Originally created 02/16/99

Getting personal



When Ray Webber bought a computer five years ago, he settled for one off the shelf of a wholesaler.

But this time, the Augusta native was able to get exactly what he wanted: a built-to-order computer.

"Getting a personalized computer allowed me to have certain programs and games put on that normally wouldn't have come with the computer," he said. "It also let me improve the speed of my computer and save money by getting rid of things that I didn't need."

"I've always wanted to stay with the times and have the best. So, this was my way of doing both," he said.

Tailored to fit

Mr. Webber is part of a growing trend in computer purchases.

"The field of people wanting to personalize their computers is something that is definitely growing, and it's done pretty good here so far," said Keith Campbell, general manager for Augusta's Comp USA, which opened in June. "It seems that there are a group of customers out there that just aren't satisfied anymore with what's being offered straight from the shelf."

Mr. Campbell said that customers have become more knowledgable about computers in recent years.

"Those that ask for a customized computer pretty much already have in mind exactly what they're looking for," he said.

Common additions

Comp USA stores began offering a built-to-order computer, called the Comp USA PC, in August after the success of companies like Gateway and Dell, which have offered personalized computers since the mid-1980s.

Inside the store, customers may select features for their computer from a computer system, called the Configurator, by simply clicking a mouse.

The program asks what size and type of hard drive you want, how much memory you think you'll need, what type of mother board you want, if you would like a video card, Zip drive, sound card, CD-ROM drive or DVD player, and it also gives options for selecting various computer programs.

A price quote appears on the screen, and a sales employee reviews your picks with you before your purchase. The computer is then assembled at a separate warehouse and sent to your front door in one to two weeks.

Area computer sales employees say that the most commonly requested addition is increased memory, or RAM. Most customers have been willing to settle for a slower processor in order to afford more RAM. Retailers suggest starting with at least 64 MB (megabytes) of RAM and a 300 MHZ processor. DVD players, digital video devices that read high compression CDs, have been the least-asked-for addition.

"The RAM helps determine the quickness of the computer. Therefore, the more you get, the better your computer will run. But a DVD player only helps if you like to watch movies on your computer," said William Wade, a product specialist for Best Buy's computer department.

Best Buy currently offers a customized computer through Compaq.

More competition

Gateway, which had sold its customized computers only by phone or the Internet, has started offering personalized computers in a retail environment.

"We've always believed that customers should make the choices," said Greg Lund, manager of corporate communications for Gateway Computers. "And when we looked at the market in 1996, we noticed that 25 to 30 percent of the market was only buying computers through retailers.

"So we decided then that it was time to bring the built-to-order computer locally to our consumers," he said. "And so far, it's worked very well for us."

Gateway opened a store in Augusta Exchange shopping center in December. It is now one of 148 throughout the country, said Mr. Lund.

But for Jimmy Bennett, who has owned Augusta-based independent computer store Computer One for 14 years, being able to purchase a personalized computer in Augusta is nothing new.

"Back in the early '80s, I realized that it would be very difficult for me to get a deal with the major vendors like Packard Bell and Hewlett Packard, since I was an independent seller," he said. "So I had to find another way to compete with the bigger chain stores. And offering customers the alternative of a custom-built computer even then was a great way to compete."

Today, nearly 95 percent of Mr. Bennett's business comes from custom-computer purchases. Half of the computers that he sells are built in his store.

"It's a service that's been around a long while in Augusta, and I'm proof of that," he said. "It's just now that the big boys are starting to get in on the action."

Not for everyone

Still, despite the recent popularity of customized computers, many dealers say the service will never completely overtake the sale of computers straight from the shelf.

"Most people want their computer now," said Mr. Campbell. "They don't want to have to wait a week or two to get it through the mail. They also don't want to have to send their computer off to have it worked on if something goes wrong.

"I guess it's just kinda like buying a car," he said. "If you're the type of person that would want to buy a car with all the extras exactly as you want it, then a built-to-order is what you need. If you want to buy the car at the dealership as is and drive away, though, it's really not for you."

Generally, presonalized computers cost more ecause the buyer is adding features, he said.

Preston Sparks can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 110.