When traveling around, I often stop by the local computer stores (incognito, of course) to see what's selling, and what's not, and what's new on the shelves. It's the best way to get a sense of the market.

One also gets a good idea of what it's like to be a Typical Consumer shopping in computer stores. It ain't always a pleasant experience. Ignorant condescension rubs me the wrong way.

While many (not most) computer store salespeople are courteous and terrifically helpful, too many of them come off as the digital equivalent of the used-car salesman: "You want to know if this computer is compatible? Hey, if it were any more compatible, it would be arrested for soliciting!"

There's too much hype, too little information and an "Aren't I doing you a favor by taking the time to talk with you?" attitude out there, and people are talking about it and resenting it.

Granted, the personal computer hardware and software fields are incredibly fast-paced and it's tough to keep up with what's going on, but it's about time that the quality of customer care matched up with the prices that a lot of these stores charge for their wares.

One clear problem is that most computer store salespeople simply aren't up to speed on what's available on the software side.

After Lotus 1-2-3, Symphony, WordStar, DBase II and Framework, they really aren't in a position to give you a useful assessment on what the newer software can do for you and your machine. Outside of actually letting you play with the software at the store or -- Gasp! -- lending it to you for a take-home trial, the odds are good that computer stores won't be of much help in your shop for software. As for the helpfulness of the K marts and the bookstores that sell software, well, leave your expectations for help at the door.

Herewith are a couple of ideas that I offer free to the computer-store community in hopes that they will do a better job of serving their potential customers. If anybody makes money off them, please send me a check.

First, I would like to see stores -- especially the chains -- collect the software reviews from all these computer magazines out there and bundle them into files that customers can browse through at the store. That way, a potential buyer can get a decent and unbiased selection of views on a particular program. It isn't word-of-mouth, but it's better than a salesman saying, "Gee, everybody tells me this software's dynamite!"

Number two is a little more complex: Videotape the screens of various software packages in action (say, a 2 1/2-minute "minidocumentary" per program), loop a dozen of them together and stick it on a VCR in the store. That way, the customer could get a quick tutorial; the storeowner doesn't have to use a six-pack of machines to demonstrate six programs; and the salesperson has some of the burden of explaining things to customers lifted just a bit.

One further hint: Although I don't believe in misrepresentation, if you dress well and tell the salesperson that you are on your company's "software purchasing standards committee," you'd be amazed at the quality of service you'll get. The same tactic works for hardware purchases as well.

Speaking of hardware, forgive me for belaboring the obvious, but you'd be amazed at the number of people who make major hardware purchases without checking the things out in the store. I don't care if you're buying a mouse, a board or a printer -- have the salesperson actually show you how to put the thing together in the store. Don't wait until you get home and waste hours trying to understand indecipherable documentation. Do it in the store! That's what it's there for. Test drive before you buy!

One other thing: I have heard very disquieting reports from both women and blacks that they are not as well treated as their white male counterparts.

Beside the fact that money is green and does not discriminate, I can't understand why a computer store would want to give potential customers a hard time. Women alone double the size of the PC and software market. It's time for computer stores to reach out to tap these markets in a serious way.

Let's not forget, though, that the salespeople have heard questions hundreds of times before and get ignorant condescension from customers as well. Customers making thousand-dollar investments in hardware and software would do well to recognize that they don't just want to buy something -- they want to have a relationship that's mutually profitable. That attitude will go a long way in getting salespeople to pay you the attention you deserve.