Why marketers push excess tech

Look what the '90s tech boom hath wrought: Ovens that act like refrigerators, phones that turn into televisions, and lawnmowers designed to move at your speed.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Harmon Stinson just wants a cellphone that works. But the advertising for most of the models he sees on display these days seems to emphasize perks.

While cellular companies are busy touting instant-messaging services, downloadable games, polyphonic ring tones, and Internet access, Mr. Stinson isn't interested.

"The bottom line is, I just want a phone," says the graphic artist from Jamaica Plain, Mass., "and paying $50 more for [any] one of these features seems excessive."

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Stinson has come face-to-face with what has quickly become a key trait of consumer products in America: excess tech. From big household appliances to handheld devices, manufacturers are cramming common products with new technologies that most consumers will never tap.

So what's behind the surge in added features?

Many marketers say adding new high-tech functions is the only way to learn which innovations consumers want - and which ones they find extraneous. It's not a new tactic, they insist.

Other observers point to the recent tech boom. Some of the products now hitting store shelves were first conceived three or four years ago.

At that time, it seemed reasonable to assume that almost every product would be improved by incorporating computerized functions. Advances in digital technology quickly recast what products can do.

The drive to supplement products with new technology hasn't faded. Manufacturers still strut their technological stuff - chiefly because they can.

But the innovation is also spurred by increasing shareholder scrutiny. Pressure from Wall Street to expand sales is at an all-time high, and manufacturers are scrambling to discover the next big function - the so-called "killer application" - for a range of products.

For consumers already overwhelmed by the "convergence" of one distinct device with another, this era of experimentation means putting up with a lot of increasingly bizarre combinations, and some products that don't work very well.

"A lot of it has to do with competition," says Stephen Gates, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. "That's why you see things like a sofa that's also a breadmaker."

More for the money?

Product embellishment partly responds to consumer psychology. If the product does more, the thinking goes, consumers will perceive that they are getting more for their money.

"It's a marketing tool; it's a pitch," says Jerome Klein, a marketing consultant in San Rafael, Calif. "Most people don't use 75 percent of the stuff put on these products and don't know what they are used for anyway."

Some high-tech add-ons deliver another problem: While they may be nonessential, they are hard to ignore.

Consider the Washy Talky from Electrolux. The washing machine senses the weight of the wash load, decides the optimum wash program, water level, and wash time - and then in a loud voice informs the user what settings to use.

The Electrolux, still for sale only in India, speaks English and Hindi.

Other devices arguably represent similar superfluity. Yard Man's "My Speed" mower automatically adjusts to the walking speed of the user. Whirlpool's Polara oven allows users to refrigerate food in the oven for 24 hours before cooking. Several digital camcorders now offer "night vision," and some digital video recorders can be programmed to record television shows a year before they are broadcast.

Marketers hope such features will persuade consumers to upgrade. But they also float new tech-loaded products to test consumer attitudes.

"The hardest thing about this is knowing what consumers want," says Mike Crawford, president of M/C/C, a marketing firm in Dallas that specializes in consumer electronics.

Despite testing new products on focus groups, many companies say they learn whether a product will sell only by putting it on store shelves.

"When manufacturers are developing their own products, it's easier to include everything and the kitchen sink," says Mr. Crawford.

The advance of technology has helped make that approach possible. Because the size and cost of computer chips are always shrinking, incorporating new gizmos into a product has become easier.

The upshot: Manufacturers are taking more risks.

'You just slap two things together'

A new refrigerator from LG is a good example. It comes with a 15-inch monitor, Internet access, e-mail, and a digital camera. LG did not invent anything new. It just bought the components and integrated them into its refrigerator.

"You just slap two things together and see if they stick," says Stephen Jacobs, a professor of information technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

The opportunity to make a new function indispensable is, for many companies, worth the cost of reinventing products that work just fine. "If they can figure out what the combination is for consumers - what that killer application is - all of a sudden they'll sell hundreds of thousands of their product," says Crawford.

One company that found the right combination: Japan's NTT DoCoMo. The cellular-phone service company was the first to include instant messaging in its service. The company now has 40 million subscribers - about 60 percent of Japan's cellular market.

US cellphone companies are following DoCoMo's lead, adding various new features, many aimed at attracting a younger audience. "If it turns into something big, you don't want to be the [company] that didn't give it a try," say Mr. Jacobs.

Shareholders, too, spur change

The pressure to be first is also driv-en by Wall Street. Billions of dollars have been invested in the technology sector over the past decade, and companies are under increasing pressure to expand profits. "Companies are turning to research and development in response to pressure from stockholders," says Crawford.

Products born out of the huge amounts of money invested in technology during the 1990s are still being released. Palm, for example, recently introduced two new personal digital assistants that, Crawford believes, were probably drawn up three years ago.

"Much of this stuff was in the pipeline the last decade," says Fredric Kropp, a marketing professor at California's Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Consumers like Mr. Stinson are growing weary of firms that don't focus on the basic functions of their products. They also are having to contend with products that include cheap components.

But marketers believe that consumers ultimately benefit from the experimentation.

Indeed, consumers' buying behavior, they say, is the real engine of innovation. "The public's attention span is getting smaller and smaller. You need to come up with something new to grab consumers' attention," says Crawford.

When machines go bad, downgrade

Consumer-electronics makers have traditionally packed extra functions into new models of their product partly to make older versions look obsolete.

The tactic prompts many consumers to upgrade. The sleek designs and extra features of today's cellphones, for example, have largely led consumers to switch to a new handset every 18 months, according to Inform, an environmental research group.

American manufacturers also induce consumers to upgrade by designing products that easily malfunction or cost a great deal to repair, a tactic known as built-in obsolescence.

But instead of buying the next high-priced gizmo, many consumers are taking an entirely different approach: downgrading.

Sinking prices on a range of consumer-electronics products, many of which perform all the basic tasks that most consumers demand, are prompting many consumers to "buy down."

Consider computers. Sales of PCs have been sluggish for two years, say industry experts, because most Americans are satisfied with what they already own. Efforts to increase sales by offering extra memory, CD and DVD recording drives, and even bundled printers have fallen relatively flat.

"There's literally no justification for any household in America to buy a new PC," says Stephen Jacobs, a professor of information technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

When Americans do buy a computer, they have more reason to think frugally. Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and eMachines all sell desktop computers for less than $400.

Walk through most national consumer-electronics stores and it quickly becomes apparent that such values are not limited to PCs. Palm recently debuted the first $100 personal digital assistant. Panasonic, JVC, and Symphonic all sell basic models of VCRs for less than $70. Mintek sells a DVD player for $60. Samsung offers a $40 microwave, and VTech offers a $15 cordless phone.

Because devices within almost every consumer-electronics category are made by the same handful of manufacturers, they are likely to perform basic functions just as well as models with more features.

Some consumers who have had pricier products conk out on them in the past have a tendency to buy a cheaper model the next time around.

Three years ago, Cambridge, Mass., resident Mark Rosenberg bought a $375 DVD player from Sony. After the machine had difficulty reading DVDs about nine months ago, a salesperson told Mr. Rosenberg that Sony had already sent customers a notice informing them that the device had malfunctioned.

But the company did not offer to replace the defective part or the machine - or offer a rebate for a new product. Repairing the machine, Rosenberg was told, would cost about twice as much as a new model.

Rosenberg, who teaches English as a second language, now plans to buy a new DVD player over the next few weeks. But this time, he says he will not spend more than $100. For him, buying a scaled-down device was a clear choice.

"The new DVD players are kind of disposable. That's just fine for my purposes," Rosenberg says.

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