28.1 Purchasing Components

After you choose the components, the next step is to order them. Rather than shopping for the absolute lowest price for each component, we try to order everything from just one or two vendors. Ordering piecemeal incurs additional shipping costs that often nullify small price breaks on individual items. Although we try to order everything from one place, we usually have to place two or three orders because one or another vendor doesn't carry a particular item or is out of stock.

We're frequently asked to suggest which resellers are the best or cheapest or most reliable. We can't offer such advice because, although we buy a lot of stuff, we don't buy enough to have a statistically valid sample from one vendor, let alone from every vendor. All we can tell you is what we do, without representing that our choices are necessarily best for you. A reseller that treated us right may ship you the wrong items, and a reseller with whom we had problems may in fact be an excellent reseller overall.

Our first step is always to check Reseller Ratings (http://www.resellerratings.com), which offers detailed ratings of hundreds of resellers, including historical information. Because Reseller Ratings uses feedback from users, there's always the possibility that a reseller has stuffed the ballot box, so we look not just for a high overall rating, but a large number of votes. A reseller that has a perfect rating based on 10 votes may be an excellent company, or it may just have voted for itself. A reseller that has an excellent rating based on 1,500 votes is probably an excellent choice (although we suppose a particularly industrious dishonest reseller might have voted for itself 1,500 times).

Although the vendor ratings on Reseller Ratings may not be entirely reliable, we can say that ratings for those resellers from whom we have purchased generally correspond with our own experiences, good and bad. It's always worth your time to check a vendor's current rating, particularly if you haven't bought from that vendor for some time. Bad vendors almost never change their spots, but good vendors may take a sudden turn for the worse.

When evaluating vendors, pay particular attention to the following:

Shipping charges

Make sure to factor the cost of shipping into your price comparisons. Some vendors advertise very low prices, but have ridiculously high shipping charges, particularly on monitors, cases, and other heavy or bulky items. We were once quoted $28 to ship a single hard drive by surface UPS, for example, and $63 to ship a 17-inch monitor. Many online vendors automatically calculate and display shipping charges, either per item or for your order as a whole. If a vendor doesn't mention shipping charges, regard that as a red flag.

If a vendor offers "free shipping" (as an increasing number do), find out what limitations and conditions apply. Most vendors that offer free shipping require a minimum order amount. Many use slow shipping methods such as standard mail or UPS ground. Some even intentionally delay orders with free shipping, waiting several days after receipt of the order to actually ship it. In short, many vendors who offer free shipping do everything possible to encourage you to upgrade to a faster (and more costly) shipping method. If you need the items quickly, compare resellers according to the true costs including upgraded shipping charges, if any.

Return policy

Read and understand the vendor's return policy. Vendors differ greatly in what they regard as an acceptable reason for a return and how they handle returns that turn out not to be defective. Also look carefully for any mention of a restocking fee, which may be 25% or more, and may be charged even if you are returning an item because it is incompatible with your system. Better vendors have a no-questions-asked return policy and do not charge restocking fees. Unless the product is defective, all vendors refuse returns of opened software (except in exchange for the same title) and printers that have had ink or toner installed.

Warranty policy

Better resellers endorse the manufacturer's warranty. That is, if you buy a product from them and that product fails, you return the product to them and they ship you a replacement. Most such vendors limit their endorsement of the manufacturer's warranty to 30 or 60 days. The very best vendors pay for shipping both ways, and will often cross-ship a replacement before they receive the failed product, although they will require you provide a credit card number to ensure that you actually return the defective product. Some vendors have no warranty policy at all. If a product from them arrives DOA, they require you to return that product to the manufacturer. Avoid those vendors.

To make it easy to compare total price and the price for each item, we create a spreadsheet with one column for the items to be ordered and other columns for two or three of our favorite vendors. After we determine which vendor has the lowest total price, we then compare individual item prices and ask that vendor to match any lower per-item prices quoted by their competitors. "NewEgg has this drive for $18 less than you guys are quoting. Will you match that?" Most vendors will, or will at least reduce the price somewhat.

If you want to take that a step further, use the price comparison services available on the Web to find really low prices. We use http://www.pricegrabber.com, supplemented by http://www.pricescan.com and http://www.pricewatch.com. Some of the prices you'll find are so low that they should raise a red flag. For example, when we checked tape drive prices, we found one vendor on PriceWatch.com that was advertising a particular Seagate tape drive model for $225. The least any other vendor was offering that drive for was $540, so we knew something was wrong with what that company was offering. It may have been selling a used, damaged, or nonfunctional drive, but if so you couldn't tell it from reading its web site. It claimed to be selling new, in-the-box units for that ridiculous price. Someone foolish enough to believe that company would doubtlessly have been badly burned when the product finally arrived (or didn't arrive).

Disreputable resellers change names as often as they change underwear. We once did a search on PriceWatch and found three different resellers offering a component we needed to buy. All of them had that part priced similarly, and all were far below the price offered by vendors we were familiar with. We did a whois lookup on the three domain names, and found that all three had similar registrant information. Apparently, disreputable resellers have caught on to the fact that a low-ball price may scare people off, and so have decided to give the appearance of safety by having several "different" companies offer similar prices. That's one very good reason to use the ResellerRatings site to check historical data for any company you plan to buy from.

We've learned not to buy from "bottom feeder" vendors. They may ship late or not at all, charge your credit card more than the price they quoted, add ridiculous shipping charges, sell OEM versions as retail-boxed versions, ship repackaged or otherwise inferior merchandise, and do other things to raise your blood pressure. Most stop short of outright fraud, but many tread near that line. It's just not worth the hassle to buy from them, but you can use their prices to beat down your preferred vendor. But recognize the TANSTAAFL principle: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Reputable vendors can't match the prices offered by fly-by-night operations and still stay in business, but reputable resellers can usually do better than the prices they advertise.

When the items arrive, open the boxes immediately and verify their contents against both your original order and the packing list. Don't stop there, however. Open each individual component box and compare the actual contents against the proper contents as listed in the manual for that component. On one memorable occasion, we received a factory-sealed box that contained manuals, CD, and cables, but not the product itself! Check carefully.

Some vendors routinely ship used product but represent it as new. Regardless of who you buy from, make it absolutely clear that you will accept only new, factory-fresh product. Repackaged products are not acceptable. Someone returned them, perhaps for good reason. Vendors should ship returned products back to the manufacturer or distributor. Instead, many vendors simply put returned products back in inventory and ship them to the next buyer.

Don't accept the fact that a box is shrink-wrapped as evidence that it is factory-fresh. Many vendors have shrink-wrap machines, and use them to re-wrap returned products. Many manufacturers have taken to sealing the product box with a sticker or other means to make it obvious if that box has been opened.

If, despite insisting on new product, you receive a product that shows evidence of having been opened (e.g., broken box seal, broken CD seal, slightly bent header pins, expansion slot contacts that show burnishing from having been installed, etc.), contact the vendor immediately and demand to know why they shipped you a used product as new. Demand that they replace it with a factory-fresh product at their own expense, including issuing a pickup slip to have UPS come and get the original product. If the vendor is obstinate, threaten to request a charge-back from your credit card company and to make a complaint for wire fraud. That gets their attention.