The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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A Retail Computer Store? You Gotta Be Kidding!! (Initial experience, Where do we do from here)

graphic of page

The ability to develop, troubleshoot, and maintain
hardware and software is a must, as is the ability to
speak (or at least listen) intelligently about pertinent
matters on a consultation basis. And again, due to the
very nature of our product, user community support is
of utmost importance. The public must understand or
feel that they will be given the chance to understand.

We offer, for example, free introductory classes (both
hardware and software) to the purchasers of our units,
with only a nominal charge to non-purchasers. For the
do-it-yourselfer, an hour (at least) each evening is set
aside for him to bring in his under-the-weather Altair
and get free troubleshooting. Other community functions include the active
support of the local microcomputer hobbyist club, one of the largest of its kind
in the
nation. We also have gained the reputation as being a
local depository of technical computer-related
brochures and publications. Keeping abreast of the
latest price changes and new product offerings is
necessary for our survival.

October and November of 1975 were spent building and
furnishing the store. During this period, we noticed a faint
quickening of the public pulse at the shopping center where
we are located. More and more people stopped by to talk and
find out what type of place this was going to be. In
November we were already working out of a half-finished
store front. Finally, after months of preparation, we opened
the doors on December 20, 1975. Since then the experiences have been truly
remarkable. We have run the
gamut from uproarious laughter to the utter frustration that
seems destined to accompany any business operation.

Problems? They occur by the dozens. Basically, however,
they can be classified into one of two areas; either problems
that are common to all small businesses, or problems
unique to computer stores.

The largest obstacle we have had to overcome is our own
lack of business experience. Initially this didn't seem too
important, but since then we evolved our own form of
Murphy's Law: lf something can be done wrong-we will do
it wrong; and just to be sure, we'll do it wrong two different
ways. We have certainly not been immune from the various
small ailments that plague small businesses - lack of
management expertise, supply problems, cash flow, bad
checks, you name it. At times these daily problems seem to
outweigh and overwhelm everything else, causing us to
occasionally have to reach down deep and rely on a certain
humor to see us through. One of our pet diversions is
coming "Anti-Slogans" that seem to fit the mood. We have
a few classics, such as:

"Progress - We Sneer At The Term"

"Problems Are Our Most Important Product"

"Where Concepts Become Confusion-And Confusion
Becomes A Way Of Life."

The other issues with which we deal are those unique to
computer stores. First, there is the basic task of letting
people know what we're trying to do. To the average person
who walks in off the street. we usually have to tell them that
even though they can be used as such, we're not selling
calculators. Then we have to expect two stock questions,
"What kind of place is this?", and 'Well, what can you do
with these computers?"

At first we would stammer around trying to pull together
good answers, but by now it's practically a conditioned
response. We hear one of these questions and bang! Put the
old mind into AUTO and crank up the song and dance
routine. I mean, we've got it down pat!

To characterize our typical customer is impossible.

Applications range from monitoring water levels in the
depths of a sewer, to writing payroll checks, to controlling a
model railroad in someone's basement. Users include
extremely sophisticated systems programmers as well as
complete computer novices. Actually, it's less frustrating
dealing with a complete novice who is somewhat awed by
computers than it is to deal with an IBM 370 programmer
who views microcomputers as "Toys." When this happens
(and it does happen), we just take them in our computer
room and show the business system on which we perform
our accounting and inventory control (Altair 88OOA, 40K of
memory, dual disk units, video terminal and printer, all built
into a custom desk). lt's almost frightening when you think
it's all based on a $30.00 microprocessor.

Our biggest miscalculation seems to have been just how
much time is required by the computer novice. We tend to
forget just how much there is to know about computers
until we try to explain things to someone who thinks that a
terminal is actually the computer. We've literally spent
hours passionately pleading the case of Microcomputers to
someone only to hear "Well, l'm really only in here killing
time while my wife is shopping."

And the joys of Kit-building. Ah, there's a story in itself.

Someone buys a Kit, puts it together overnight, it doesn't
work, he screams, and brings it in muttering "damn crappy
equipment." Usually, the next thing we hear is "What do
you mean, bad solder joints? I went to the NASA soldering
school." Still, we have a certain obligation to help each
customer get his system up and running. We've tried to
accomplish this by setting aside a certain time each day.

(6:00-7:OOPM), during which we have a free software and
hardware clinic. During this time anyone can bring in their
sick machines and/or programs and we'll give them a hand.

The latest issue we've had to deal with is the "software
vacuum." People are discovering that after the machine is
working, the real uses are just beginning. Canned programs
are fine (programs written and debugged by someone else).

but when it comes to writing one's own programs - well,
there's more to software than meets the eye. To combat this
situation, we have started a series of programming lectures
entitled, The Art Of Creative Computer Programming." This
series is aimed at providing a novice programmer with
insights about programming and a set of software tools and
tricks to tackle his own programming project.

In a year's time computer stores have evolved from a few
timid, rather speculative ventures to a firmly established
concept. The first generation of stores are highly individualized with each
having a different emphasis. In filling
out the scorecard on ourselves, l would have to say that we
set some very idealistic, but unrealistic, goals. But, there's
no substitute for experience, and even with somewhat
altered goals, our enthusiasm and energy still runs high.

What about the overall industry? The approaches offered
by the differing stores are quite varied. At one extreme is the
store that attempts to act primarily as a computer
supermarket, emphasizing a broad assortment of equipment for the customer. The
other extreme is taken by stores
that emphasize primarily their service and support. Of
course, this is actually a continuum. As computers become
easier to use, as the general public becomes more aware,
and as the software vacuum is filled, the tendency will be to
move towards the supermarket concept. In these early
stages, however, education, service, and installing consumer confidence must be
paramount to all other 

Would we do it over again? You can bet your solid-state
bippies that we would. Each of our successes, whether a
simple home computer or an intricate industrial system,
causes feelings of pleasure and accomplishment. The
dream of readily available computer power is now
becoming a reality and we are sharing, and hopefully
helping, in the transition.

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