Shop 'Til You Drop

The ins and outs of shopping online for whatever you need for your business
From the December 2000 issue of Startups

Remember junior high, when the highlight of your weekend was going to the mall and hanging out for five hours straight? Wasn't shopping fun? Now that you've started your own business, don't you still love to spend days and days shopping for the right hardware prices? No? OK, we don't blame you. Nothing is duller than wasting an afternoon hopping from Buy.com to Outpost.com to Egghead.com, searching for the lowest price on that HP OfficeJet you've got to have.

All it takes to speed up the buying process nowadays is you and your trusty sidekick Internet connection. Visiting all the online price-comparison services could be just as time-consuming as visiting all the e-tailers, so we'll help narrow the playing field to get you on your way.

If you're still in the "Compaq or Dell?" stage of things, then Deja.com is a decent starting place. The "We help you decide what products to buy and where to buy them" slogan is certainly promising. Their product wizard involves a few multiple-choice questions and generates a list of hardware products along with user ratings for each and links to retailers that sell them.

When it really comes down to the nitty-gritty of bargain-hunting, nothing beats a good price guide. PriceSCAN offers an exhaustive amount of hardware that you can narrow down by brand and/or features to get a list of retailers and prices. Their slogan is "We want to save you money and help take the hassle out of shopping." It helps. You can even compare outdoor grills as you price laser printers. Similar sites include Shopper.com and StreetPrices.com.

We decided to look for the best price we could find on the Epson Perfection 636 flatbed scanner. At PriceSCAN, we found $265 at the low end and $307 on the high. Over at Shopper.com, we got $280 on the low end and $300 on the high. We couldn't find that particular model at StreetPrices.com.

While you're online, you might as well take advantage of all the other people who are trying to ferret out deals. For Mac shoppers, check out dealmac for reports on low prices and coupon codes. PC buyers can visit the sister site dealnews, a particularly good location for e-tailer coupon codes that net you a discount on a minimum purchase.

Not that shopping online is all Web and roses. There are some things to be wary of. That low, low price you found for a 19-inch monitor may not be so low after you figure in tax and shipping costs. And if it's refurbished equipment, you can save lots of cash upfront, but sometimes manuals and software aren't included, and the regular warranty is usually cut short. You might have to dig around the order page a bit, but don't say yes until you know what the real total is-and what you're paying for.

Internet auctions can be tempting, but it's strictly "buyer beware." Auctions at person-to-person sites like eBay and Yahoo! Auctions are the iffiest. You may get a great deal, or you may get royally ripped off. If you must bid, investigate the seller's ratings and ask lots of questions. Established B2C auction sites like Egghead.com's auctions or uBid are the safest harbor for the auction-hungry.

And remember: We can buy in cyberspace, but we have to use the purchases in the real world. Scheduling a field trip to your local CompUSA, OfficeMax, Circuit City or Office Depot affords you a chance to meet and greet your potential hardware. Prices generally won't be as low as on the Internet, but the convenience might make up for it. Plus, you can always hop back online at home if you want to. And don't neglect the occasional small independent store; you just might find a good deal and good customer service.

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