Big changes in store

 

When I learned to drive you came to industrial estates at weekends to practise on the quiet roads. Times change - now learner drivers can come to retail parks on Sundays to visit a computer superstore, purchase driving instructor software, and try it out later in the safety and quiet of home.

Dublin's first retail park computer superstore, PC World, opened a fortnight ago and has been drawing crowds to Blanchardstown since. Having been warned by friends that the weekend crowds are outnumbering Oasis ticket queues, I paid a visit last Tuesday morning when I could enjoy a more leisurely look around.

PC World is like a cross between Atlantic Homecare and Peats Electronics: a large, bright warehouse full of computer equipment, with smiley staff in red jumpers on hand to provide assistance and explain the complex finance deals available. I was immediately struck by the music: Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas - this was nothing like the traditional basement computer departments where geeks read computer manuals. No, this was family computer land, where Christmas stockings have to fit 14-inch monitors.

"We get only a few anoraks, and lots of families," explained store manager Kevin Telford. Indeed although the clientele on Tuesday was predominantly male, there were plenty of children showing their parents what was cool. "The kids know exactly what they're looking for," said Telford. "The parents are there to pay for it." He explained most people said they wanted multimedia home computers for educational uses and games. There is not so much interest in the Internet, he said, despite an offer of a free month's trial with Ireland On Line.

Wandering around to the strains of Walking in a Winter Wonderland I was first struck by the amount of equipment on display - the store boasts well over 5,000 products. The monitor section looks like a NASA control centre, except every one was displaying the same screensaver. The 40 PCs on display in what is called the "mat" area ranged from £899 to £2,899, and all are reportedly mobbed at the weekends.

The software section is impressively large too, with games, business, education and screensaver sections. "Games are the biggest seller," said Telford. "Men in Black [£32.99] and Riven [also £32.99] are the most popular." With so many free screensavers on the Net, people are still willing to pay £22 for a collection of Wallace and Gromit screensavers. There's also a lot of educational software, mostly aimed at British examinations though Telford said they were looking for Irish curriculum software.

The software is not all that's British. PC World, an arm of Dixons, has more than 40 stores and claims to be "the largest chain of computer superstores in the UK". Of the 77 staff in Blanchardstown, all of the red jumpers I talked to sounded like locals, while the suits' accents reflected the company's origins. Open seven days a week, management is already considering extending Sunday opening hours, and there are plans for new stores outside Dublin, although precise details were not forthcoming.

Having test-run the PCs, seen what the printers and scanners could deliver, marvelled at the size of palmtop computers and personal organisers, I finally found what I was looking for: the digital camera section. Costing typically £625, I flinched from buying one of these film-less machines which can download pictures into your PC for subsequent printing or sending to friends via email. Telford claimed PC World was the only store in Dublin selling these, and as they caught on the price would drop, he assured me. I sighed, turned around, and prepared to wait till then.

Eoin Licken is at: eoinl@iol.ie