A fast rate of return
With half of today's gadgets brought back to stores in perfect working order, manufacturers are aiming to simplify.
(Page 2 of 2)
Caught between electronics manufacturers and consumers with high expectations are retailers. If buyers can't get products to work after they take them home, "retailers can end up with a problem because they don't want returns. That's very expensive," says Roland Rust, a professor of business and chairman of the marketing department at the University of Maryland in College Park.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The estimated value of returned products in the US is $100 billion per year, according to referenceforbusiness.com - a website aimed at small businesses.
While "big box" mass retailers largely leave customers on their own, specialty electronics stores offer more help. At Best Buy, "blue shirt" sales associates explain what the products do and "Geek Squads" visit homes to set up computers or other complex devices. When an item is returned, customers are asked if they'd like help in learning how to operate the product rather than just returning it. "They bought the product for a purpose. If we get a chance to talk with them, they usually keep it," says Victor Martinez, a supervisor at the Best Buy store in Watertown, Mass.
For example, one of his customers thought that an MP3 player could be connected to a radio, Mr. Martinez says. After Martinez explained that MP3s download music from a computer, not a radio, and showed the customer how to do it, the customer kept the item and continues to shop at the store.
Gadgets became complicated in the first place because companies failed to learn that less is often more, Professor Rust says. "Feature creep" or "feature bloat" has become common because microprocessors allow the addition of more functions at virtually no extra cost. Engineers say, "We could have this thing do 5, 10, or 50 more things," Rust says.
He once received a computer mouse pad with a built-in radio, headset jack, clock with an alarm, and a calculator. "It's got a user's manual!" he says in exasperation. The features have nothing to do with the function that a mousepad serves.
No wonder a 2004 survey by the University of Maryland showed that 56 percent of American consumers felt overwhelmed by product complexity after buying a high-tech product, says Rust.
Manufacturers must carefully balance offering more functions against ease of use, Rust and others explain in "Defeating Feature Fatigue," an article in the February issue of the Harvard Business Review. While the bestselling Swiss Army knife has more than a single blade, the article points out, it isn't the most feature-laden model either.
In fact, top-of-the-line Sony products often have simpler controls than its less expensive models, say Aaron Oppenheimer, who studies consumer responses to products for Design Continuum, a product design consultancy in West Newton, Mass.
Manufacturers need to show "self-control" when designing products, he says. And engineers are not always to blame: Sales people urge designers to "put a lot of buttons on this thing" so they have a lot of features to talk about with customers, he says.
A techno-race is on, Mr. Oppenheimer says. "For every quantum leap we make in creating products that are easier or simpler to understand or use, we also get a quantum leap forward in technology that requires you to know more stuff."
But instead of being frustrated, people ought to look at the positive side of new technologies, he says. "Every generation is going to be presented with a whole new set of opportunities and challenges as we make leaps forward in what the technology can deliver," Oppenheimer says. "It's part of the fun of being alive [today]. Every week some new feature you never thought possible comes out, and you get to learn it."