NEW YORK – As the holiday season approaches, I find myself sweat with dread over the upcoming big family Christmas party.
Don’t take me wrong. I love a big get-together. I even love my in-laws and stepbrothers, sisters and their families.
However, what I dread is Christmas presents with on and off switch buttons. You’d think I am used to them, being editor of EE Times and all. But, you see, there’s the rub. That’s exactly what all of my in-laws think.
Someone opens a present, looks at it and murmurs, “That’s very nice, but how does this work?” And they look at me, the Technology Queen.
Well, I know just about as much as the next guy, but I can’t explain that to all these admirers. So, I roll up my sleeves, read the manual, tinker for a while. And if I am lucky, I can get it to work at least as long as it takes to make my getaway.
I’m no engineering genius, but I’ve been known to be very stubborn. I don’t give up easily. If it takes me days — and sometimes, to my husband’s chagrin, it has! — I’m gonna make this sucker work.
Plus, I’ve got my EE Times cred to protect! I can’t just announce to the family: “C’mon, gimme a break, people. I majored in sociolinguistics.”
Which brings me to my point: The electronics industry began talking about the importance of the “out-of-the-box experience” almost a decade ago. The fact that we are still talking about it today demonstrates how truly hard it is to get people from the opening of the box to the operation of the gadget.
Why do you think so many kids end up playing with the box instead of the toy?
My most recent aha! moment came from a press release on report issued by Accenture.
According to Accenture, customers returning electronics products will cost “U.S. consumer electronics retailers and manufacturers nearly $17 billion this year, an increase of 21 percent since 2007.” These costs include receiving, assessing, repairing, reboxing, restocking and reselling returned products. Over the past five years, product returns in the consumer electronics industry are growing twice as fast as the industry’s revenues, said the firm.
Of those returned products, the report also revealed, “While 27 percent reflect ‘buyer’s remorse,’ 68 percent of returned products ultimately are characterized as ‘No Trouble Found.’’’
Geez. That’s $11.56 billion — for nothing?
I requested an interview with an Accenture executive to find out what’s really going on here.
My first question to David Douthit was what sort of “consumer products” are included in this research as “returned products.” The study included everything from TV sets, PCs and smartphones to keyboards, mice and software, according to Douthit.
The report described “products returned.” Does this mean that consumers actually opened the boxes and returned them?
Douthit assured me that the study focused on returns of “opened boxes” with seals broken, rather than people returning unopened boxes because they found a better deal on the same product elsewhere.
Alarmingly, according to Accenture, “A majority of returned products have nothing wrong with them.” As Douthit put it, “Most consumer electronics products don’t break easily. Their failure rates are relatively small.”
Well, then, why so many returns? What do we need to figure out about the state of consumer electronics design, marketing and sales?
“Our hypothesis is, ‘the device didn’t meet the customer’s expectations,’ even though the product meets a manufacturer’s specs and tests,” said Douthit. Drill down further and you get the suspicion “consumers were either misinformed or they found it too hard to install [software, etc.]”
More bluntly put, consumers, after opening the box, found that the gadget requires “a lot more than what I had expected to do,” explained Douthit.
Hearing this, I felt like telling Douthit: “Thanks! You’ve hit the nail on the head!”
“Because this is where the nail hits me. At Christmas, I often end up spending WAY more time than I had expected figuring out someone else’s presents — at a time when everyone is getting comfortable, cheery and goofy with eggnog, mulled wine and green-bean casserole.
Putting my personal troubles aside… what, if anything, can CE vendors do in the face of these massive product returns?
Accenture’s Douthil had three suggestions, and the last one is mine:
1) Invest in customer services – whether online or on physical sales floors – and highlight the education of customers.
2) Many best-in-class companies customarily do extensive customer research before they launch a new product; but it’s also a good idea to embed in the process time for a retail survey or customer survey – at least during the first 30 days after product launch. Use that time to sort out the quick fixes from the major headaches. Of course, the quick fixes should actually happen quickly.
3) Make a sincere investment in front-loading your customer services, so you can proactively prevent product returns. Proactive means calling customers (before they call you), asking them if they need help, helping them if they need help as long as they need help (just keep thinking, “$17 billion, $17 billion!”), making clear – up front –what the gadget can do if used properly.
4) And just for good measure, come along with me to the Christmas party.
This is a very good thing for consumers that they can return the items if they dont like it. I think the consumer rights are very well protected in US. But I have seen many people taking advantage of this, for no reason they go and return the items, just because the customer support people are not going to ask any questions. Have also seen few guys who would use the stuff and afterwards go and return it and take a new one or different one.
OK ... it looks like I should apply my advice to myself ...below it the fix-and-upgrade :-)
It seems that recently the manufactures bought-in into the "quick-to-market" philosophy in which the products are released purposely with not all of the Ts crossed and Is dotted. This approach seems to borrow from the "agile" approach to software engineering and since a lot of the items are driven by software it may be not all that bad. However that has to be coupled with extensive feedback, help and continuing, easy to use fix-upgrade support. And better have the key hardware with at least most of the Is and Ts correct ...
It seems that recently the manufactures bought-in into "quick-to-market" philosophy in which the products are released purposely with no all the Ts crossed and Is dotted. This seems to borrow from "agile" approach to software engineering and since a lot of the items are driven but software it may be not all bad. However that has to be coupled with extensive feedback, help and continuing, easy to use fix-upgrade support. And better have the key hardware with at least most of the Is and Ts correct ...
I can speak from painful experience regarding new tech toys and the complications that always arise. While I as a EE can explain away why, it does not help the consumer (say my Dad). They are the ones stuck with trying to use the new TV/tuner/cable/satellite/etc devices. Then there is the proliferation of the new consumer "brands", one TV in particular ELEMENT has a great price but we have returned it twice; once for "repair" and last time "replacement" (not really a new unit but a refurbished one). The "new" unit was better, did not show the blue screen of death for some time, but it seems (now that we picked up some hdmi cables) the HDMI inputs don't really work!! I will never buy another one that is for sure, but the real downside is the effect on the family and non-tech friends: they want nothing to to do with those "new fangled" LCD TVs. There needs to be better quality control, more consumer rights (even out of warranty), and easier setups for all these devices. It should be plug and play not plug and pray.
...The electronics industry began talking about the importance of the “out-of-the-box experience” almost a decade ago...
i would also love to get complicated technology rapped in easy to use and simple steps. Unfortunately, it is asking for too much.
And thus a market is created for products like the Logitech Harmony remotes -- a truly smart remote that learns the commands of all your devices and lets you set up command sequences for simples tasks like Watch Cable TV or Watch Blu-Ray. I originally bought one so my wife didn't have to keep asking our young kids to set things up so she could watch something :) But eventually I realized the value for myself -- the EE who can remember that HDMI 1 is the input for the cable box and HDMI 2 is for the Blu-ray and HDMI 3 is for Apple TV -- I eventually succumbed to the notion that it's nice to just press a single touchscreen button to set up all your equipment to be the way it needs to be so you can watch what you want to watch.
Kudos to Logitech. The Harmony series of remotes is still, in my book, one of the greatest product lines of the last decade! They are worth every penny.
"Geez. That’s $11.56 billion — for nothing?"
No it is not. It is the cost of getting a sale and is all factored into the final cost of a product.
With incredibly low production costs and high markups, the vendors can restock a lot of product and still make a profit.
All I want is on/off volume and channel selector. You old guys will remember that as only 2 knobs. :D
And just in case you think I'm a luddite: my o'scope has 29 buttons, 11 knobs and 5 connectors. But for using that I get paid.
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.