How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation

Step 8: Choose Your Vendor

Online merchants leverage lower operating expenses to price products far below those needed to keep the doors open at brick and mortar shops. But shipping costs can still kill your hopes for big savings, particularly if you shop across multiple storefronts. Per-item shipping often gets better as more items are added to the order, so the savings attributed to buying online are maximized by purchasing from the fewest possible sources.

A difficult cascade of questions may consume you if you consider many sellers, various components at different prices, and a range of shipping rates. The easy path is picking one vendor able to give you the best deal on your complete list. Keep in mind that single-item shipping rates quoted through shopping engines should drop significantly as order size increases, and if this doesn't happen it's time to check the next vendor on your list!

Local stores must increase prices to cover their higher operating expenses, but many receive items in large enough quantities to save you some of the money you'd otherwise pay on shipping. Consider the example of a single stack of DVD-R media: online pricing might be $6 plus $8 shipping, totaling $14. If a local store bought 100 stacks at a 10% discount, squandered that 10% savings on bulk shipping, and added a huge 50% mark-up, it'd still be able to sell them for $12...saving you $2 and several days of waiting.

"Loss leaders" are another way for buyers to save when purchasing locally. These are items that larger stores like Best Buy or Fry's Electronics sell at a loss in order to lure you in, hoping sales staff or glamorous displays will get you to pick up a few more things on the way out. Relying on one-time deals often requires substituting a lesser part to get a better value, however.

Level Of Service

It's often said that you get what you pay for, and service is one area where local stores have the ability to outperform their online rivals (though not all of them do). Because small shops are constantly trying to build their reputations, and because they deal in lower volume, they're usually willing to go the extra mile to answer questions and earn your business. Larger electronics chains focus on volume instead, and would rather sell you another part than figure out why the one you have isn't working. Online merchants expect you to have enough knowledge to figure things out on your own.

Consider the situation of dealing with a compatibility issue:

  • Smaller, locally-owned shops will usually offer advice, inspect the item for free if you believe it's defective, or diagnose it in your system for a reasonable fee (again, that's not to say all of them will). On the other hand, they may not be willing to provide a refund if you try to return a new component in used condition.
  • Most online merchants don't provide adequate tech support, instead going directly to the return process while charging a 15% "restocking fee" for any returned item. You'll have paid shipping both on the delivery and the return, and your 15% fee will go towards someone else's "open box" price reduction.
  • Favoring irresponsible buyers, "big box" retailers might give you all your money back if you come up with a good enough reason (or plausible excuse) for the return.

Seller Integrity

Local stores live and die by word of mouth, and will normally try to settle disputes amicably. Larger chain stores will generally try to dodge the bullet, though it might take a while for you to reach a satisfactory outcome.

Online merchants need to keep the majority of customers happy, but a minority can fall through the cracks. Many price comparison engines—such as Google Shopping and Amazon—have rating systems linked to viewable buyer comments.

Auction sites are a great place to find discontinued hardware, but final selling prices on newer parts often exceed those of larger discount sites. Manufacturer warranties may not apply (especially to gray-market parts) and seller warranties are only as good as the seller's word. Be careful, though, and learn from my personal experience. I found a seller who had spent more than three years building his reputation as a power seller, and had a favorable rating of over 99%. His "retirement" plan, apparently, was to advertise items he didn't own during his final month of sales, and he was able to abscond with a six-figure salary of ill-gotten gains, a few hundred dollars of which were mine. It has become more difficult to succeed at these scams in recent times, as payment companies with buyer protection will now track down criminals who've cost them insurance money. Yet, we still hear of sellers sending a box full of rocks or paper to prove shipment. Unless the seller has a history of doing this, it's your word against his concerning what actually arrived. Auction sites become a reasonable option whenever the benefits substantially outweigh the risks. Just be sure that you take all necessary precautions, and are prepared for any hardships that might come in spite of your caution.

Purchasing Summary

Online merchants offer the lowest price, but shipping policies favor large purchases. If you can get most items from one site, your savings could be significant. Inexpensive orders are often best-sourced locally due to shipping fees.

Human interface components like keyboards, mice, and game controllers are so dependent on individual ergonomics that it's always best to try a few before making a purchase. Large retail chains may provide an adequate selection of parts to try out, but some buyers use these stores to "window shop" before placing an online order.