ONLINE BUYING

The best Web sites have user interests in mind, at all costs

By J.B. Miles

Special to GCN

I would rather eat nails than talk to a salesperson. Granted, their job is to make the sale. I wish more of them realized that to do so, they must give potential buyers all the information they want about a product and then tell them immediately what it costs.

I think of myself as an informed buyer, so they can quit the prequalification rituals. Most of all, tell me what the doohickey costs. Now. Why do you care what my ZIP code is?

The immense success of electronic commerce over the past 18 months'$73.3 billion annually and growing, according to some estimates'could indicate that millions of folks, including those working in government and business, feel the way I do. We prefer being treated as adults when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

This applies across the board, whether we're buying computers, peripherals, networking gear, books, CDs or getaway vacations. We're not antisocial or lazy, though it's so convenient to be able to shop online'and without having to listen to a sales spiel first. A good online shopping site can save us time, money and aggravation by presenting us with clear, unambiguous product and pricing information.

Successful manufacturers of computing and networking gear, such as Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Intel Corp. and 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., have taken all this into account and, as a result, are making big bucks annually in online sales.

Jealous naysayers claim the online success of these companies is due to the high name recognition and deep pockets they already had. Don't believe this for a minute. These industry winners are succeeding on the Internet because they saw early on that online sales represented the future of the computer industry. They developed sites that help shoppers navigate to useful and timely product information.

Go to the Web sites of the companies listed above and you'll see what I mean. It's not easy to convey adequate information about network hubs, routers, switches and adapters under the best of conditions, but Cisco will make about $6 billion in online sales this year through its well-designed site. Intel's site supplies precise product specifications with a comprehensive price list and will make about $10 billion. 3Com, a company I used to love to hate, is now one of my favorites because it gives product specifications and prices on the same Web page.

Dell and Gateway have won high marks from consumers for their products and prices. Much of their success is due to their advanced and buyer-friendly online stores. They make it ridiculously easy to buy a high-quality PC or peripheral online. Both companies feature well-designed stores for federal, state and local buyers, complete with product specifications and General Services Administration price schedules.

Gateway is especially adept at enabling users to build their own systems by adding such things as CPUs, memory, large hard drives and DVD drives to a basic package. Dell reportedly is making about $14 million a day selling PCs online. I don't know how much money Gateway is making that way, but it isn't pocket change. Compaq also has an online store for government buyers where you can easily determine product specifications and prices.

The price is right

What's noteworthy is that all these companies are direct online marketers of their own products and brands. So they have a vested interest in making sure the products listed on their Web sites are current models with up-to-date pricing and specifications.

In my research on computer peripherals, I have noticed that the most timely online product and pricing information comes from companies that make their own products. Not to badmouth reputable online resellers, but many have a tendency to unload obsolete products at bargain prices.

What about buying PC gear at an online auction? I suspect that some people checking into these sites are the same ones who go to used book stores hoping to pay $25 for a rare first edition to turn a cool $1 million overnight.

I wouldn't touch a used PC sold at an online auction. The transaction might be secure, but the computer might be junk. Remember, even a Web page can pitch a sour machine.


''J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Pahoa, Hawaii.

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