In my last column, I promised to share some of my recent buying experiences from various e-commerce sites. All things considered, the experience was pretty good.

When I launched my new company, before I filled out the Microsoft Solution Provider application, I needed some basic software. This included the Microsoft Office suite, Quickbooks Pro for accounting, ACT for contact management, and Winfax Pro for electronic faxing -- hardly an enterprise solution, but sensible for my new, scaled-back operation.

I checked with every conventional retailer I could find, but none came close to Buy.com’s price. I even drove across town to a CompUSA store to give them a chance to match Buy.com’s price because I prefer dealing face to face. But when the store clerk sniffed and said they won’t match prices with anyone on the Internet, I walked out and spent my money at Buy.com. It was a good experience. I ordered the software online, sent them a credit card number over a secure connection, and the software arrived at my house via UPS a few days later.

I was hooked.

After buying all that software, I needed somewhere to run it, and I needed a LAN with some servers so I could learn Windows 2000. An auction site had Compaq Proliant servers up for sale, but I decided to buy clone servers and a desktop from a local vendor instead. The Proliants would have been nice, but disks, memory, and other peripherals cost a fortune compared with generic equivalents.

I wanted a system to use as a dedicated fax server, so I bought an IBM PC 300 -- with a Pentium 200, 2.5-GB HDD, 32 MB memory, and Windows NT Workstation -- for about $240 from Egghead.com. At 32 MB of memory, the system is under-configured, but good enough for its single purpose. Delivery and service were no problem.

I also needed a laptop for traveling. I bought a Compaq Armada 6500 from Ubid.com for about $1,300 with shipping. It’s a nice laptop and sold for almost $4,000 in its day a few years ago.

I even tried the granddaddy of all auction sites, eBay.com, to get a 3Com 10/100 PCI NIC. Where Ubid.com and Egghead.com auction surplus and refurbished equipment, eBay seems to cater more to individuals. The problem with eBay is the time and hassle of the transaction because most people want a certified check or money order before they ship their product. I saved about $10, but I don't know if the weeklong delay in getting the adapter was worth it.

After hearing horror stories about Internet buying experiences, I was sure I would experience some first-hand horror myself. I’m happy to report I had no problems. I do, however, question some of my own decision making, especially with that under-configured IBM PC fax server, but that was not a major investment.

In fact, I was so pleased with my Internet experience that I recommended it to a friend. He called me on his cell phone from the CompUSA floor. They were set to sell him a laptop bundled with Microsoft Works and other software of limited value. He wanted to know if he was getting a good deal. I talked him into buying a Compaq Armada 6500, identical to mine.

That was where the rubber met the road.

When his laptop arrived, he reported that the integrated modem and NIC would not work. I looked at the unit and tried every troubleshooting step I could think of, all to no avail. I called a Compaq technical support representative and after nearly an hour of additional troubleshooting, we finally figured out that the system did not have a modem inside.

Here is where it got interesting. I called Ubid.com, which referred me to a company called 3Re.com. This company refurbishes equipment and sells it via auction sites. After explaining our problem, 3Re.com took back the laptop for repair -- they would not send out a replacement part. When the laptop came back, the hard drive was dead. They sent out a completely new unit after we called to complain.

The experience was a hassle, but the refurbisher did stand behind its product. And the hassle was no worse than I’ve encountered from more traditional vendors.

Lessons? First, these auctions represent capitalism at its best, and I’m convinced a new supply chain is forming in our economy for disposition of year-old equipment. But it's not for everyone, and the selection of equipment is limited. To use an auction site intelligently, research what you want and be willing to walk away from items in which bidders can’t control their hysteria.

It takes more time to buy products from auction sites than from traditional retailers, but the savings can be significant. Given a rational decision process and due diligence, these sites can be a nice alternative procurement channel. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Infrasupport Etc. Inc.(Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@infrasupportetc.com.

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