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Staples is advertising a Dell desktop with a 19-inch monitor for $549 after rebate. Best Buy is offering Toshiba Satellite notebooks computer for as low as $349. The new is sporting Acer notebooks for as low $330.

No surprise that personal computers have become commodity items. No matter how much processing power, memory and extra gadgets, the average sales price of desktops and notebooks continues to fall. Toshiba that once proudly boasted being the premium, valued manufacturer of Windows-based notebooks has lowered its altitude from the $2,500-plus price ban to as low as $500 for some machines. Even the ultralights—the machines we once exchanged big bucks to get shorter battery life and lighter weight—are falling below $1,000.

It’s equally no surprise that many small businesses are foregoing their value-added resellers in favor of buying from low-cost retailers such as Best Buy, CompUSA and MicroAge. PCs advertised in Sunday newspapers and through online ads often have lower sale prices and the added incentive of instant and mail-in rebates. If you can live with piano-finished cases and multimedia hot-buttons, these machines look like quite a bargain to small businesses.

But, as Daniel Haurey, president and CEO of Exigent Technologies in New Jersey, points out in his blog, small businesses are often getting more than what they think they’ve paid for.

“As manufacturers find new ways of cramming more and more stuff into smaller, cheaper devices, consumers can barely resist the eye-popping deals.  But more often than not, these bargain-basement devices are built for the home or student market and are completely inappropriate for business,” he wrote.

In recounting a conversation about a small business who bought a bunch of PCs from Staples instead of their trusted VAR, Haurey explains how PCs sold by retail often run on Windows Home Edition operating system, have copious amounts of games and “useless” utilities, and often cannot connect to business networks. They are, as he says, bloated and underpowered “complete dogs.”

Haurey is correct in his assertion that it’s the job of the VAR to inform business customers to the differences between consumer-level PCs and those optimized for business use. Even if the notebook or desktop appears to have the same specifications and functionality as a consumer machine, they often have subtle and not-so-subtle differences in their configuration, feature sets and performance.

As netbooks—the wondrous little Web appliances—continue to gain in popularity, VARs will need to present the counterarguments for why businesses should go with business-optimized machines or how to best incorporate low-power computers into their infrastructure.

No one is expecting PC sales to flourish. In fact, market data by Gartner and IDC indicate that the PC market is being propped up by netbook sales. VARs must get into the business of selling personal computers, justifying the expense of a higher price machine, selling configuration and add-on software and service, and providing the deployment and installation services. In other words, it’s about salesmanship.

As Haurey states in his blog, “At the risk of sounding pouty, let me clearly state that selling IT products is one of the more thankless jobs that we do as VARs.  But for the customers that truly get it and see the value in a VAR, it’s completely worth it.” The reason it’s worth it, I will add, is because those customers truly appreciate the relationship and value that the VAR brings to their organization. Businesses that are content with low-price retail products are typically not the customers VARs want, anyway. For them, do not deny them the joy of discovering their folly; they will come back eventually.

Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and group publisher of Channel Insider. Read his research reports at [CI] Perspectives.

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