Friday, December 28, 2012

Buying a Laptop from Walmart: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

From time to time, I am called upon to help people buy new computers especially laptops. I always start by asking three questions: what do you want to use it for, how much can you spend, and how much are you willing to spend.  The answers that I receive usually give me a good idea of not only what type of laptop to recommend but also the best place to buy it. Surprisingly, Walmart is actually a decent place to buy a new laptop for most people. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit different Walmart stores in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee during my travels. Being the geek I am, I decided to compare my experiences and observations.

The Good
Laptops on clearance
The most obvious good thing about buying a laptop from Walmart is that you know that the price will be low. Nowadays, you can get a decent laptop from Walmart for under $500. I have seen laptops that were priced as high as $898, but after a few weeks/months many were marked down as much as $200 or more. Most recently, some Walmart stores have started carrying several popular laptop models from Acer, Samsung, and ASUS. It's more than the bulky HP, Dell, and Gateway models that their stores have been known to carry in the past. What's even better is that when newer models are released, older models are marked down. Let's not forget that as the Christmas holidays approach, laptops are one of the many items that can be placed on layaway. Where else can you put a laptop on layaway?



The Bad
Laptops in locked cases

This is where the shopping experience differs between Walmart and more technology-focused retailers such as Best Buy or Office Depot. Unlike Best Buy, where you can walk in, pick up a laptop, sample the keyboard quality, get an idea of how much it weighs, and perform other hands-on tests to help in making your purchasing decision, the experience at Walmart will vary from store to store. Some stores (a very small number) actually provide an experience that is very similar to Best Buy. However, the majority of Walmart stores I went into provided a far from helpful experience when looking for a laptop to buy. Many of the laptops were physically locked down, unable to be picked up by a customer. In some stores, the laptops are kept behind a dirty, scratched plastic case like a jewelry store. Look but don't touch. I had to find an Walmart associate to unlock the case so that I could get my hands on the laptop. In other stores, many of the laptops had broken screens, would not turn on, or had keyboards with half the keys missing. I even went into one Walmart store that had all the laptops covered in clear contact paper that looked a hot mess (yeah, I said "hot mess"). 


Covered with contact paper
Missing keys

Broken Screen
  
The Ugly
If you do decided to purchase a laptop from Walmart, don't expect much help in making your decision. Unlike Best Buy, there is not a Walmart equivalent to the Geek Squad. You are on your own if you have questions about the CPU, RAM, hard drive, etc. I have yet to go to a Walmart electronics department in which the associate could provide helpful advice to me or any consumer looking to buy a laptop other than typical "I like this brand" response. At times I was given the wrong information or overheard misinformation given to a customer. On more than one occasion, at different stores, I have been told by employees that they don't work in that department when asked a question about a laptop and I would have to wait until someone who could answer my questions comes into work. I can at least give them points for being honest.

Bottom-line is that with some research beforehand, anyone can get a decent laptop at a good price from Walmart. However, if you need guidance, a more technology-focused store like Best Buy would be the better choice. Furthermore, while Walmart usually has cheaper prices, it does not have a large selection like Best Buy. Buying a laptop from Walmart really depends on if you just want a simple, everyday laptop or if you want something with the latest technical bells and whistles.