From the December 1999 issue of Startups

It' s not often I get to go on a fantasy shopping spree. And since you're an entrepreneur trying to launch a business on what's likely a water-tight budget, I'm sure you can relate. So when the editors at Business Start-Ups asked me to go out and shop to my heart's content for the latest in office technology, I jumped at the chance. Quite literally, that is, right out of my chair!

Of course, the editors did have a few rules. (Don't they always?) I needed to outfit three fictitious start-up companies with the most appropriate phone, general-office and computer- peripheral equipment I could find. (I didn't shop for desktop or laptop computers, since we assume you've already got one.) Each business had different budgets and requirements.

The first: a one-person office with average technology needs--and do it for less than $1,000, please. No problem.

Next, a one-man band with more advanced technology requirements--perhaps an energetic entrepreneur wanting to produce a Web site and marketing materials in-house on a modest $2,000 budget. OK.

Third, a fast-growing start-up with a few employees already on the payroll. This company has several demanding users who must share the office equipment, wants built-in expandability from the ground up and has $3,000 or less in the budget. A little trickier, but quite possible.

The last rule (and the one I disliked the most): I didn't get to keep any of the office equipment--this shopping spree was only in my dreams.

After I did some initial research, the great folks at Office Depot agreed to let me (and my photographer) amble up and down the aisles in one of their huge, well-stocked stores. Just like any good shopper, I solicited advice from their excellent support staff. I even ran into two entrepreneurs out shopping for a stand-alone fax machine, and learned a few things from them along the way. Then, based on all the evidence, I filled my shopping cart (rather, three shopping carts) with all the high-tech office equipment needed to fill the bill. So, without further ado, here's what I discovered on the greatest (and cheapest) shopping spree of a lifetime. . . .


Heather Page is former technology editor for Entrepreneur Media Inc.

Shopping 101

After the excitement wore off and the enormity of the project began to hit, I figured I'd do what any smart entrepreneur like yourself would do: head online. Here, I found some great comparison shopping at Web sites like PriceScan (http://www.pricescan.com). If you're a real bargain hunter and already know the specific brands and models you want, PriceScan unearths the lowest prices available--with links to the vendors' Web sites.

Since I knew I'd be heading over to Office Depot, I decided to drop by http://www.officedepot.com. Here, I was able to pare down my shopping list before ever setting foot in the store. The site has a good comparison-shopping feature, allowing you to select multiple products and compare features side by side. For instance, it was easy to make general decisions regarding laser printers based on price, warranty, output and print speed. (This saved me the trouble of doing basic research in the store, so I could make final decisions based on my observations regarding quality of output, print speed and other factors.) The Office Depot Web site also has a store locator and custom shopping-list creator so you can order (and replenish) regular office supplies, like paper, online.

I found the best selection of office equipment at Computer Discount Warehouse (http://www.cdw.com). You can browse through hundreds of kinds of office equipment by brand name, find top product sellers in specific categories, even get the skinny on manufacturers' rebates and coupons. The site also has a fantastic product-comparison feature that lets you analyze up to five products at a time, complete with photos, in-depth specs, product availability and more.

Of course, if you find what you want at the right price, you can buy the equipment online at most computer retailers' Web sites. I found some of the best prices online, and the product selection was much wider than what I found in the store. Online shopping is great if you already know a lot about the technology you're looking for. You can customize products to your exact specifications, input your credit card number and have the order sent directly to your door. Many online retailers even offer free delivery; Office Depot, for example, provides free delivery for all online orders over $50.

But buying office technology this way won't let you take advantage of in-person help. Retail stores like Best Buy, CompUSA, Office Depot or your local computer reseller are good places to ask questions and get a second opinion. They also have demo models up and running so you can test prospective equipment and base your decisions on more than just online research. At the Office Depot in Daly City, California, where I went on my shopping spree, Rene Alvarado, a consultative sales technologist (and genuine technology enthusiast) answered all my product questions, clearly outlined my options and offered sound advice. In the end, buying online or in person is simply a matter of how much tech know-how you already have and where you're most comfortable making a purchase.

Under $1K

Upon hitting the shelves, it didn't take me long to discover that I couldn't find all the brands and models on my shopping list. At stores, the selection can be slim. Office Depot, for instance, didn't carry any printers or fax machines from Sharp Electronics, which were on my shopping list when I headed to the store. In some cases, Alvarado was able to steer me to alternative brands and models with better prices, features and warranties. But be prepared to be flexible. If not, be prepared to buy online as needed.

The first major decision I made was to go with a laser printer rather than an inkjet. For basic office needs like outputting sales letters, word processing documents and invoices, I chose the high-quality professionalism of laser printers over the cheaper inkjets. Plus, Alvarado assured me you get more bang for your buck with a laser printer down the road, considering the fact that you won't have to shell out $25 a pop for a new inkjet cartridge every few hundred pages.

My choice for a good SOHO laser printer is the Xerox WorkCentre XD 100 laser/copier machine. It prints at 600 x 600 dpi resolution and a fast 8 pages per minute (ppm) from its large 250-sheet paper tray. The WorkCentre XD 100 is also a great digital copier in one neat package. It comes with 50 to 200 percent reduction/enlargement features and several preset buttons. However, since the WorkCentre XD 100 copier/laser is rather large, it might not be the best solution for tight office space.

Next, I chose an affordable plain-paper fax machine for handling basic fax needs. At $139.99 (street), the Panasonic KX-FP101 fax machine fit that description, with functional 56-number storage, 15 seconds per page faxing and a 150-sheet paper tray. It stores up to 28 pages in document memory, so there's less time spent hanging around the fax machine. Also in my shopping cart: a basic digital AT&T 9301 900 MHz cordless phone with speed-dialing features and excellent voice clarity; an Iomega 100MB Zip drive for backing up business data; and a Bush Fusion Collection Corner Desk, which is n L-shaped computer workstation with a very large workspace. I also saw some cool, wire mesh desk accessories for cheap, so I threw these into the equation as well. Why not?

Under $2K

For a small office with more diverse needs such as creating sales presentations, newsletters and other marketing materials, a good color inkjet printer is key. I chose the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C color inkjet, with 6 ppm color and 8 ppm black-and-white printing. At $299, it's still very affordable, outputs at a decent 600 dpi and holds 100 sheets of paper.

To complement this setup, the Hewlett- Packard LaserJet 3100 laser printer/fax/copier offers laser-quality printing at 600 x 600 dpi for word processing and business documents. Plus, it faxes at a respectable 6 ppm and scans documents at up to 600 dpi resolution. An all-in-one solution, the LaserJet 3100 supports multiple tasks simultaneously, such as printing while receiving an incoming fax--a key feature for a busy entrepreneur.

Companies that are heavily marketing-oriented will also find a color scanner quite useful, especially for capturing images to use in Web sites, brochures and presentations. The Hewlett-Packard 6300CS color flatbed scanner handles the job nicely. Both Mac- and PC-compatible, the 6300CS 45-bit color scanner supports 600 dpi (2,400 with resolution enhancement). This flatbed scanner also comes with a great software bundle, including Adobe PhotoShop LE, Corel Photo Paint, OCR software and more.

Several other cool office technologies made their way into my shopping cart, including the Siemens Phone System Gigaset 2420. This cordless phone makes sense for companies that are expanding quickly. Plug the charger base into an outlet and it supports up to eight users; simply add another phone line and handset ($129.99 each, street). The Siemens Phone System Gigaset 2420 contains a digital answering machine that handles up to five different outgoing messages, supports caller ID and offers excellent voice quality and security because it operates at 2.4 GHz.

Under $3K

To equip an office that has a few employees, I wanted equipment that could be shared easily. My pièce de rèsistance was a network-ready departmental laser printer from Hewlett-Packard, the LaserJet 2100TN. This Mac- and PC-compatible printer outputs at a fast 10 ppm, offers 1,200 x 1,200 dpi resolution and comes pre-installed with a network card to get multiple users up and running quickly. Office Depot carries it for just under $1,000, making it an extremely affordable option.

"Normally, you must spend at least $1,500 for a network printer," confirms Alvarado. "This one is a good price at $999, comes with the network card already installed, has a double [paper] tray and comes with an infrared port, so if you have a laptop or handheld [PC], you can just point it at the printer and print. It's definitely a good buy."

To handle multiuser fax and copying demands, I chose the Brother MFC-4350 Laser All-In-One Machine. It faxes at 6 ppm, makes multiple copies (up to 99 pages) and has reduction and enlargement features. The Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C color inkjet printer ($299.99) is reasonably priced for the occasional color user in the office. And the Siemens Phone System Gigaset 2420 with three extra handsets ($129.99 each) takes care of four employees' phone needs.

The new External Iomega Zip 250MB Parallel Drive can easily handle the crucial job of backing up an entire office's data. It's the fastest and largest-capacity drive of its kind, handling big jobs with relative ease. The parallel-port model makes backing up multiple PCs easy; it's also hassle-free for PC users on the move. Finally, American Power Conversion's Back-UPS 650 protects multiple pieces of office equipment from power surges and outages. It also contains a modem surge protector and software to automatically save data and power down your equipment.

Checkout Line

Before heading to the checkout counter and plunking down your plastic, you might want to consider equipment leasing. Leasing lowers your initial equipment costs and keeps the latest technology in your hands. Office Depot has a $900 equipment minimum to participate in its business-leasing program; the company offers approval within 15 minutes.

Generally, most leasing companies offer a variety of end-of-lease options, such as trading in equipment after your lease period is over, purchasing it for fair market value and even buying it for $1. In addition to computer retailers, computer manufacturers like Dell (http://www.dell.com) and Compaq (http://www.compaq.com), online retailers such as Computer Discount Warehouse and a variety of third-party companies offer leasing programs.

Leasing isn't for everyone. Be sure to read the fine print and carefully consider the (not-so) minor details, including interest rates and insurance requirements. (For more on leasing, see September's "Tech Know" column.)

By the time you head for the counter, hopefully you've done your online research, gleaned useful advice from customer service representatives and focused on getting the best features for your money. As I found out, a lot of thought is required in order to make the perfect choices. But it's definitely time (and money) well-spent. Happy shopping!

Shopping Cart: Under $1,000

Shopping Cart: Under $2,000

  • Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 3100 all-in-one machine: $699.00
  • Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C color inkjet printer: $299.99
  • Hewlett-Packard 6300CS color flatbed scanner: $400.00
  • Siemens Phone System Gigaset 2420: $379.00
  • Bush Fusion Collection Corner Desk: $79.99
  • Iomega 100MB Zip drive: $99.00

Total: $1,956.98

Shopping cart: Under $3,000

  • Siemens Phone System Gigaset 2420: $379.00
  • Siemens 2420 handsets (3) : $389.97
  • Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 2100TN laser printer: $999.99
  • Brother MFC-4350 Laser All-In-One Machine: $399.99
  • Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 882C color inkjet printer: $299.99
  • External Iomega Zip 250MB Parallel Drive: $199.99
  • American Power Conversion Back-UPS 650: $229.00

Total: $2,897.93

What's In Store

These days, Computer retailers are ramping up customer assistance in an effort to better serve their small-business customers. Case in point: Major retailer Office Depot provides special service representatives who build custom PCs and solutions for businesses.

Gateway recently announced it's rolling out two new small-business programs to all 164 Gateway Country Store locations by the end of this month. One is the development of all-new Gateway Business Solutions Centers. These small-business shopping areas, packed full of networked systems, servers, PCs and notebooks, are designed to offer more personalized attention for Gateway's business customers. In addition, the Gateway Business Network Specialist program is a move by Gateway to partner with local resellers in Gateway territory and offer all-in-one networking solutions to its customers.

The time has never been riper for getting to know your local computer retailer.