Get the gadgets and presto, everything's on automatic!
Boston — If your pencil sharpener doesn't yet feature a digital display showing how many fractions of an inch it whittled off that lead stick, it probably soon will.
Tiny computer chips are finding their way into countless consumer products--even when they don't enhance a product's utility.
For instance, would it make your life easier if you owned a bathroom scale that talked to you? At $99.95 (batteries not included), your wallet should feel the weight loss, even if you don't.
Whether gimmicks or not, solid-state gadgets and products for the home have achieved popularity. And all sorts of retailers are reaching for a piece of that high-tech pie.
''Consumer electronics is a burgeoning field,'' says Mark Kriss, research manager for The Yankee Group, a consulting firm in Boston. ''In the past year there has been a proliferation of new specialty stores for consumer electronics . . . because these products are more sophisticated, need trained salespeople and dealer-supported service.''
Markline Company Inc., in the Boston area, and The Sharper Image of San Francisco are two such stores doing a brisk business.
This year, The Sharper Image began offering a product called Audio Light. Richard Talheimer, president of this highly profitable mail-order firm, says Audio Light ''has been our single most successful item'' this year.
Advertised as ''the light switch with ears,'' Audio Light can turn on the lights at the sound of your footsteps--and turn them off when you walk out. Adjustable to any noise sensitivity, it can respond to a key turning in the lock or a loud yell. With a photoelectric cell, it senses daylight and shuts off when a room is bright enough. It also has a manual override switch. A single Audio Light retails for $34; a set of four lights is $99; 12 are $269.
Mr. Talheimer claims Audio Light is not just an amusing gadget, but a reliable security guard. At the sound of a break-in, a room could blaze with light and scare off a burglar.
The Sharper Image sells a host of other electronic products: a golf game scorekeeper ($175); a 21/2-inch talking alarm clock ($99); a noise synthesizer to fill a room with the sounds of pounding waves, rain, or a waterfall ($129).
Business is so good for the company that it started airing its wares on nationwide cable TV. In 1980 the company grossed $18 million in sales; in 1981,
Unlike The Sharper Image, Markline Inc., based in Waltham, Mass., has three store outlets (though 60 percent of its business still comes from catalog sales). The firm got its start nine years ago in the calculator business but has since branched into video games, digital clocks, pint-size TVs and stereos, watches, and electronic health-care products. Other gadgets include a digital bathroom scale that adds, subtracts, and records weights and a kitchen appliance that converts measurements to metric; can be a timer for three appliances; and scales a recipe up or down depending on the number of servings ($64.95).
Markline had $16 million in sales last year and recently opened a branch store in Atlanta. Vice-president Michael Ferguson describes the firm's cordless phones as selling ''consistently well'' and phone-related products, such as instant dialers and phone tap-detectors, as ''growing phenomenally.''
Although The Sharper Image and Markline have done quite well in their market niche, ''the bigger part of the market are people who will buy from general merchandise,'' says Maxwell Sroge, a consultant for the mail-order industry.
One company taking advantage of this is Hammacher Schlemmer in New York. In business for 148 years, the company has a seven-floor store full of merchandise from linens to electronic gadgets. It mails eight catalogs a year to about 1.5 million households.
Joseph Capobianco, a buyer for the company, says ''one big buff item'' is a computerized weather station ($795), which reads out wind-chill factor, indoor and outdoor temperatures in Fahrenheit and Celsius, barometric pressure, and wind direction and speed (in miles per hour or knots). It can also sound an alarm if temperatures get too hot (or cold) or if the wind is too strong.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Radio Shack stores have also gotten into the act. Both companies sell BSR's X10, a central control for lights and appliances that transmits ''on'' and ''off'' signals through the house wiring system on a preset schedule. The basic product has been sold for over three years, but BSR has added a timer, a telephone responder which allows you to operate lights, etc., by phoning your house, and the capability for remote control within the house. By midyear the X10 should also have a burglar alarm.
Another central control device comes from Retina Inc., which makes microprocessor-based building management systems. With a system called Architel, the New York company outfits offices and homes with a unit that controls heating , cooling, lights, humidity, window shades, saunas, sliding doors - ''anything that can be motor operated,'' says Scott Simeral, executive vice-president of Retina. The company is now working on voice control and voice answer-back for Architel.
Originally designed for energy management of office buildings, Architel costs about $20,000 for home installation. Right now, ''it's not a consumer product. It wouldn't be worth the energy savings,'' Mr. Simeral admits. But the company hopes to come up with a ''downscaled version for the home owner.''