OK, so Blueline Software's fixtures don't match. Then again, its founder is no spendthrift decorator. He's a frugal executive who buys at auctions and, for a mere $400 each, has outfitted the offices in his 70-employee Minneapolis enterprise with furniture and equipment that would have cost $2,500 new. As a result, the interior of Bill Cecchi's six-year-old, $9-million company vibrates with a luck-of-the-gavel din of shapes and colors. But it hardly looks chintzy. Cecchi once paid $100 each for a mismatched lot of top-of-the-line desk chairs worth $800 apiece. "If we bought a new chair for $100," he figures, "it wouldn't last six months."

Cecchi got going by scouring newspaper ads for liquidations. (He's open to everything except computers, which, he grants, are discounted deeply enough new.) Now that he's been bargain hunting for six years, auctioneers alert him directly. But the problem remains that bankruptcy sales are usually held on weekdays, so someone from the office has to stand vigil -- an on-the-clock chore Cecchi leaves to his office manager. The efficient way to approach any auction, he advises, is to research the retail price of the brand-name accoutrements described in the announcement, arrive early to examine authenticity and condition, decide what you're willing to spend per item, and stick to that limit lest you get seduced by bidding's competitive cadence. "I've seen people pay more at auction," he cautions, "than they'd have paid for the same furniture new."

Other considerations:

* You don't always find what you want. A thrifty furnisher must have foresight, patience, and cash. Cecchi starts to shop six months in advance of upcoming needs and has acquired irresistibly cheap goods the company doesn't need on the gamble that someday it will.

* You don't get warranties. Items sold at auction are unreturnable. Cecchi fearlessly shelled out $2,200 for 11 fancy shelving-and-storage cubes, not only because they were a spectacular deal -- they would have cost $33,000 retail -- but because "what could go wrong with an office cube?"

* You don't get free delivery. Trucking can run up costs. But someone in the office must have a pickup.

* You don't get payment terms. It's a rare distress sale that isn't cash and carry. -- Michael P. Cronin

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