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The great online software hunt

July 9, 1998
Web posted at: 10:05 AM EDT

by Roberta Furger

(IDG) -- Have you shopped for software lately? I have, and let me tell you, it's not pretty. The stores are jam-packed with freestanding displays (don't even think about trying to maneuver through them with a shopping cart), merchandise is poorly organized, and the largely untrained salespeople might just as well be working at the In-N-Out Burger next door.

If you're looking for anything but the newest or best-selling games or productivity applications, you may want to save yourself the trip.

Consider my latest exercise in frustration: My kids came home a few weeks ago raving about a CD-ROM game called Backyard Baseball from Humongous Entertainment (of Putt-Putt and Freddi Fish fame). We're not exactly hurting for computer games at our house, but after a few weeks of their begging, I gave in and agreed to buy it. There was just one problem: We couldn't find it. Not at CompUSA, not at Target, not at Costco. It took half a dozen calls before I finally located it at a Computer City nearly 20 miles away.

As it turns out, my experience wasn't unique. Sure, the computer superstores are seemingly chock-full of inventory. CompUSA, for example, boasts that it stocks thousands of titles at a time. But don't be deceived by all the boxes blocking the aisles. Unless you're willing to rummage through the bargain bins, all you're likely to find are the latest "A" titles from the major publishers, along with a few perennial best-sellers.

"Usually about 20 percent of a software publisher's active titles are on the shelf at any time," says Jeffrey Tarter, publisher of Softletter, a semi-monthly newsletter covering the software industry. "If a customer goes to a store looking for one of the other 80 percent of the titles, they're in trouble." Of course, blockbusters like Myst can be found just about anywhere, even years after their initial release. But aside from such anomalies, even the biggest publishers find themselves fighting to keep most of their titles on the shelves.

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Just as cereal or detergent manufacturers pay premiums for eye-level shelf space in your local grocery store, software publishers are now paying big bucks to secure choice spots in your local computer superstore.

You don't have to look hard to see the effects of this recently booming business: IBM's end-of-aisle display (or "end-cap") tantalizes shoppers with ViaVoice Gold; Inoculan's crammed display pushes its new antivirus program; and there's no missing Quarterdeck's floor display at CompUSA, which takes up three-quarters of an aisle with bright yellow and red boxes of the company's many utilities. Nowhere is the rent-a-space system more obvious than in the educational software sections of many large retailers, where just about all the major players (Disney, Edmark, The Learning Company, Microsoft, and so on) have purchased space to display their latest offerings.

For consumers, the value of this trend is dubious at best. Comparison shopping becomes a time-consuming hassle when your options are spread across different displays. Take the case of antivirus software at my local superstore: IBM, Inoculan, Quarterdeck, and Symantec each have their own end-cap or floor display, but there's no one place to compare all the programs, since the store's utilities section doesn't have all of the antivirus software.

Dial 'S' For Software

Slowly but surely, the failure of the retail channel is driving both software publishers and consumers to the Web. In fact, last spring Egghead announced it was closing down its retail operations and moving its software sales online. And many software publishers' sites now let customers purchase not only their current hits but many of their older titles.

If comparison shopping is what you're after, cruise by one of the many independent online software stores, many of which stock thousands of titles. The prices are usually competitive with retail stores and, except for back-ordered items, products are shipped within a few days. Want a title even faster? Increasingly, online sites are making it possible for users to immediately download a copy of selected titles.

Besides being able to use the software right away, customers who download save on shipping charges and typically aren't required to pay sales tax. But they do have to pay extra for any documentation not included in the download.

Return policies vary by site. Some merchants, such as PC Connection, permit software returns only when the product comes with a money-back guarantee from the publisher. and Micro-Warehouse, on the other hand, accept returns of unopened software up to 30 days after purchase. And both Cyberian Outpost and allow refunds on their downloadable software (customers must, of course, delete the software from their systems).

Right now, online software sales represent only a small percentage of all software purchases, but that's changing. The local superstore may still be your best bet when you need a hot title right away and can't (or don't want to) download it. Otherwise, though, why not save the gas and skip the hassles by ordering online?

Buy It Online

Computer Discount Warehouse: This mail-order house turned Internet merchant has a respectable selection of both business and home software, including older titles and early versions of still-popular programs. You can search for programs by category, such as office suites, desktop publishing, games, and so on.

Cyberian Outpost: The Outpost's selection can't be beat--more than 120,000 products, including an outstanding collection of children's games and difficult-to-find business productivity titles.

The Edutainment Catalog: This excellent source for home entertainment and productivity software offers many older programs in addition to the latest hits.

MicroWarehouse: Besides the standard fare of current home and business programs, this site features a wide selection of education titles, as well as older versions of many popular business applications.

PC Connection: Less common business titles abound, but children's products are limited to the newer releases. You can search more than 30,000 software titles for both home and business by product name, category, or publisher. Many of the programs can be either downloaded or shipped.

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