There are many varied experiences with Mail-Order. My personal experience with mail order has been pretty good, but there are pitfalls. My most recent experience was with ClubMac, but the experiences were not atypical with other mail order places as well -- and there is good and bad in Everything.
Since ClubMac was very close to my home, I've dealt with them since their opening. In general I get good experiences with companies like this, and do recommend to many that they consider mail-order as a viable option -- but there are caveats.
My New Toy
I bought a PowerBook 1400 and I must say this is a great machine -- I am impressed. I put 60 Meg of RAM in it (more than my desktop machine). The RAM and computer were mail-order as well, and both of them were good experiences. The keyboard on the 1400 has the best "feel" of any laptop I've ever used, this is partly do to its firm but audible "click" -- which may make it annoying to those around you, but gives me nice tactile and audible feedback.
One of the less than perfect things about the 1400, is that it doesn't include ethernet. I have a cable modem (which is very cool) and the only way for me to connect to the internet is by connecting to my cable modem through an ethernet Network. So I needed an PC-CARD (PCMCIA) to correct this problem. Mail order again to the rescue.
I got out on the web, and surfed my favorite mail-order sites. ClubMac has a pretty good site, and I was able to find what I wanted.They had a discontinued model of ethernet card, for a great price ($75).
With mail order you are buying site unseen, so you must ask questions. Many of the people answering the phones have no clue as to what they are talking about -- so be very clear and use small words. If you don't know what you are buying, then do a little research before you buy. The clearer you are, and the more you know up front, the better experience you are likely to have. You can ask the sales-people, but the quality of the answers (and people) varies so much that you are gambling. If you build up a relationship with a particular company or salesperson this can improve the quality of your experience -- but many places are so high volume that this is impossible.
I called ClubMac and asked the sales person many specific questions about the card I wanted. Did it work on the 1400? Did I have to add a special driver? Did customers like this product? Would they recommend this or a different product? The salesperson responded that this particular card was good and inexpensive but MAY need a special driver to work on a 1400, but they weren't sure. They asked someone else, and still they weren't sure. So I got the manufacturers technical support number from the company to make really sure. This level of research is recommended if you have any concerns -- if you have a question about a product, then call the manufacturer, or read a magazine review.
I called the manufacturer of the card and asked them specifically about a "Macintosh PowerBook 1400, and special drivers". The tech. support person seemed a little clueless ("PowerBook? That's a Mac, right?"), but I let him look up the answer. He came back and stated that this card should work fine in a PowerBook and no special driver (Software) was required. This goes to show you that clueless people work at manufacturers as well as mail-order places -- but I still have much higher expectations from manufacturers because of their smaller variety of products.
So back to ClubMac I went. Yes, it would work, but I was not convinced by either companies technical answers. So I asked an important mail-order question -- "What is the return policy?" I was told 30 day money back guarantee. Good.If they don't have this, then I seldom buy from them.
I asked the next critical question - "Is there a restocking fee if it does not work for me?". The answer was "No restocking fee". Good, many places are charging restocking fees and I am particularly unfond of them.
Another important question - "Is it in stock, right now?". Many companies will not give you that piece of information unless you ask explicitly (and a few unscrupulous individuals will lie anyway). Ask clearly, that if you order now, when will it arrive on your doorstep. Do not be afraid to ask the employees name and number -- that discourages their lieing, and gives you someone in particular to complain about if the product does not arrive on time. (Again, in most cases products have arrived on time -- but it can be very frustrating when it does not).
So with all my questions answered properly, I ordered the card. The next day the card arrived -- as usual I got prompt service and was happily opening a box that was bigger than a bread box, yet contained a device the size of a credit card. I think there are secret mail-order awards given for the most packing material wasted.
I popped the card into my PowerBook, and the PowerBook ejected it after stating that it needed a special driver to work. $%@*(&$!!!
The manufacturer was still clueless about the driver, but more than that -- I had requirements that meant I didn't want to have a special driver, especially from a company that was not into Macs (my requirements are unique, in that I develop and run multiple OS's).
I called ClubMac back and tried to get a return authorization number for the device. Tech support was available quickly, and told me that I could get a special driver and the card would work (yet I had to go back to the manufacturer for that driver). Well I didn't want to do that -- that was the whole point of my questioning in the first place.
I explained my position and the history of the purchase to tech support, but they would not budge. There was a 15% restocking fee and I was going to pay it. I tried going over this guys head (getting the boss on the phone -- which sometimes works), but this guy was in charge of support. So on this device I got some grief, and I wasted for $10 in restocking fees (they lowered the fee slightly because I was complaining).
I will still buy mail order, and may even buy from ClubMac again. But they have moved to the bottom of my purchase list, and I trust them much less. I will give every other mail-order place first crack at my business, and if none of them can meet my needs, then I may give ClubMac a chance (if I can't find it locally). They have lost a lot of my business, and I also felt obligated to write an article explaining my experiences to others. I still think these experiences are rare, but they are out there.
My experience does demonstrate that you must be cautious when buying mail order. Even if you do everything right, you can still get products that you don't want. The more you know up front, the less likely you are to get conflicts later on. Don't be afraid to buy mail-order -- just know what you are getting. But this is also good advice for buying from a local dealer as well.
Arguing long-distance is more difficult than dealing with people and companies face-to-face. Overall, my bad experience was an anomaly. Most companies are reasonable, and even in this case it was the manufacturer that was the most at fault (for their incorrect information). Also remember that you get what you pay for. My effort to save a few bucks on a network card, cost me later on. Cheaper is not always better. You must balance quality and price -- whether mail-order or local.
None of these problems apply only to mail-order -- the experience can be as bad (or worse) in many local stores . Restocking fee's are becoming common there as well. In local stores I have met even more clueless sales people than over the phone. Local stores often have much smaller selections than mail order, and there are many products are not opened and the stores will not allow you to open them.So we consumers are forced to buy more and more "sight unseen", which means we consumers have to do more research up front. Also many times (both local and mail-order) the sales people are "spiffed" (payola) for selling certain products - be aware of that their interests may be different from yours.
With restocking fees, the age of "the consumer is always right" may be dead. The other side of the argument is that many people were abusing stores liberal return policies, and using them as "free rentals". So the age of the honest consumer seems to be dead as well.
Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) is the new age of purchasing -- so, do your homework, ask questions, and good luck. The more you know about what you want, and the clearer you are about it, the less likely you are to get something you do not want.
ADDENDUM: ClubMac read this article and a representative sent me eMail stating that they apologized for the error and that they value their clients satisfaction. They offered to refund the whole amount (no restocking fee). They had researched my call and explained the reasons for the confusion.
They found an error on their web page -- where they advertised a PC's Card in the Mac section, without clearly stating that the user has find the driver on their own. ClubMac has clearly informed their sales staff that this card does NOT work in a Mac unless the user finds the proper driver -- so my problem should not happen in the future.
The support person remembered my case and explained that when I spoke to him, I had stated that I didn't have time to chase down the correct driver. Since chasing down the driver was my responsibility, and the reason for the extremely discounted price, he felt that I should pay the restocking fee. What he said is true, but I had also explained that sales person had claimed there was NO restocking fee. I had also explained that I called the manufacturer before I purchased. So he is stating the truth, but I think he may have been in a hurry that day (as I was) and he only listened to part of what I was telling him.
ClubMac agrees that they should honor what their sales persons say, and that they should have given me credit anyway. That is why the corrected the problem.
The person that contacted me was very polite, and I believe sincere. They made the effort to contact me, they had done their research, and they have handled everything in a professional and courteous way. They weren't making excuses -- they just explained their point of view. They went a long way to soothe over a bad experience (for me), and I will probably give them another chance in the future.
This article is meant to point out pitfalls with ANY mail-order purchase (or purchases in general) and use my experience as an example -- though I was a bit pissed (see biased) at the time of the writing.