Desktop Critic: CompUSA: Apple's Not-So-Superstore

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I'm here to buy my very first computer," I tell the young guy in the red CompUSA shirt. "Something really easy to use, for the Internet and word processing." Without a word and without ever making eye contact, Mr. $6-an-hour turns. He strides right past six iMacs in the Apple "store within a store" and stops beside a boring Wintel box.

"Here you go," he says, "$899. Monitor's extra."

I play even dumber. "Is this one of those, um, iMac thingies?"

He scoffs. "Oh, you don't want one of those. You can't put floppy disks in 'em. Besides, there's no software for Macs. This shelf right here–that's all we got for Macs. The 30 shelves over there are all for Windows."

So I pluck a package from a Windows-software shelf. "What about this?" I point to a bright yellow sticker on the box that says: "For Mac OS and Windows 95."

My guy grabs the box and puts it back on the shelf. "No, that's for Windows."

Pathetic, yes; unusual, no. For two months, I've been dropping in on CompUSA stores in five states, posing as a computer dummy to see how Apple's hand-picked national retailer represents our favorite computer. On Long Island, New York, the salesman answered my question about the iMac by saying, "I don't know anything about 'em–nobody here does." In Connecticut, I was told emphatically that there's no way to run Windows programs on the Mac. And in Philadelphia, one sales kid claimed that the iMac doesn't have "a level cache" (!).

Unfortunately, the problem of uninformed, Mac-bashing CompUSA staff is a nationwide phenomenon. Visit the CompUSA Watch Web page ( ), for example. The depressing table there indicates just how lousy the Mac-oriented staff, setup, hardware, and software offerings are at each of the 225 CompUSA stores.

So who cares? After all, there are 3,500 other places to buy Macs: independent Mac dealers, savvy smaller chains such as Fry's and MicroCenter, and mail-order joints.

But CompUSA, as the only national authorized computer chain, is by far the most visible Mac retailer. Before Apple cut other chains out of the action, what most Americans saw of Macs was sad indeed: disconnected, crashed, and mouseless Macs on dusty shelves. In exchange for exclusivity, CompUSA promised to give Apple a decent presentation.

Apple has certainly done its part to take advantage of the arrangement. An eye-catching self-running demo plays on the screens of most display Macs. In many stores, Apple reps hang out to answer questions on weekends. During the holidays, Apple cut a $30 check to each clerk for each iMac sold. And for big store events, such as the rollout of the iMac or Mac OS 8.5, Apple has harnessed the enthusiasm of local user-group members–a grass-roots, win-win marketing masterstroke.

So why are the young clerks at CompUSA so comically–make that tragically–ill-informed? CompUSA says that it's simply impossible to hire enough knowledgeable staff, especially Mac people. "Getting staff is a problem across the board," says Suzanne Shelton, the company's PR director. "We need specialized talent; finding it can be a challenge."

OK, so pay more, or solicit help from user groups, or hold training seminars; whatever the excuse, CompUSA simply isn't holding up its end of the sweet Apple deal. In steering potential buyers away from Macs, store clerks make a mockery of CompUSA president Jim Halpin's 1997 promise to make his stores "the Apple headquarters for America."

In light of all this, it's doubly amazing that CompUSA's Mac sales are screaming. Maybe that's because the Apple display areas are attractive and the Macs irresistible, even when they're unmanned. Or maybe it's the local Mac fans who sneak in to "volunteer," spending each Saturday answering questions, moving Mac/Windows software boxes into the Mac area, fixing icons that customers have renamed "ZVSFZZZZ," and so on. And here and there, in the occasional CompUSA outlet, there's even a Mac-savvy worker. (Exactly one CompUSA guy–in Beachwood, Ohio–won my little game of Help the Dummy. He immediately led me to an iMac and then made it speak, run Windows programs in Virtual PC, and play a movie. I almost bought one despite myself.)

Perhaps in frustration over the CompUSA situation, Apple recently authorized a second chain to sell iMacs: Best Buy. Well, that'll certainly help. Now we're counting on those young, underpaid, poorly trained employees to know Macs and Windows–and VCRs, cameras, and toaster ovens.

Come to think of it, maybe CompUSA isn't so bad after all.

March 1999 page: 168

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