Mass-marketing computers means shedding the jargon

By , Business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Personal-computer manufacturers are deleting the bits, bytes, RAMs, and ROMs from their sales pitch.

These technical terms, which describe memory capability, worked well with the hobbyists who got the microcomputer market humming. They are not so effective with less-experienced consumers looking for a computer for a business or home.

''You can't sell microcomputers on the basis of specifications anymore,'' says Chris Christianson, a consultant at the Yankee Group, a Boston-based high-technology consulting firm.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

At last count, there were 167 desk-top microcomputers on the market - costing from $99 up to about $15,000. This year, big names like Digital Equipment Corporation and Hewlett Packard are newcomers to the list. Sony and Seiko are just around the corner.

With so much choice before the consumer, manufacturers are doing their best to distinguish their products from the competiton. Gearing advertising toward the ''person'' and away from the technical is one change in the industry's evolving marketing strategies. Manufacturers are also turning to TV and mass merchandisers to reach a broad range of customers. Service, software support, and eduction have also become more important issues.

''We are entering the realm of pure marketing,'' says Donald McConnell, vice-president of marketing for Computerland Corporaiton, the country's largest computer retail chain. ''The image and quality of advertising is going to be as important as technical quality. Basically, all products now are more sophisticated than the consumers make use of.''

''Overall, the marketplace is still overwhelmingly unsophisticated,'' says Stanley DeVaughn, a spokesman for Apple Computer Inc.

''When people buy a car, they don't want to know everything there is about the internals of an engine. They want comfort, looks, and good handling.'' It's the same with computer buyers, he says.

One way to bring the computer to the personal level has been to use famous personalities to peddle the personal computer.

''IBM went out on a limb when it brought in Charlie Chaplin,'' Robert Donohue-Evans, editor of Computer Retail News in Manhasset, N.Y., says of the computer giant's use of a Chaplin-like character in its ads. ''But it was a stroke of genius on their part.''

Since ''Charlie Chaplin'' started busying himself over the IBM Personal Computer, sales have been ''very, very good,'' says H.L. Sparks, director of sales and service for the Personal Computer. The company is reportedly shipping more than 20,000 Personal Computers a month.

''The character of the tramp, who gets himself into difficulties and then out of them with a little humor and warm feeling, represents every man,'' Mr. Sparks says. ''This trend toward the common man shows what we've been trying to do - appeal to the first-time user.'' And the character also helps IBM tie together its broad market of the home, small business, education, and the professional user.

Charlie Chaplin and Dick Cavett help IBM and Apple reach the home and business markets. But most other computer manufacturers are seeing the home and business markets as seperate targets, requiring different selling techniques.

In the low end of the market - $500 and under - ''everybody in the world is getting into mass merchandising,'' says Mr. McConnell. K-Mart, Toys 'R' Us, and major department stores such as Macy's are carrying the Atari, Texas Instruments , and Timex computers.

Along with game and education software, price is becoming a major influence on buyers. For example, since Texas Instruments began offering a $100 rebate in September, ''they have been shipping at a factor of 10 times what they did last spring,'' says Patricia Parks at Future Computing Inc., a market-research firm in Richardson, Texas. Apple also has begun to cut prices for the Christmas season.

The Timex Sinclair 1000 computer, which sells for $99 and hooks up to a television set, has also seen phenomenal sales growth since a giant ad campaign this fall. ''We were receiving 50,000 calls a week on our 800 (telephone) number after we ran our ads in September,'' said Daniel Ross, vice-president of Timex Computer Corporation.

IBM, Texas Instruments, Apple, Atari, and Commodore have found TV an effective way to broaden their consumer base, and more manufacturers are expected to join them. Digital Equipment says its first TV ads will appear in January and Hewlett Packard says it will likely put ads on TV in 1983.

Discounts may be an effective way to sell home computers, but in most cases, this doesn't apply to computer-specialty stores, where ''profit margins are thin ,'' Ms. Parks says. In fact, marketing for the business world is quite different from marketing for the living room.

Retailing of business computers is done through specialty computer stores; office supply stores; distribution firms; systems houses, which take products, modify them to specifications, and then sell them; and through direct sales to Fortune 1000 companies. Newcomers like Digital and Hewlett Packard will be relying heavily on their established direct-sales network.

Even though, according to Future Computing, there will be close to 2,000 computer stores open by the end of the year, ''there are still not enough outlets,'' says Mr. Christianson the Yankee Group consultant. ''It's creating a bottleneck.''

A new concept in marketing may unstop that bottleneck. In Boston and Dallas, plans are underway to create permanent trade shows for the whole spectrum of manufacturers in the information industry. Both ''Boscom,'' as the Boston center is called, and ''Infomart,'' the name of the Dallas project, are expected to be running by 1984. The centers are a place for manufacturers to present their products to corporate customers. Last week, IBM signed a lease with Boscom. A similar center is in the works on Manhattan's West Side.

''Boscom will be a place where an individual from a corporation can come and look at a number of different systems for a few days in a leisurely atmosphere. He won't be competing with 'techies' and high schoolers. It will be a boost for the established vendors, though an expensive one,'' because of high leasing costs, Mr. Christianson says.

Another concern that particularly nags the business-computer makers and retailers is the demand for service, support, and training.

Mr. McConnell, the Computerland executive, says the manufacturers have responded to these demands fairly well. The giant manufacturers are gearing their extensive network of computer service centers to handle the new personal computers. IBM has technicians avaiable at its product centers, though some of its dealers do offer on-site service. Digital has its own people making on-site service calls.

The option of on-site service by retailers and manufacturers is becoming so crucial that ''It is something that could close a sale,'' Mr. McConnell says.

But above this, ''What the customer really wants is training.''

For Christmas, all Computerland stores this year are providing consumers with presale training about computers - via a computer. And in the new Computerland stores, classrooms are standard.

The demand for training has gotten Computerland to change its selling habits. ''Promoting packaging is a little fad now,'' Mr. McConnell says. Presale training for the consumer on the use of computers (at a $100 fee), point-of-sale training on installation, and post-sale training on software, are part of the package concept.

But retailers still think there is room for improvement in marketing. Says David Norman, a California retailer: ''Vendors still need to provide more integrated software. Users need to be able to switch from graphics, into balance sheets, into word processing.''

Vendors should provide more training packages in which computers would be teaching consumers, Mr. McConnell says. ''But by this time next year, I'm sure they'll have it.'' (Percentage of shipments in 1981)

21.0Apple 20.7Tandy 11.8Commodore 10.3Atari 6.9IBM 6.1Texas Instruments 3.8Hewlett-Packard 19.4Others

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...