When it comes to purchasing a PC, there are a number of sources to investigate, including retail, buying direct from the manufacturer or going through a reseller (also called a value-added reseller). Whom you purchase from should largely depend on the level of service you want and your budget.
If you need hands-on service or want to speak with someone in person, consider a retail store. Retail outlets such as CompUSA offer a broad selection of products you can test out before you buy. They also usually have tech support service centers nearby, so you can take your PC in for service should you experience any problems.
Some experts, however, caution small businesses against buying via retail. For one thing, they say, prices are typically higher than those of other sources. What's more, salespeople at retail outlets typically only recommend what's in stock, which could lead you to purchase products that don't suit your needs. "It doesn't make sense for small businesses on tight budgets to pay for features, functions and capabilities they don't need," says Patrick T. Somers, president of Business First Inc., an IT consulting firm in Exton, Pennsylvania.
Companies providing direct sales, such as Gateway and Dell, offer consumers the freedom to pick up the phone and order state-of-the-art machines at prices that are often hundreds of dollars less than retail. These companies will also let you configure a machine to your exact specifications, so you can get a larger hard drive or better monitor, for instance. Also, many manufacturers offer models designed specifically for small businesses, so you won't pay for multimedia speakers or a sound card you don't need.
On the downside, buying direct often means you sacrifice local tech support. Also, your choice of products may be more limited, so it's even more important to investigate several companies to find out which one has the best products for you.
Small businesses in need of very personalized service should consider buying from a reseller that can custom-design computer solutions, install equipment and really get to know your computer and your business inside and out. While they're generally more expensive, they offer an extra level of service. "What [computer resellers] bring to the table is the big picture," says Stephen Allen, president of Integrated Technology Systems, a computer consulting firm in New York City. "We're able to design a complete solution for companies that involves hardware, software and [addresses] your general business concerns." (For more information on computer resellers, see "Bytes," May.)