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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why I didn't buy a Dell

They NEARLY got me.

I needed a new laptop, actually my first laptop, now that my job has become a little more mobile. Dell seemed the obvious choice. They are a close second in the notebook market behind HP (20% and 15% of the market respectively - 2006 figures, e.g. see here) and they have a great attraction for the small business and home user, for many of whom Dell is almost a synonym for "new PC".

Building your dream Dell
Have you been through the process of choosing a computer through Dell's site(s)? It really is a rewarding process, you get to customize your PC, even notebook, in many ways, all through a beautiful Ajaxy interface. An extra gig of memory, why not? 250Gb hard drive instead of 160Gb? Could come in handy... Add Bluetooth for just an extra $10-$15? Why, you'd be a fool not to.

By the end, you have the feeling the notebook you have chosen is very much "your own", although it must be said you will also notice a marked increase in the price from when you were offered the initial configuration. Heartbreaking decisions will have to be made - perhaps you don't really need Vista Ultimate...

Souper coupons
But wait, the greatest excitement is yet to come! The price you get at the end is pretty reasonable in itself, but what's this?! Dell have in their boundless generosity knocked a couple of hundred dollars off the price! A discount, just like that! You didn't even ask for it! Enough to make you press the BUY button without further ado.

But you would be a fool to do so! Why, Dell don't stop there with their reckless magnanimity! If you hunt around on the net you will quickly come across sites offering Dell coupons - special offers provided through their affiliates (but also easily found on their site, to be perfectly frank) which give you even more insane discounts. All you have to do is key in the special code you are given before "checkout" and the special super-duper, we're-robbing-ourselves, practically-giving-them-away discount will be applied.

Why I didn't buy a Dell
OK, let's get serious. There is this constant lingering suspicion that this whole marketing strategy of Dell's is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a con. If not a con, then some rather devious marketing which borders on a dubious business practice.

1) For one thing, by the time you have "built" your configuration, applied all the widely advertised discounts (i.e. if you bought a Dell without a hefty discount then you were REALLY had!) and had a jolly good, fun, interactive time doing it, there is this distinct sense, confirmed by comparison with other manufacturers, that you could have got an equivalent HP or Toshiba for a very similar price.

2) There is another niggle, and that is a trick which I shall call Price Dellification, though there may be another more official phrase for it. This is the technique of constantly changing discounts and offers from month to month such that actually the final price paid by the customer stays pretty much the same. It might work like this:

- June: get an extra free gig of memory thrown in, while a bigger hard-drive, webcam etc. etc. are paid for additionally
- July: suddenly, the extra memory is no longer free, but delivery IS now free.
- August: delivery is no longer free, but the memory offer is back.

Need I go on? Prices of individual components are constantly reshuffled, but the final price, and margin earned by Dell essentially stay constant, but in this way Dell avoid breaking any trading laws which stipulate that to claim that a product is discounted, it must previously have been on sale at the full price for a certain period of time.

3) This is the straw that broke the camel's back for me: I received an email from Dell after the New Year offering a flat 10% discount - I quote, "Offer valid on all desktops and notebooks with minimum order value £599" (I was buying in the UK). Now that sounded like an offer worth taking up. I got to the checkout, my configuration WAS in excess of that amount, even excluding tax (I was aiming for a Vostro 1700). Yet when I tried to apply the 10% coupon I was told that this offer was not compatible with another offer already applied. What was this offer? Some kind of £20 off voucher that I had never applied. I tried to remove this, reasoning that 10% off was better than £20 off (call me a super-savvy shopper, or maybe a maths wizz), but it was not possible to delete this "discount", which was firmly attached to this computer. Nowhere could I determine where it was stipulated that the Vostro 1700 was excluded from the 10% off discount and that the customer would be opted-in to this £20-off "offer". The end result was that there was NO way that I could find to apply "my" 10% discount.

Now, this is not intended to become a personal gripe, so I will leave you to reason through my thought process upon being treated in this way.

I bought an off-the-peg Toshiba P200 Satellite from Pixmania UK for an absolutely awesome price, even finding a £40-off voucher at the last minute. It took some work to find it, but I am very happy I did. It even has an international warranty, which I very much need, unlike Dell, who evidently don't like ANY form of export of their machines. Also, Pixmania participate in the VAT retail export scheme, meaning I can reclaim the tax, which really does make this buy a bargain, on paper, not just "on screen".

I could be horribly slandering Dell here so let me just summarize what I am saying - do NOT be taken in by agressive marketing and discounting by any manufacturer. The choice is YOURS when buying anything and you have every opportunity, thanks to the Internet, of making extremely informed decisions. Buy a Dell by all means, but don't get Dellified. And if you have any experience or comment, please share them here by all means. I know I had ample opportunity to buy a Dell, but did not, even though I have never bought a laptop before. Am I the only one?

Check out Toshiba Satellites on It's Gotta Be Red. Not a coupon in sight...