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Buying computer gear in the 80s and 90s

Today we take buying online for granted. You pull up a web site, find what you want, and in a couple of clicks, you put it in your virtual cart and pay for it. It’s fast and convenient. It was very different in the 80s and 90s. Better? Maybe. Maybe not. But definitely different.

Buying in the store vs. buying over the phone

Buying computers in the 1980s

Over the course of a couple of decades, I ordered a lot of stuff from magazine ads like this one.

Of course I bought a lot of stuff in the store, and it’s good for me a lot of other people did too. My second job was selling computer stuff at retail. If you lived in the big city, this was convenient, of course. You could get what you wanted that day, and if you didn’t know exactly what you needed, the salesperson would try to help you. Having been one of those salespeople, I know some of us were better at that than others. Those of us who were good ended up working in IT. Those who were less good ended up in other departments.

But you could get a better selection, and sometimes a much better price, by buying over the phone. Dozens, if not hundreds, of computer dealers advertised in magazines, offering a bigger selection, lower prices, and sometimes both. There was even a thick magazine called Computer Shopper. You might not believe me, but people bought that magazine for the ads. The articles were good, but it was 75% ads, and it attracted all of the bargain-basement dealers. Some people read the articles but no one bought it for them, just like some other magazine you might have heard of.

The bigger dealers also published their own catalogs. When you ordered from them, they’d pack one in with your order, and they might even send them to you. The catalog offered even more selection than what was in the magazine ads, and usually with a better description.

Buying over the phone

gray market IBM PC ad

The discounted IBM PCs in this ad were almost certainly gray market. Discounters bought surplus machines from dealers who ordered too many and sold them at too-good-to-be-true prices. It was genuine, and legal, but IBM wouldn’t honor the warranty.

Buying over the phone was a different experience.You got a better selection at better prices, as long as you were willing to wait. But if you didn’t live in a big city, it might be your best option anyway. Some of the stuff was cheap because it was closeout, or gray market, or lower quality. But the majority of it was the same stuff you could get in the stores. But without the overhead of a showroom, they could offer better prices.

I remember flipping through magazines, taking notes on who had the best price on whatever it was I wanted. I’d take notes, then when I’d finalized my decision, I’d pick up the phone. Or, when I was younger, my dad would pick up the phone. We’d dial a number, and a person picked up on the other end. We’d tell him or her what we wanted, and usually they’d try to upsell us. Usually I’d deflect that, but not always.

Sometime around 1994 or 1995, I ordered a motherboard from Treasure Chest Computers, which also did business as Motherboards For Less. I had my eye on the cheapest motherboard that would do the job. “You should really get an Asus board,” the guy on the other end said. “They’re much better.” The price difference was fairly significant, but not ruinous. We might have been talking $179 versus $199. I let him talk me into it, and that’s how I discovered Asus. Needless to say, I’m glad we had that conversation.

Sometimes things went wrong, too, but then again, that happens when you buy retail too.

The dotcom shift

Then the Internet came along and changed things. It didn’t happen all of a sudden, but it wasn’t long after I got that Asus board that the Internet went commercial. Tom’s Hardware Guide came along, and companies like TC Computers stood up nascent web sites and advertised their specials on sites like Tom’s. They still offered an 800 number, but if you knew exactly what you wanted, you could usually order online, save the phone call, and your stuff showed up a few days later. It took a few years for people to get comfortable with the idea, but that transition was really what the dot-com boom was all about.

In the early 2000s, I worked for a place that was convinced it could get rich by registering domain names with everything it could think of, preceded with the letter “e.” And that’s how I became the DNS administrator for, along with about 140 other names, most only slightly less ridiculous.

Needless to say, had a better business plan. And once the public separated the fly-by-nights and the wannabes from the ones who had staying power, buying online became pretty normal. The idea of having to pick up the phone and talk to someone to buy something sounds weird to my kids.

The anti-dotcom today

All these memories got triggered because I stepped into a time warp this month. I’ve owned an Atari 800 for a while, but decided not long ago that I wanted to actually use it, rather than just staring at it sitting on a shelf. That meant I needed a video cable, but I also needed storage. I tried to buy an Atari 1050 disk drive locally, but when that fell through, I bought an “untested” one off Ebay. If you’re unfamiliar with “untested,” it loosely translates to, “I couldn’t make it work.”

I’ve been familiar with Best Electronics for years, but, being mostly a Commodore guy, I’ve never needed to order from them. Best Electronics bought out Atari’s inventory of parts in the 90s, so they’ve always been the go-to for Atari parts ranging from Pong to Jaguar. They had the most reasonable price I could find on a power supply and data cable for the 1050, so I called them up.

“Best Electronics,” a male voice answered.

“Hi, I’d like to place an order?” I said.

He asked me to wait while he grabbed a piece of paper. “What’ll it be?” he asked when he returned.

I asked for a 1050 power supply and an Atari SIO cable. He asked me what kind of computer I was using it with. When I said an 800, he warned me that the two power supplies were interchangeable, but the 800’s power supply might not be enough to power the 1050, so keep track of what was what.

At the end of the conversation, he asked for a credit card number. Visa or Mastercard, of course. I read him the number, gave him my name and address, both of which I had to spell twice because phones cut out sometimes, and that was that. Old-fashioned service in more ways than one, and old-fashioned problems.

It’s OK to be old-fashioned sometimes

But something about buying parts for a computer from 1983 exactly the way my dad and I would have bought them in the mid 80s was oddly satisfying. That, and having a near-infinite supply of parts nobody else has is part of Best Electronics’ appeal. Talk about an example of the infinite game.

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1 thought on “Buying computer gear in the 80s and 90s”

  1. There was another option for buying computers and computer parts back then: retail computer shows. The show operator would book a convention center hall in a low cost location for a day (not one in a major city center, those cost too much) and sell space to dealers that would set up shop. Prices were similar to mail/phone order prices, and you could see what you were buying and take it home with you. You had to pay tax but didn’t have to pay for shipping, so sometimes you came out ahead on that trade. It would cost a few dollars to get into the show but you could save many times that because of lower prices.

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