Over the years, there has been a lot of talk about what would increase sales of home-based computers.

Certainly, millions of Americans have desktop and laptop computers. But one thing that could make purchases an easier decision--whether or not it actually increases sales--is to make the buying process easier.

How many times have you eyed that low-priced PC only to find out that the monitor, keyboard, and mouse aren't included, that the price applies only to the CPU and its box? As someone said years ago, agreeing to a price for a PC is often like saying yes to a price for a car and then being asked, "Do you want tires with that? How about an engine, too?"

If buying a car is intimidating, buying a computer requires passing an intelligence test to sort between similar sounding products and weeding out the processes that turn the final price into something that only remotely resembles the initial offer. For example, you scroll through the list of purchase options on Dell's Web site, with the vendor recommending choices, all of which boost the price. In fact, one computer magazine reported about trying to go through the selection process and actually equaling the low-ball rates vendors offer. Accomplishing that required unselecting some of the goodies that vendors automatically check (for your convenience).

Many buyers probably have learned that low-cost PCs are low-cost because they come with Microsoft Works or the WordPerfect Productivity Pack. As a loyal WordPerfect user, I don't find the latter all that objectionable. But Works has always been distasteful--until Microsoft decided to add Word to Works, it was sort of this alien software that worked with nothing else. And I have to have Word and WordPerfect just to deal with the rest of the world.

More recently, I ambled through CompUSA looking at all these inviting prices for notebooks. They seemed really nice until I checked the applications installed on one computer and found it came with a 60-day free trial for Microsoft Office 2003. A quick check with the salespeople showed that most of the PCs have the free-trial for Office Standard, which will cost you another $400 to actually buy (and oh yeah, Office Professional is the one with Microsoft Access), so that $1,600 computer actually costs $2,000 after the software expires in two months. And don't forget the carrying case. And the extra battery. And the tax. And probably something you forgot.

There need to be clearer ways of informing buyers of the true cost of computer purchases. That would cut down on those extras that people buy without thinking about it until they reach the checkout and then get squeamish about backing out. How about some charts such as "Price for system with typical configurations, software, and other options."

There's something unsettling about a process that requires confusion in order to produce more revenue. We need something more uniform. Maybe Saturn can start making computers.

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