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How Amstrad's Sinclair PC200 launch led to chaos at Comet
Buy a new computer and what would you expect when you opened the box? You'd hope to find the machine there, yes, and also the manuals, and the disks you need to get the thing up and running. And if the machine was being advertised with a valuable bundled gift, you'd expect that to be present too.
Some buyers of Amstrad's new Sinclair PC200 had a more frustrating story to tell last week. Somehow, through an extraordinary foul-up, the computers were turning up seriously adrift of their vital parts: manuals, operating software, and bundled games.
No, the problem did not hit every branch. And yes, Comet's salesmen are making it clear to most prospective purchasers that there are problems. Nevertheless there's been a serious mixup which has left customers gnashing their teeth.
The autumn build up
The sequence of events went like this: the PC200 was announced by Amstrad the day before the Earls Court Personal Computer show in September. By using the Sinclair name - which is owned by Amstrad - on a low-cost IBM compatible, the company hoped the machine would score for use both as a games machine and serious computer.
Amstrad caused some surprise by stating that until Christmas Comet would be the only high-street multiple store to stock the machine.
Around 250 were then flown into the country for use as display models in Comet branches and Comet ran national advertising highlighting the PC200. The machine was said to have created "considerable interest" and customers were invited to place deposits to secure themselves a model for when full supplies started.
Then the problems began. Many Comet stores did not receive their supply of machines on the scheduled delivery date. And when packages eventually turned up over the last few weeks, many had items missing.
Last week Express contacted Comet branches at random in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Norwich, Newcastle, Sheffield, Belfast, Chelmsford, Oxford, Gloucester, Bristol, Stevenage and Swansea. Only the last three had the full bundle.
Despite the problems some buyers were allowed to hand over their money for a machine that - as it stood - was basically unusable. And sales staff had the frustrating task of having to arrange subsequent separate delivery of the missing manuals and software.
Comet says Amstrad is to blame. A spokesperson told Express: "Amstrad didn't deliver everything in the boxes and so it's a cock up at their end" - a comment indicating considerable annoyance since hardware manufacturers and high street chains will usually claim to be the best of pals through hell or high water.
Many of the sales staff we spoke to echoed that frustration. One said: "We're annoyed because it means we can't sell the computers. You can hardly have them on display when the manuals and software are missing. It's the first time I've seen anything like this happen - I don't know what Amstrad are playing at."
Amstrad themselves have been keen to play the matter down. Marketing manager Anthony Sethill told Express that only a tiny number of early machines had been affected, and that Comet had since been supplied all missing items.
Asked how it was that many shops were still complaining of shortages, the he said: "I can't comment on Comet's distribution."
But he said it was absurd to suggest there was any dispute between the two companies over the affair.
"We're doing millions of pounds worth of business with them. There's no way a thing like this would cause any problems."
Sethill wouldn't be drawn on whether Amstrad had knowingly delivered machines with items missing.
But he described as "ludicrous" the suggestion that Amstrad might have rushed out the PC200 in a slipshod fashion to meet Comet's delivery guarantees and to exploit the lucrative pre-Christmas market.
"We're going to be introducing £3000 computers shortly. We're not about to do anything in a slipshod manner."
Industry observers point out that numerous computer launches into the consumer market have had teething problems. Earlier Sinclair machines (before Amstrad bought the name) were notorious for being delivered to the High Street months late and early models of both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga suffered from various glitches.
Amstrad however has a reputation for launching products properly. So it's more than surprising that some packages were shipped in unusable state.
By week's end however, there were signs that the situation was being brought under control. Comet confirmed that the missing items had been received and sent to their distribution centres. These will be passed on to the shops "as soon as possible." Comet has promised to apologise to those customers experiencing difficulties via a letter and to sort out any abiding nuisances.
New Computer Express #5 (12/1988)