Salesmen at computer and electronic stores across the country are witnessing a slow but significant shift in consumer behavior: Many people have become one-brand buyers.
Whether deciding to replace an old television, buy a DVD player, or upgrade to a new personal computer, Americans are increasingly sticking with one manufacturer, experts say.
Some do so because they trust one brand more than its competitors. But others align themselves with specific brands because of concerns over compatibility.
Their apprehension is understandable.
The growth over the past decade of digital technology, which allows large amounts of data to be easily stored and transferred, has given new life to devices that consumers use for both work and play.
Consider the camera. With film cameras, average users simply snapped through a roll of film and then took it to a photo lab for processing: one function, one device.
But digital-camera users can now introduce other devices into the process. They can download images onto a computer, a TV, a personal digital assistant (PDA), or send them to a printer. Likewise, audio and video can be passed around on a wide range of devices.
With all the overlaps, and the growing hype surrounding "networked homes," consumers are more concerned that their machines be able to work together.
But their perception that buying a single brand increases compatibility is more marketing-driven than reality.
"Nearly all manufacturers are trying to link peripherals together to get more money out of the sale," says Gary Peterson, director of research for ARS, a market-research firm in La Jolla, Calif. "Most of the time, regardless of what brand of products you have, they're going to work together just fine."
Customers at the Micro Center in Fairfax, Va., exemplify what many Americans think about brands. They not only assume that brand commonality is better, but that it's necessary.
"A lot of customers have the expectation that when they buy a [Hewlett-Packard] computer, they have to buy an HP monitor, and digital camera, and scanner," says Micro Center salesman Marc Washington.
Studies show that brand consistency is very important to consumers with less technical knowledge. Those who better understand how electronics work a rarer breed as electronics become more complex tend to buy from those firms best known for specializing in a given product category.
"Early adopters are more likely to be confident that they can figure out how to make things compatible. A more mainstream audience wants security," says Jed Kolko, a consumer-technology analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco.
Growing caution on the part of consumers has led some big-name firms to expand their product lines. Computermaker Dell announced this fall that it would begin selling a printer and PDA. Televisionmaker Mitsubishi recently began offering audio devices, and companies that traditionally focus on audio, such as Marantz and Yamaha, now sell video products, including projection TVs and DVD players.
A few brands are out in front in the effort to offer a wide range of devices. In the home office, HP offers digital cameras, laptop computers, PCs, PDAs, film scanners, as well as printers for which they are so well known. Sony is the living-room behemoth, making DVD players, digital cameras and camcorders, TVs, VCRs, and video-game consoles, as well as laptops, PCs, PDAs, and printers, among other products.
Both companies' marketing pitch partly aims to persuade customers who buy one of its devices to eventually buy them all. "Sony wants to tie the consumer into all Sony products," says Tom Edwards, an analyst with the NPD Group, a market-research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.
The most aggressive example of single-brand marketing centers around Sony's Memory Stick. The tiny device, about the size of a stick of gum, can be used to transfer data from one device to another. Most Sony products come with a slot to insert the Memory Stick. Doing so enables a user to transfer, say, a digital movie from a camcorder to a television, or download a digital image from a camera to a laptop computer. Initially the device worked only with Sony products, but the technology has recently been shared.
Still, Sony has clearly engineered some devices to work better with their own products, say experts. Rather than follow the standard industry model of offering USB cables to connect one device with another, Sony primarily includes I-Link connectors for its PCs and digital camcorders and cameras.
"Sony does make it so that consumers have a better experience only on its own product," says Mr. Peterson.
Another firm known to complicate compatibility: Apple. It eventually made its iPod MP3 player compatible with Microsoft software. But the iPod is designed to work better with Apple computers. For example, the iPod can be used as a hard drive to boot up a Macintosh. It can't function that way with PCs that run on Microsoft software.
"They hope to drive Mac sales by making the 'iPod for Mac' a better service," says Mr. Kolko. "I think we'll see more of that [from electronics manufacturers] in the future, for technical and business reasons."
Despite some small advantages, manufacturers drastically overstate the benefits of staying within their brand, experts say. "It's not like the world of fashion, where the cut of the clothing, the color, and the buttons all need to be coordinated," says Edwards.
Indeed, many consumers fall into the trap of equating visual symmetry with technical ease. At the Fairfax Micro Center, customers are consistently attracted to devices that are designed similarly. "What HP does is have the computer a certain color, and they have the monitor match and the printer match, so that if people are misinformed, they think they have to get them all," says Mr. Washington.
Many companies prompt consumers to buy more than one device by bundling items together and offering generous rebates.
Take a home-theater system, which bundles a DVD player, amplifier, receiver, and speakers. Sales of these systems increased about 1,000 percent the first half of this year, according to NPD.
Consumers who buy only one brand have this advantage: They often receive better repair service. Those who buy a range of brands may run into trouble, because the responsibility for a repair is often passed from one manufacturer to another. "If anything happens to the system, you're going to get the runaround," says Washington.
From a technical standpoint, however, performance rarely differs when a consumer uses multiple brands. Most consumer electronics, regardless of brand, are made by dozens of subcontractors, primarily in Asia. There are about 80 brands of televisions, for example, but only five manufacturers of TV tubes, says Edwards.
The consumer-electronics industry has long designed devices with industrywide compatibility in mind. And computermakers have become more open with their technology recently. It's a necessary move, given that consumers still bristle at overt efforts to channel their purchases.
"As of right now, people still value flexibility," says Peterson. "They aren't ready to be limited to just one brand."
Put aside the notion that disparate electronic devices can be linked up same brand name or not. Weren't consumers told they were headed for a single device that could do it all?
In the mid-1990s, the future of consumer electronics, experts thought, would focus on the television. A few years later, it moved to the desktop computer. And more recently, it's been the video-game console.
Advances in digital technology have led experts to believe that the functions performed by a variety of electronic devices would ultimately converge into one all-purpose appliance.
Electronic manufacturers continue to tinker with that vision. Just last month, Hewlett Packard said it would soon sell a Media Center PC, which combines the functions of a CD and DVD player, TV, and digital jukebox, with the many features of a computer.
But many experts agree that even if such a device could be manufactured profitably, most consumers would not buy in. Recent studies have shown that most people prefer using separate devices to perform separate tasks.
Still, consumers do want to move data easily from one electronic device to another. The answer: home networks, which rely on wireless and phone-line connections.
"If you can send content from one device to another, then no device has to do everything," says Jed Kolko, a consumer-technology analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco.
Before home networks become widely used, Mr. Kolko says consumer-electronics companies need to cover three bases: standardized connections between devices, easy setup, and the ability to move content around legally.
The first of those is beginning to be met through a wireless format called Wi-Fi, which beams data rather than requiring cables.
To help with ease of setup, some providers of high-speed Internet service offer home-networking support.
The third front legal transfers of content is being debated in Congress, where some legislators want to block consumers' ability to send, say, a digital movie from their computer's hard drive to a blank DVD. They believe doing so violates copyright protections.
But the evolution toward home-networking appears poised to accelerate. Millions of consumers have already begun creating local-area networks among multiple computers. The next phase, in which video-game consoles connect to the Internet, is also gaining ground.
It will probably be quite a few years, say experts, before the final step, in which the computer realm fully connects to the entertainment realm, and consumers are able to send files from their PC to their televisions and stereo systems as easily as they send e-mails now.
"This is not an 'if' question, but more of a question of when," says Egil Juliussen, president of ET Forecasts, a technology firm in Buffalo Grove, Il.