Top Shopping Sites for Your Tech and Office Needs

By Jamie Bsales | Posted December 23, 2008

Yes, money is tight, but unless you are planning on folding up your tent in the current downturn, you still need to spend money to keep your business humming. The trick is to find places to shop that offer the best value, and that often means an online retailer. So we set out to identify the best shopping sites to cover all your business essentials—sites that offer not just a great selection or low prices—or even both—but those that go the extra mile to help you make the most of your hard-earned dollar.

“Business owners tend to care much more about service than everyday shoppers,” notes Daniel de Grandpre, CEO at DealNews.com “So gravitate to stores that combine aggressive prices with a reputation for good service.”

Amazon.com screenshot
Between its in-house departments and third-party merchants, Amazon.com offers the Web’s widest assortment of office essentials.
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For its part, dealnews.com has a staff of professional deal-hunters that unearth and evaluate the latest sales and promotions from leading online and bricks-and-mortar retailers. The site doesn’t sell anything; rather it points you to the hottest current deals in categories such as electronics, computers and accessories, business machines, office furniture and supplies and many more.

The key is experience: Because the editors have seen all the recent advertised specials for a given product, they can relay just how compelling a certain current price is. And dealnews won’t post a deal from a site with a history of poor customer service, no matter how low the price.

Another piece of advice from de Grandpre: “A good price comparison engine is an essential tool for a small business owner,” he said. “PriceGrabber.com is the best overall price comparison engine for technology items, although for office supplies, ShopZilla and Shopping.com are as good if not better.”

As for red flags, de Grandpre is not a fan of rebates. “Small business owners should avoid mail-in rebates,” he says. “First, they typically can only be redeemed by individuals, not businesses. Plus, since cash flow is so key for a small business, ‘lending’ a store money while it processes your rebate claim is an unacceptable proposition.”

CDW.com screenshot
For tech advice in addition to products, CDW.com is unmatched.
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For this list we opted for merchants that sell a range of brands, rather than just those of the sponsoring manufacturer. For example, if you have your mind set on a Dell, HP, Toshiba or Apple computer or peripheral, each of those companies offers an excellent shopping site and top-notch customer service. You can even score a deal if you troll through the “outlet” offerings. But for a more varied selection of brands, our favorites are as follows.

Amazon.com

Amazon.com didn’t become the largest online retailer by accident. It did so by offering a huge selection, low prices and an excellent shopping experience. Finding what you need is exceptionally easy given the breadth of products Amazon offers, thanks to a handy list of departments on the site’s home page. From the Computers & Office category you can drill down into computers and accessories or into office products and supplies. Choose the department you need, and you’ll land on a page that narrows the categories still further. Naturally, if you know what you’re looking for, simply type it into the omnipresent search bar at the top of every page.

Amazon’s product selection is exceptional. In Office Products, for example, the site lists sub-categories for paper, toner and ink, printers, telephones, copiers, computers, office furniture and dozens more. The site also offers a convenient ink and toner finder, which features drop-down lists so you can simply select your make and model of printer. The prices are also hard to beat, and we especially love browsing the Outlet Deals sections for PCs and office electronics.

As with other sites these days, Amazon features customer reviews on select products, so you can see what others thought before you buy. Another helpful feature: When you’re viewing a particular item, Amazon shows you similar items that like-minded shoppers have also viewed. This is especially helpful if you know what type of product you’re after (for example, a mesh office chair) but not a particular make or model. 

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With Staples.com, you can order online and return purchases to one of the company’s 1,500 stores if necessary.
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One thing to keep in mind is that many products are not sold directly by Amazon, but rather through partners. When you select an item, you’ll see the message that it is sold and shipped by Amazon, or you’ll see a price range and a link entitled “Available from these sellers.” Following the link shows all the sellers offering your item along with the price and—most importantly—their feedback rating.

Amazon offers its “A-to-Z Guarantee” if you purchase from an Amazon Marketplace partner via Amazon.com, so you’re covered if you get a product that is materially different from what was advertised, arrives damaged and so on. One caveat: Amazon’s Super Saver free shipping offer, which applies to many of orders of $25 or more, does not apply with merchandise handled by third parties, so be sure to watch the shipping charges.

CDW.com

For all things technical, your first online stop should be CDW.com. Once called Computer Discount Warehouse, CDW’s strength is not just its selection of PCs, peripherals and software—which is impressive—but also the knowledge of its sales associates. Set up an account, and you’ll be assigned an account manager and have access to tech specialists who can answer your questions and not just sell you a product. They'll put all your technology purchases into context so you can build a coherent infrastructure.

CDW offers technical advice in nine technology areas, including mobility/wireless, security, networking, storage, telephony and more. You also get access to CDW’s unique resource center that offers articles, case studies, Webinars and podcasts on technology-related subjects.

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Buy.com manages to score hot deals that are generally unmatched by competitors.
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As for the shopping experience, the site is very well organized—a must given that CDW offers more than 100,000 products at any given time. CDW offers customized home pages for small/home office buyers, small businesses (20 to 99 employees), medium/large businesses, non-profits and healthcare. Each entry in the extensive Products list offers a more detailed list of categories to help you hone in on the type of product you’re looking for. And at any point if you become overwhelmed, you can ask for help via online chat or by calling CDW’s toll-free number.

With its buying power and clout, CDW is at the front of the line when a manufacturer releases a new product, and the company claims it maintains the largest in-stock inventories in the business. We also like that CDW offers leasing options on most purchases, so you can bundle hardware, software and services into one predictable monthly payment.

Staples.com

The fact that Staples is the second-largest online retailer in the U.S. behind Amazon says something—namely that a lot of small business owners like the bricks-and-mortar store enough to cruise the company’s online aisles, too. The no-nonsense interface features large category headings for Office Supplies, Technology and Furniture, with links to 18 sub-categories below each. This completeness must have driven an art director batty—lots of small blue type hardly makes for a slick-looking site—but it also means that busy shoppers (that’s you) can get to the right category with fewer clicks than on any site we’ve seen.

In addition to the Products tab, the home page offers a dedicated Ink & Toner tab for quickly finding those supplies, as well as a tab for “specials” showing weekly and clearance deals. The site also features a link to the company’s copy and print services, which let you upload a job via the Internet and pick it up at any of 1,500 Staples locations.

Beyond the vast selection and intuitive shopping, the thing we like best about Staples.com is its no-hassle return policy. Office supplies and unopened software can be returned for any reason for a full refund. Technology products and furniture can be returned within 14 days. Best of all, you can buy online and return an item to a store, which alleviates one of the biggest headaches of online shopping. If at any point you need help, the toll-free number for customer service is posted in the upper right corner of each of the site’s Web pages.

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For the techie in you, NewEgg.com has a wide array of computer hardware and software.
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Buy.com

Buy.com’s claim to fame is its incredibly low prices. You won’t get the technical advice and handholding before you buy a computer product that you will with CDW, but you’re assured of getting a good deal if you find it at Buy.com.

The site’s home page offers category listings that cover everything from apparel to toys. Since 90 percent of it likely doesn’t apply to running your business, we recommend bookmarking either the Buy for Business sub-page or the Computers & Office sub-page as your landing pad to cut through the clutter. Each of those areas offers a detailed list of sub-categories to narrow your search further.

Buy.com offers everything from PCs and cell phones to projectors and components. You can browse by category or by brand. Feeling lucky? A Deals tab at the top of the interface links to daily and weekly specials, which are usually remarkable. The site also offers Buying Guides and reviews of tech products from TechRadar.com and other blogs.

NewEgg.com

While newegg.com is a favorite among do-it-yourself geeks into modifying their PCs, that’s not to say it doesn’t offer a lot for the rest of us. The site specializes in computers (including Apple products), components, software, digital cameras, cell phones, networking hardware and consumer electronics. You can browse by brand or by product category, and as with similar sites, NewEgg offers killer daily specials.

The well-designed site provides tabs along the top for its major categories as well as a category listing at the bottom of the home page with links to subcategories. Our favorite place to spend a few idle minutes is in the Specials area, where NewEgg lists recertified and open-box products it gets from manufacturers. (We might not be willing to pay $1,100 for a new Toshiba projector, but for $597 for an open-box unit, we’re tempted…)

As one might expect of a company born solidly in the Web era, the preferred manner to interact with a customer support rep should you need assistance is via the site’s live chat feature. That said, the company offers toll-free support weekdays from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Pacific time. Our only complaint: NewEgg’s return policy is fairly rigid, requiring that all returns be issued an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization) number before you ship it back. No RMA, no return.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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