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Secret Shopper: Best & Worst Notebook Retailers

The best and worst big-box laptop retailers unmasked.


Office Depot

Delray Beach, FL & Emeryville, CA

After winding our way through the maze of printer cartridges, cell phone accessories, and furniture in Office Depot, we found the laptop aisle with its 20 systems, all fastened down with the typical plastic bars. There was only one staffer around and he was in midst of fixing a desktop PC for a customer.

Only after we approached the front door greeter and asked for assistance did Paul head our way, but he found another customer on his way over. We listened to the advice he offered; it was obvious he knew just enough about the inventory to be of assistance.

We interrupted and asked if there were any notebooks with USB 3.0. "Which computer were you interested in?" Paul asked. Any one with USB 3.0, we said. "I would need to go into each notebook's device manager with a manager's passcode," he replied with a forlorn look as he went back to assist the other customer.

The notebooks on display at Office Depot all had locked demos running, so there was no way to test them, pick them up, or use our USB flash drive. Another salesperson approached and we asked if any laptop in the store had a Blu-ray drive. None. "Is there any way to try out a specific notebook?" we asked. "No."

At the Emeryville, CA, store, we found Tyrone stocking shelves. We asked if he could help over in the laptop department. "Are you going to buy one today?" he demanded. "Perhaps, if it meets our needs," we told him. There were 20 systems displayed. We asked which was the right one for video and graphics editing. He pointed to an HP dv7, equipped with an AMD Phenom quad-core processor, 6GB RAM, and an AMD Radeon HD graphics chip with 512MB memory. Good call, Tyrone.

But again we were defeated when we asked if there were any laptops in the store with a Blu-ray drive or USB 3.0. Although the laptops were clamped down, it was possible to type on some and insert our USB drive. After deciding on a particular laptop at Office Depot, you take an inventory ID tag in front of the unit and bring it to the front cashier. It says "Remember Performance Protection Plan" right on the slip, but we experienced little to no sales pressure from the cashier.

Office Depot has a 14-day return policy, but if the box is opened only an exchange is offered. If you find a lower price with a smart phone shopping app, Office Depot will match the price, but only if it's from a local dealer and only after the price is verified by phone.

Laptop selection in each Office Depot store is limited to about 20 models from four major brands. User accessibility for testing was either limited or nonexistent. Hide-and-seek sales assistance matched the limited product knowledge of sales associates.

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