone with the knowlege to give their customers what they wanted and needed. Customer satisfaction be damned, profits over anything else.

      No wonder so many brick and morter stores are failing, and internet businesses are booming!

    • You’re right about margin.
      Electrical stores have very tiny margin from hardware.
      Much bigger is the margin from software they sell. That’s why salesman wanted to bundle you a antivirus or Office.
      And the biggest margin is from “insurance” they sell for your PC. The price of insurance actually almost doubles price of your computer, but with amounts thrown for 2-3 years, monthly payment does not sound terrible. That’s why people buy. That’s a true rip off.
      Margin here is so big that even store managers don’t know the truth. Only TopGuns do.

    • Isthmus

      I find that the staff at most big box computer retail stores for the most part know little more than what they have been told to say. Heck, often they know less than that. My biggest gripe is that too often you have buyers who are ignorant about computers in general being led by staff who know very little more than their own customers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen staff Trying to sell a computer based on the merits of all the preinstalled crapware; or try to do the my horse is bigger than yours approach, by quoting random hardware specs as a means to impress a buyer.

      BestBuy is easily the worst of the big computer stores when it comes to staff knowledge. On the flipside, In my experience, the few CompUSA stores that still exist tend to have very knowledgeable staff.

      For example the other day I’m at a Bestbuy looking at laptops. next to me is this guy who is looking to replace his old mac laptop and is debating wether to buy a new mac or replaceit for a windows rig. I hear him clearly tell the seller that hi is unfamiliar with windows, is not a gamer and doesn’t mind paying extra if it means getting familiarity and a stable system that he won’t really have to mess with for the next 5 years. now if i was the seller, at this point I would be walking this guy over to the mac display, showing him the latest batch of Macbook Pros and telling him about the upcoming Lion Upgrade (this was a couple of weeks before lion came out). Instead this bozo break out into a diatribe about hardware specs, how macs are expensive, how this guy will need to buy antivirus software for the mac (which comes prebundled in the windows rig), how macs don’t use standard hardware (WTF?), and how he really wants a superior windows rig with higher hardware specs than the Mac. at this point I couldn’t take any more and had to cut in. the poor buyer look flustered and confused. WTF seller, this guy is no computer geek. he was just an average user who was looking to use his computer as an appliance, whose main wants were stability and familiarity and had already told you he didn’t mind paying extra for a mac. Now am no Mac Fanboy. I own windows rigs, Linux rigs and a couple of Mac rigs. Each OS has pluses and minuses and my recommendations depend on the user and what their needs are. I cut in and cut the seller off and explained to the buyer how the macs used essentially the same hardware as the windows rigs and how much of what he was being told was simply incorrect. I then proceeded to explain the pros and cons of mac OS vs W7 and got him to tell me once again what exactly he was looking for. When he was done I walked him over to the mac display and handed him to the Apple rep. By the time I left, the guy was well on his way to walking out with a shiny new 15″ macbook Pro with full RAM and excited about upgrading to lion. Was it that hard for the seller to simply listen to what his buyer wanted and sell him based on his needs rather than trying to sell him a mountain of crap and end up with a dissatisfied buyer who would probably not get what he wanted?


    • Andrei


      Large electronic store chains are managed by fear, intimidation and threats.
      I worked in Radioshack for 2 years – we were obligated to sell “service plans” and postpaid phones (phones with contract.) and open credit cards with some ridiculous APR.

      Manager would watch us – if we wouldn’t ask customer to buy service plan – we’d get yelled at or fired. They constatnly threaten your job on a daily basis.

      We’d get calls from district manager every day and he’d *itch on us for not selling enough service plans and postpaids and not opening credit cards with ridiculous APR.

      I felt depressed every second of every day working there especially when I would get yelled at by customers for simply following managers orders to sell CRAP.

      I quit because I couldn’t stand it any longer and now buy everything online, this way I don’t have to deal with enslaved sales associates working for a minimum wage.

      P.S> radioshack must die.

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