This is a tale of two retailers, a cautionary tale of good customer service--and the other kind.

Normally, paraphrasing Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" is as unimaginative as writing parodies of a "Night Before Christmas and "Casey at the Bat." But here it fits in a quick lesson in how one store failed to sell a multi-function printer, while its competitor, less than a mile a way, got the deal. This lesson can be applied to any business that sells goods and services to the public, especially because the stores were selling exactly the same product.

Our goal was to buy an all-in-one device--printer, copier, scanner, fax--and more particularly a color laser. We were playing it safe by targeting Hewlett-Packard, the default choice in laser printers for many.

The first stop was CompUSA, mainly much because it is a mile from our house. It also periodically knocked $100 off the price of an HP 2840.

The 2840 was on sale. The salesman went to the backroom to see if it was stock, and returned a couple of minutes later with "I need the SKU number" and vanished again to return minutes later to inform us, "We don't have it."

"Can we order it and get it at the same price?"

"We don't give rain checks. We could sell you the floor model. It's new."

"A 2840 has been sitting in that spot for months."

"It's probably the same one, then."

"We'll go somewhere else. If we don't find it, we might come back, some time."

The fact that the sales person let us walk out of the store after that last statement should tell you something.

Staples was only a mile down the road. The 2840 was not in stock there, but the display had a sign that said it could be ordered at www.staples.com while we were still in the store. Staples matches competitors' prices, adding an extra 10 percent off.

"Can you match the CompUSA price?"

"Is it a regular price or a rebate?"

"How can we prove that?"

"No problem. I'll check their Web site."

The Web site supported us and Staples knocked off $110, placed the order, said delivery would occur in two days, and gave us the choice of delivery at the store or elsewhere (we're not fond of having electronic devices left on our front steps).

While this process was at work, the Staples staff mentioned that customers from CompUSA often show up with sour looks and pay more for the same merchandise at Staples and that a couple of current CompUSA staffers had been fired by this Staples store. Am I surprised?

The next day, we returned because USB cables aren't sold with devices. They must be separately purchased, we learned. I picked up a cable and was waiting for my wife, when the assistant manager, who had sold the printer, came up to me.

"I want to apologize for not telling you that you needed to buy the cable separately. I should have told you the other night."

Any clues as to where we might buy our equipment next time?

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