Monday, April 27, 2009
Australian computer shops
I put the following post up on my Australian Politics blog but it occurs to me that I should put it up here too. I reproduce below a small memoir I wrote in the late 1990s about computer shops. Joey tells me that many such shops are just the same these days so I think the memoir still has relevance
Computer people are generally held to be pretty bright but my experience with computer shops has left me wondering.
For instance: Around 1990 I had been told that Amiga computers have very good software for helping pre-schoolers to learn to read and write etc. So I tried to buy an Amiga for my then three-year-old son, didn't I? Naturally, as computers are complicated things, I wanted to see the use of the software demonstrated before I bought. So I went into the computer shop of one of our better Department stores (Grace Bros. in Sydney) and asked for a demonstration. I found that they could indeed demonstrate two teenage-type games to me. They could not, however, demonstrate anything else as "We cannot open the packs".
So I sought out a specialist computer store didn't I? Now I already had an IBM-type computer so I knew this was not likely to be a joyous experience. I seem to be invisible in such shops. As far as I can see, in computer shops everyone always seems to be on the phone and customers in the shop can just go hang. And those phone conversations are long. They just seem to be so much more interesting than the boring business of actually selling to a customer.
So I walked into a rather big example of such a shop at what should have been a quiet time of the week in the hope that maybe there would be one person there who was on the ball. But no, I turned out to be invisible again. This time, however, the worm turned. I wandered out the back to what seemed to be the boss's office and asked the man there (who was, of course, on the phone), "Is anybody selling here?" His response? "Just wait out the front and someone will serve you". I said, "But I have already been waiting for some time and no-one has said anything to me." His reply? "What do you want?" I said, "I want to buy an Amiga." "Don't sell them", he then said and returned to his phone call with evident relief. He did not want to be bothered with a piddling $1,400 sale, did he? (At that time the average male gross wage would have been about $350 per week).
So next I went to a small computer shop in the hope that a small firm might be keener. Again, of course, I was invisible until I asked someone if anyone was selling here but I did then get some attention. Yes, he did sell software for pre-schoolers and the Amiga was indeed ideal for that but he had no software for pre-schoolers at all in stock at the moment so try him again next week. So by that stage I still had not managed to buy an Amiga.
Eventually I found a small retailer with a heavy foreign accent who was so keen that he offered the lowest prices AND even delivered the Amiga 500 to me at home. He actually travelled for over an hour through Sydney traffic from his shop at Campbelltown (outer Sydney) to Lewisham (Inner Western Sydney) to make the sale. Funny that he was foreign! (Northern Italian, it turned out).
Now let me tell what happened when I first decided to buy an Atari ST computer: I knew virtually nothing about Ataris but I did already have a 286 (i.e. an Intel machine) and an Amiga so I knew a bit about computers generally. One thing I certainly knew was that the big expense with computers is not the machine but the software. So when I rang up the main computer firm that dealt in Ataris (United Computers) to enquire about Atari prices, one thing I wanted to know was how easily I could get public domain software for Ataris. I was put on to the firm's apparent Atari "expert" to discuss this.
I said that I knew that some Bulletin boards had Atari software and asked how I could get such software onto Atari disks. If I downloaded it on my IBM machine would the Atari read my IBM disks? If not, would I have to buy an Atari modem program to download the Atari files direct onto Atari disks? I was told: NO you will need to buy an expensive program to enable an Atari to read IBM disks; and: YES you will need to buy an expensive Atari program in order to use your Atari for modem work.
Both these answers were of course bare-faced lies. Ataris read IBM disks as easily as they read their own and the commonly-used Atari modem programs, like Amiga and IBM modem programs, are mostly in the public domain or shareware. Anyway, their lies just ended up costing them business. I concluded that since the software was going to cost me such a lot I had better economize on buying the machine. So I bought a secondhand Atari rather than a new one and United Computers lost a sale.
The same firm also sold Amigas and on a later occasion quoted me outrageous prices for Amiga disk drives -- around twice what other people were charging. They also tried to sell me a box of high-density 3.5" disks for $55 -- then normally available for $20 and later available for $10 or less. Needless to say, on both occasions I walked out of the shop with my money still in my pocket!
And what about the time I tried to buy a complicated piece of software off them? They tried to demonstrate it for me but could not get it to work. I offered to buy it anyway on condition that I be allowed to return it for refund if nobody I knew could get it to work either. They refused my offer! "But you could just copy it and then return it", they said. Maybe. But the fact that the software concerned was on CD-ROM should be mentioned. The CD was going to cost miles less than a hard drive of similar capacity would have cost me. Anyway, I once again walked out with my money still in my pocket.
And then there was the time I got a secondhand copy of the game "Dungeon Master". As it was copy-protected, it had not been backed up but had just been used straight out of the box. The original buyer did the right thing and relied on the retailer to provide any backup needed. By the time I got the game, however, it had died, so I took the disk, box and manual to United Computers and asked for backup service. They undertook to provide this at a charge of $5. Quite reasonable -- at first. I then waited -- and waited -- and waited.
After two months or so I gave up, asked for the stuff back, obtained a Blitzcopy cable and re-copied the game courtesy of another owner of it. United's excuse for the delay? "The game was out of production and our supplier had to write to America for a copy". But if this begins to sound half reasonable remember that Dungeon Master was at the time arguably the most popular computer game ever. Could they really not find another copy of such a game? They were obviously not even trying. They sure knew how to encourage software piracy! Or didn't they WANT to sell software?
I mentioned above how when you walk into almost any computer shop all the staff are on the phone. Occasionally there is a receptionist there who knows nothing about computers and whose only function is to ask you to wait but that is about as good as you get. The only exceptions seem to be when the shop is run by Asians. When you walk into one of their shops you find them on the phone too but they immediately say something which must be the Cantonese (or Urdu) equivalent of, "A customer has just walked in. I will call you back." They then get up and serve you promptly.
The only way I ever found of getting reasonably prompt attention from non-Asian computer shop staff was to say, "Excuse me. I want to buy a 486". Since the 486 was at the time the top-of-the-line IBM-type machine and cost accordingly, they then put the phone down and paid some attention to me. It was amusing to see their faces when I told them that I did not really want to buy a 486 but just said that as it seemed to be the only way of getting served.
Mind you, with firms like United Computers (who of course eventually went broke) even that trick may not work. I know someone (Jason Marianoff) who once went in there to ask seriously about buying an Amiga 3000 (the top-line Amiga at the time). The staff were too busy playing a computer game to answer his questions properly! He too left their premises without putting his hand in his pocket. He then went into business on his own account as an Amiga retailer and did such a superb job at it that he ended up as the only surviving Amiga retailer in Brisbane.
So computer firms at least should think about the company they keep. If they want to sell machines they would do well to cease relying on lackadaisical and typically Australian firms like United and try instead to sign up a few small Asian retailers. They would sell a lot more gear that way. Why? Because charging like the Light Brigade puts everyone except pretentious people off and pretentious people buy Apple Macs anyway. And NOBODY -- pretentious or not -- likes to be treated like a bad smell when they go to buy something. And if a potential customer DOES get treated like a bad smell, it is very easy for him/her to go elsewhere and buy a rival product instead.
And then there was the time I wanted to get a computer monitor cable copied by a firm that specialized in such work (Qld Connectors and Cables). The firm did the job and got it wrong. The copy cable did not work -- for a rather obvious reason. Rather than listen to me when I politely asked to tell them where they had got it wrong and how to fix it, they insisted on giving me my money back instead. They would rather lose money than listen to a customer! Customers who complained, no matter how politely or with how much justification were just not to be dealt with any further. Rather British, really, but quite incredible by Japanese or American standards.
And it is not even as if the service the firm concerned was offering was anywhere near irreplaceable. Anybody can buy all the connectors they need from a Tandy or Dick Smith store and then solder them on to a bit of cable themselves if they want to. It takes little skill and less brains when all you have to do is copy the example in front of you.
Another offended shopkeeper was in a way even more amusing. I wanted to replace my 486 with a machine running a Celeron chip in late 1998. I found the cheapest Celeron being advertised in the paper (by a firm called Global Computers) and rang up and ordered one. When I arrived I asked to test the machine to see that it worked, only to find that the computer was nowhere near ready for use. All they had done was put it together. They had not even formatted the hard drive. So I had to partition and format it myself (warned by past experience with computer shops, I "just happened" to have a DOS boot disk in my pocket) plus set up access to the the CD drive plus set up the soundcard -- all of which took me about 20 minutes while the salesman just sat on his behind staring into space.
At the end I found that the sound did not work and pointed this out. He asked his technician about it and was told that a special piece of software would be needed to get the sound running. I asked if he would like my phone number so he could let me know when the sound was running. He did not seem to want to be bothered so I just walked out the door with my cash still in my pocket. As I walked out he said: "Thanks for wasting my time". He was angry with me because I would not buy an inoperable machine!
So I then rang someone I had long known ("Game Dude") and asked him for a quote. He charged $1321 -- about $200 cheaper than what the moron was charging. And when I went to Game Dude he had everything all set up. I just had to walk in, test it and hand over the cash! Shopping around can make an amazing difference. Game Dude was of course an owner/operator of his business.
Australia contrasts greatly with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the retailer seems to think that it is his/her job to ensure that you walk out with less money in your pocket than when you walked in. And he/she does what it takes to bring that about. He/she actually makes an effort either to give you what you want or convince you that you want something else. The retailer actually gives the impression that he/she wants to make a sale! There are no invisible customers in Hong Kong.
But Hong Kong capitalism is closer to us than you might think. When I took my train to work in Sydney of a morning (in 1990), it was not uncommon for around half the faces in the carriage to be Asian. And that is already beginning to show up in the shops. And everyone knows what it is like in a Chinese restaurant. You no sooner sit down than there is a menu in front of you. You have no sooner made your selection and closed your menu than there is someone by your elbow waiting to take your order. In other restaurants it can take half an hour just to get a menu! I wonder why I mostly eat out in Asian restaurants?
At any event, it has already happened in Britain. Polite brown people from the Indian sub-continent of Asia now seem to run almost all the small businesses in Britain -- from laundrettes and grocery shops to Post Offices, small hotels and electrical goods shops. Australia's Asians might come from a different part of Asia but they will do a similar justly deserved takeover in due course. "Old Australian" businessmen will just end up at the beach and on the dole, where they generally seem to belong -- modern-day Pacific islanders. Australia is, after all, the largest Pacific island.