Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 02/84 item 01 - scanned

THE RETAILING NIGHTMARE... (column)

I had an awful dream the other night. I had gone back a couple of years to the days when the computer business was full of rip-off artists and today's profit was all that counted. After all, no one really knew or cared whether they'd be here tomorrow.

In this dream, I was somehow transformed into a young, idealistic boy who had ridden out of school on the crest of a microcomputing craze complete with an 'O' level in computer studies. What better place to start my computer career than with local hero Paul Honey and his shop P HONEY COMPUTERS. Sadly, the P and the H had been painted rather close together on the shop sign, but this didn't seem to deter a constant flow of computer illiterates willing to part with their cash.

The first inkling I had that something was not quite right was when one of the lads -'engineers' they're called when there are customers around - was mucking about with a screwdriver and managed to put a six-inch scratch in the top of a new computer. "Rub some boot polish into that, the punter won't notice till he gets home, then we can say that he must have done it," suggested Paul, our lovable boss. Gradually disillusionment set in.

One day Paul came in quite beside himself with glee. He'd made up a sign which offered subscriptions to a range of American magazines. I really couldn't understand what was so good about this wheeze until Paul explained that he would gain credibility by advertising American magazines but, more importantly, he would be able to send the punter eight or nine issues and then ask for a renewal. Hardly anyone would remember when they took out the subscription and, if they queried it he could always blame the Americans. I was beginning to wonder whether ethics existed in the microcomputer business.

Several people came in asking for a particular word processing package. It had reached the top ten best sellers in America but had not yet reached the UK. Paul seized his opportunity and got a copy mailed to him by a friend in New York. As soon as he got it, he made ten photocopies of the manual and several copies of the disks. "That should keep us going for a bit," he said, putting the manual prominently in the middle of the shop window.

Well, in a way he was right. The ten copies lasted about two hours. Everyone who enquired was given the same treatment. "I have a contract with the Americans to manufacture the disks and put them in proper manuals. Unfortunately, we were one manual short on the shipment so I've had to make a photocopy. Could you make do with that for now?" The punters were so anxious to get their hands on the product they agreed. Having hooked them thus far, Paul simply substituted pounds for dollars, saying "You can't get it cheaper, I'm the sole UK agent."

Such was the demand for a decent word processor that everyone meekly handed over their cash and rushed off to try out the programme. Word got around. Soon we were all working flat out, photocopying manuals and copying disks. By the fifth day, Paul decided to spend some of his ill gotten gains to get the manuals properly printed and bound, exactly like the American version. He started using the package as a bribe to sell machines.

"Free software with every machine" proclaimed his next banner. People flooded in. "Never knowingly undersold" his next poster screamed. Anyone who claimed that hardware was cheaper at another shop was offered more and more ripped-off software until the prices were apparently matched. As the American products started being imported by other people, he dropped the prices of the ripped-off programs until they were always about ten per cent below the cheapest.

One day we heard on the grapevine that one of the computer ranges was going to be dumped by its manufacturer. Suddenly, everyone who walked in the door was offered this particular machine as "the perfect solution" to their computing needs. Questions about support and falling sales in America were countered with "No, this sort of company just can't go out of business. It's too big." Most people fell for it. They were obviously unaware that American companies are often prepared to subject themselves to drastic surgery.

Indeed, within a fortnight of selling all the stock, the computer side of that company's business had been closed. All the poor punters with the perfect solution had to lump it. Shops with remaining stock had to sell it off at cost to keen hobbyists. Paul just treated unhappy customers with "How do you think I feel? You only got caught with one of the machines," implying he had a store room full of them.

One extremely angry customer was demanding to see Paul, in fact he had seen Paul duck into the toilet to avoid him. Paul was mumbling through the door for me to tell the man that he was out. I was just trying to decide whether to go to the customer or to resign, when I woke up.

The strange thing is that could have been true. Once.