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Consumer Guide: Where to Buy a New Mac

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You know you want a new Mac (s aapl), but where to buy? There’s no shortage of sources, but when it comes to getting great service and warranty support, the options narrow considerably. Here’s a list of where your money will go the furthest.

1. In Person from Apple Retail Stores

It’s a popular option, especially with Apple’s aggressive retail expansion of late. However, its popularity can be its greatest weakness. If you go into an Apple store during a peak time, expect a large crowd and long wait — and not much personal space. Personally I feel a bit awkward discussing a large transaction being elbow-to-elbow with others.

A major advantage of buying from an Apple Store is that they usually have the best stock levels. And, like the App Store, everything in the Apple Store is curated, and the staff are more likely to be familiar with all the products. They’ll spend as much time with you as you need to help you make the right decision. Your computer and AppleCare are automatically registered and any rebates are pre-submitted on your receipt.

Educational and government employees can also use their discounts here, but the proof you need to show can vary by store and staff. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to bring your college/government ID as well as a class schedule or a paystub. To find out what your pricing would be, check online first.

You won’t find many discounts at the Apple Store, but at least you’ll always know that you aren’t being overcharged, either.

2. Online from Apple’s Website

Buying online from Apple helps you avoid the hassles of the store, as well as serving parts of the country where no physical Apple Store might be located. You will retain all the benefits of buying direct from Apple, and you can even order from your iPhone with the Apple Store app. In fact, for educational and government purchasing, this is easier because no verification is required to buy from these programs online.

The drawback, of course, is the wait. If you want your Mac as soon as possible, you can pay for faster shipping. You’ll also have to be home to sign for the shipment. Returns can sometimes be made at a brick and mortar Apple store, but that’s at the manager’s discretion. As a general rule, you should expect to have to ship it back should you want to return it.

Apple online is also the primary place to purchase refurbished Macs — computers that have been repaired or returned and certified by Apple as fully working and warrantied. Be aware, refurbs sell out quickly so they often won’t have what you want. Apple will fully warranty the unit from the date of purchase and allow you to extend your warranty via AppleCare. For price conscious consumers, this is a great deal. Beware of buying a refurbished Mac anywhere else, though, as it may not retain Apple’s full warranty.

3. Online from Authorized Resellers

Before Apple stores existed, third-party authorized resellers were the primary way many of us bought our Macs. Every few weeks you got a catalog extolling the virtues of Apple’s new products, and “Jennifer” from MacWarehouse was ready to take your call! Today, the “indirect channel” struggles with its primary supplier also being its biggest competitor.

Although Apple has “Minimum Advertised Pricing,” these retailers will offer slight discounts on occasion of up to 5 percent, but since it angers Cupertino, they don’t do it often. More likely they’ll throw in extras such as additional memory or software. These upgrades may not be covered by Apple’s warranty. In particular if they add additional RAM, Apple won’t cover it.

Depending on what state you live in, you’ll also skip being charged sales tax and most will include free shipping. Additionally, you might find some indirect discounts. For example, credit card companies may offer extra points for shopping via their portal. Amazon (s amzn) credit card owners will get extra points on their cards. Personally, I use Fat Wallet to get a few percent back on each purchase. Only Apple Direct will offer educational and government discounts, though.

When you purchase a Mac from the “indirect channel”, you’ll often have to register your Mac and AppleCare yourself. Don’t forget to register because doing it after the initial warranty expires requires special approval from Apple. Other than the registration, your Mac retains the same warranty and support as a Mac purchased direct from Apple. You can walk into the Genius Bar and get help, call Apple for support, and go to an Apple Authorized Service Provider for repairs.

The key disadvantages of a third-party reseller is that you have to know what you want. Most online resellers aren’t exclusive to Mac and even if there are sales consultants, they may not be Mac fans. They won’t always be able to figure out the right Mac and accessories for your needs.

Be sure to go to Apple’s reseller locator and make sure they are authorized. Buying from unauthorized resellers can cause a whole slew of problems with warranty and support.

4. In Person from Authorized Resellers

As the popularity of the Mac increases, resellers both big and small want a piece of the action. This includes “big box” resellers such as BestBuy (s bby) and MicroCenter, as well as smaller companies and regional chains.

Before even thinking of a purchase, make sure the store is an authorized reseller. It’s also good to already know what you want, since Apple doesn’t actively monitor the quality of service and staff at authorized retailers. Around the holidays, too many companies hire temp staff members who may not be properly trained.

That’s really the key disadvantage compared to an authorized reseller: consistency. Some will provide you exemplary service while others just see the dollar signs and don’t really know or care about Macs. Some will also be Apple Authorized Service Providers, so you can get your Mac serviced there under warranty, but many are not.

5. Apple Specialist Designated Resellers

Apple Specialists are unique third party resellers. They’re committed exclusively to Mac. It was the Apple Specialists who were first entrusted with selling the iPad when it came out. In fact, if you want to know if an Apple Specialist is well-respected, ask them if they sold the iPad on day one. Apple clearly holds those that did in extremely high regard.

Apple Specialists are smaller operations and usually will provide you the highest level of sales consulting, but in a less crowded environment than Apple Retail. They often provide free and paid training (in a more private way than Apple Retail). All staff dealing directly with customers are required to be Apple Product Professionals and work at creating a long-term relationship with the customer. Apple Specialists will also have repair facilities in-house, with a Apple Certified Technical Coordinator (ACTC) on staff.

Similar to other resellers, they won’t compete on price, but they are often willing to deal. The more you buy, the better the deal. Here’s a tip: buy enough and they might even lower the price on your Mac. Resellers are often given coupons by Apple to give special discounts. They only get a few per quarter though. The more Apple-branded products you buy, the more likely that when you ask for a coupon they’ll give it to you. For some, this can lower your price below any other discount, including the education/government discount program.

6. Apple Authorized Campus Store

These are limited to students and others affiliated with a particular educational institution. Not every school has one, so check here. Because Apple sales are usually managed by the bookstore, don’t expect to have highly-trained salespeople or much selection. The obvious advantage is the fact you can get your educational discount and walk out with a new Mac while you’re grabbing your books and other supplies for the semester.

Bottom Line

So of these six choices, which is best? I recommend to family and friends the Apple Specialists. They provide the direction and service non-technical people need to find not only the right Mac, but a complete sales and service solution, without the large Apple Retail crowd. I’ve had nothing but outstanding experiences with the Apple Specialists I’ve worked with and in particular those in the MacXprts network. Here’s where to find a complete, searchable list.

For customers looking for the educational/government discount, and not interested in a large purchase, buying direct from Apple online avoids the verification hassles and the crowds at the Apple store. If price is your primary factor, buying online from Amazon or other major resellers combines tax-free or deferred sales tax combined with other bonus discounts.

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10 Responses to “Consumer Guide: Where to Buy a New Mac”

  1. Excellent article by Dave Greenbaum. I have bought many Apple items through the Apple Store online, and inside of Apple Retail Stores. I have also purchased from authorized Apple resellers, and I was not real clear on the differences of the various models of Apple Resellers. Mr. Greenbaum did a good job of describing the roles each play in the Apple retail system.

    I worked for an Authorized Apple dealer back in the “dark ages” before the Apple Online and Apple Retail stores. Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs move into controlling the retail channel has mad a big difference in the growth of Apple over the past decade.

    By the way, Microsoft is now into their own version of Retail Stores, and we will see how this helps their product line.

  2. nice collection. To save money, one might also want to ask when to buy. My guess is that the best time to buy Apple products is during “Back To School” season from Apple stores. One may get free iPod with a qualified purchase. Normally it starts in May and ends in September.

  3. You forgot auction sites. Second hand, balance of Apple warantee, plus Apple care if device is still new enough, and actual market price.
    I bought my 2008 model Mini there on in 2009 for NZ$900 (with an Apple keyboard and Mouse) while the same model was selling for NZ$1300.
    Here in NZ there are no Apple stores, the Authorized resellers are very few and far between, and if you buy from the Apple online store, all the money goes to the Aussie dealers anyway, and you get the privilege of paying NZ$300 or more extra for the same thing converted from US$ in the US online store. That 240volt power adapater must be really expensive.

  4. When I was trying to purchase an iPhone 4, I went into the local Apple Store, and was directed to a laptop and told to use the online store. I then went home and purchased the item online.

    In fact, the online store works very well and, in particular, works for custom orders and for items that may be temporarily out of stock. And, if there’s a problem, you can call Apple customer service, which is excellent.

  5. Anonymous

    Might I also suggest calling Apple at 1800-myapple. All the benefit of talking to a Apple educated human without the hordes in the mall. But like online, no instant gratification.

  6. Len Mason

    I recommend Apple’s 800 number. I hate doing business on the phone– it’s so antiquated. But the Apple 800 number will actually give you discounts on everything.

    I saved about $300 than from going into the store.

    • As I’ve been told, phone and internet sales are part of the WO (WebObjects) Group and therefore offer the same pricing. I assume if it was a very large purchase there might have been some wiggle room on price OR I’ve been told both Retail and WO do negotiate more aggressively with biz customers.

      Was yours a large or business purchase? What was your secret to saving so much money?