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September 3, 1995

Bargain hunters converge
on computer fairs

By Timothy C. Barmann

It's 8:30 on a Sunday morning and the line has begun to form on the long cement ramp inside the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

As more people trickle in and the line grows, the buzz gets louder with talk about motherboards, quad-speed drives and SIMM prices.

It's 1 1/2 hours before show time and the bargain hunters are ready.

This is the computer fair, where hundreds of enthusiasts are about to converge to buy computer stuff - hard drives, video cards, monitors, CD-ROM drives, computer books and software - all at cut-rate prices.

With these brand-new components, almost anyone with a screw driver, some technical know-how, and a little nerve can upgrade their IBM compatible computer.

If you're really ambitious, you can buy the parts and build a computer from scratch. The less adventurous can buy preassembled systems as well.

"It's like a flea market," says Lili Chen, as she looks over rows of shrink-wrapped software CDs she is selling for a Great Neck, N.Y., distributor.

Chen is among about 50 vendors - large and small - from throughout New England. They've set up tables with handwritten and laser-printed signs to sell their wares.

The shows are held at different sites in the Northeast nearly every weekend of the year. There is one in Rhode Island about every other month.

"We all travel from state to state like a traveling circus," says Chen.

Indeed, it is a circus-like atmosphere as customers pour into the show shortly after it opens at 10 a.m.

By 11, the aisles are so jammed with people that they are barely passable. And in an odd twist of roles, customers sometimes compete with each other for the attention of a salesperson.

Why would anyone put themselves through this madness? It's simple: Price.

Items can be purchased here at prices well below those found in retail outlets.

"I just bought Microsoft Dinosaurs for $54 at Wal-Mart," says Lori Cullers, who drove to CCRI from Pawcatuck, Conn., to look over some software CDs. "It's $21.95 here."

Khan Vo, manager of Signature Computers of Warwick, says his show prices are at least 10 percent less than other computer outlets. And they're even lower than what he regularly charges at his Jefferson Boulevard store, he says.

Why sell at such low prices?

"Free advertising," says Jim Ho, manager of Spectrum Computers of Groton, Conn.

Ho says most of his company's business comes from corporate accounts. Some of his corporate customers learned of Spectrum from employees who bought home computers at these shows.

One possible drawback to buying at a computer show is follow-up support.

While a few of the vendors are Rhode Island companies, most are from out of state. If you have a problem with your purchase, you'll probably have to pay for long-distance phone calls to get help. And if you have to return your purchase, there are shipping charges.

But Joe Bettencourt, a Cape Cod resident who is a frequent customer of computer shows, says he has had good luck dealing with a Flushing, N.Y., vendor. That company, he says, sent him by overnight mail a missing disk for a computer he had bought from them.

Wayne Cogan, show manager for Tri-State Computer Fairs, the Avon, Conn., outfit that runs the CCRI show, says he screens vendors very closely to make sure they are reputable.

Near the end of the afternoon, more than a 1,000 customers have come and gone. Douglas and Rita Coyle of Middletown are about the last to leave. Douglas carries a bag stuffed with a $200 CD-ROM drive and sound card, and some software CDs.

Rita, a dispersing clerk for the U.S. Navy, says the couple had been wanting to buy a sound card for two years and finally made the leap this time, during their first trip to a computer show.

Douglas, who is a woodworker and cabinetmaker for Little Harbor Marine in Portsmouth, is planning to install the new devices in their computer himself. He says he's not really that nervous about it.

"All you have to do is plug it in," he says. "That's my hope, at least."

Buying tips

Coming shows

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.