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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."
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.
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.