Christine Persaud is the Editor of Marketnews Magazine, the Canadian trade publication for the consumer electronics, computing, wireless, and imaging industries. She also serves as the Editor of the Marketnews.ca Website, which includes daily breaking news headlines, hands-on reviews, video demos, and blogs on everything from audio/video products, to digital cameras, mobile phones, gadgets, and social networking initiatives. She has been with Bomar Publishing Inc., parent company to Marketnews, since 2001, and holds a B.A. in Communications and Psychology from York University.
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It's no secret that retailers are making efforts to diversify their product offerings. The reasons are to attract new consumers, but more so to help offset declines in certain categories due to declining sales, dropping average selling prices, and shrinking margins.
Given this, I haven't been all too surprised to see packages of single-serve coffee and tea up front at my local Future Shop store, or baby strollers being sold through its e-tailing site. Nor does it turn my head when I find the odd cell phone case in a bin up front at Winners or Marshalls. Heck, in the latest issue of Marketnews, we even dedicated an entire feature on how adding some small appliance categories to a traditional CE retail/custom shop is a logical step to help boost the bottom line. But the latest move I've come across really came as a surprise.
Initially, I thought Best Buy Canada had just added a Cover Girl Store to its online e-tailing presence. That's right, you can shop at your local electronics specialists for makeup, including powders, lipsticks, mascara, lip gloss, eyeshadow; you name it. But that's not all.
Further investigation when clicking on "all Home and Lifestyle" under product categories reveals that Best Buy has delved much further than into just makeup, adding several new "departments." There's now everything from skin care to hair care and oral care. Check out the new baby section and you can buy everything from potties to diapers and even cribs! Best Buy may not have gotten fully into the apparel game just yet. But it does sell accessories, like scarves and bracelets, watches and handbags. And I haven't even yet touched upon the nutritional supplements and energy bars. A small tagline at the top of the page states: "new expanded selection. Shop more than just electronics."
As noted, there's something to be said for diverting slightly from one's core offerings, especially in this economic climate. And for CE retailers especially, considering that products like HDTVs are selling below cost, iPod sales are barely leaving any money in retailers' pockets, and consumers are increasingly discount shopping through online majors like Amazon.com. But shouldn't the products still make some kind of sense for your brand? When it comes to CE retail, there are some categories that are passable as technology products. Kid's electronic toys, strollers (have you seen the 4moms Origami stroller? There's no questioning its relevance to tech!) single-serve coffee makers, high-end and high-tech vacuum cleaners. Even neat electronic toothbrushes have their place. But makeup? Diapers? I just can't wrap my head around finding that stuff at Best Buy; watching dad buy his electronics toys while mom stocks up on the household toiletries.
Truthfully, the reasoning is a no-brainer. Makeup, toiletries, baby gear, are all high margin items, so why not toy with them? And these product categories are arguably recession-proof. If money is tight, we may not splurge on that new TV, or Blu-ray player, or digicam. But we'll always buy our hair care and skin care products; and can't do without diapers or a crib for the upcoming bundle of joy.
But this means the very essence of Best Buy is changing. Will it become a closer competitor to Walmart and Target and London Drugs, and less a competitor to 2001 Audio Video and The Source and Audio Video Unlimited? Might we start seeing even further diversion from tech, with groceries, and full-blown selections of apparel? And will we start seeing these items in stores, or will they remain online-only selections?
There's nothing wrong with being a one-stop shop, and stocking vitamins in one aisle and digicams or CE accessories in the other. London Drugs, Shoppers Drug Mart, Costco, Walmart, Target, all do it. But Best Buy, and its sister brand Future Shop, have always been the core CE-only big boxes in Canada. Clearly, that is about to change.
The chain's name does lend itself to a greater selection of offerings. Everyone, after all, wants the best buy possible in any category. So why not get something from every category at Best Buy?
What are your thoughts?
A recently release study out of London claims that toddlers and children who are exposed to a few hours of tablet use per day can require a heavy digital detox, and experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those felt with drug or alcohol addictions.
Noted in the British newspaper The Mirror, the study author, psychiatrist Dr. Richard Graham, is reportedly treating a four-year-old right now, and alleges that if she continued the same four-hour-per-day iPad access she was used to for the next seven years, she could eventually require in-patient care. Take this with a grain of sale, considering that the psychiatrist offers this "digital detox" program himself, and it runs upwards of $24K per month to "wean" the kids off digital devices, much like one would be weaned off drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes.
Regardless of the level of truth or elaboration in the study, however, it does beg the question: are kids using too much technology, or being exposed to it at too young an age?
As a new parent myself, I find that it would be impossible, and perhaps even counter-intuitive, to try and shelter my son from technology. It's the foundation of virtually every facet of life. It'll be required in schools, required in work, and required as part of every day social interactions going forward. I do agree, however, that parents should not be shoving an iPad, iPhone, Nintendo DS, or countless other electronic devices, in front of a child's face as a go-to tool to keep him busy.
Full disclosure here: my almost 16-month old is an expert at the iPad/iPhone. He knows how to swipe to unlock it, how to navigate through screens and photos, how to click on an app, then click out of it. If we're at a restaurant and he's getting bored, I won't hesitate to let him play one of his educational alphabet or number learning apps for a short time. But what I don't do is replace this for personal interaction. I try to limit his tech involvement to 20-30 minutes per day. And when I see signs of him needing a "fix;" i.e. throwing a small tantrum, crying and pointing, or trying to reach for it, I know it's time to set some boundaries and keep him away from it for a while.
But it isn't his fault. His father and I are constantly connected, on our phones, our iPads, our laptops. His grandpa is an iPad fanatic, constantly on his, too. Everywhere he goes, in fact, he sees people with smartphones and tablets in their faces. So how is he to understand? It's like holding a scrumptious chocolate cupcake in front of your child, savouring every bite, licking the icing, picking off the sprinkles and eating them one by one, but telling your child "sorry, none for you."
So what do we, as a society, do? Parents need to limit the amount of exposure children have to technology, no matter what age. But they must also lead by example and limit their own use. Ask any half-sensible dietician, nutritionist, health care professional, and they'll tell you anything is OK in moderation. You don't need to shield your children from technology, especially when it's going to be such a big part of their lives as they get older. But you can put limits on it, just like you'd put limits on how many times your kids can eat McDonalds, or have chocolate, or how late they can play outside with their friends, how much TV they can watch (yet another tech culprit,) or how many turns they can have on the Merry-Go-Round.
Most important, however, is that you can, nor should, ever replace the intimate, tech-free time you spend with your kids. If your kid spends 20 minutes playing with the iPad, you'd better be sure to spend twice or three times that playing with him one-on-one. In fact, try interacting with him while he's engaged with the technology, so he realizes the importance of social interaction as well, no matter how entrenched technology is in daily life.
According to Dr. Graham, not getting that balance right can be "very dangerous."
Those dangers are already apparent as you attend social gatherings, and see kids with their eyes and hands glued to portable gaming devices, never interacting with others. Or stroll the streets and shopping malls and spots kids playing on an iPad whilst in their strollers. I'll reiterate: there's nothing wrong with either. As long as the kid can easily put down the device, too, and understand that balance. But mom and dad, you need to understand it, too. And you don't need a detox program to get it. Just a little bit of common sense.
Anyone who's seen Seinfeld knows of this iconic line. The owner of the local soup shop barks these four words and refuses to serve anyone who questions him about his scrumptious creation, or utters anything but the basic order for the hot, ample goodness in the desired flavor, the way it should come. Ah, if only business were booming so nicely that one could take such liberties today. It seems, however, that some companies are using equally harsh tactics in order to combat the tough economy.
They aren't refusing customers, but in a way, they are. The Vera Wang boutique in Shanghai, China is asking customers to pay almost $500 just to book a 90-minute time slot to try on wedding dresses. In Brisbane, Australia, a specialty food store has decided to make customers pay a $5 fee for "browsing." In both cases, the fee will be discounted should the customer make a purchase. The specialty food store owner says she made the decision because she found herself giving advice, tips, and loads of valuable information to customers who then would take it and buy elsewhere.
It's called showrooming; the act of touching, feeling, and price checking in store, then buying elsewhere, typically online. And it's affecting retailers of all kinds, clearly right from apparel down to food.
It's a hotly-debated topic. On the one side, retailers don't want to share their precious knowledge and experience, and take the time to educate and inform a shopper only to have him buy elsewhere. On the other, the customer is always looking for the best deal, and if he can get it elsewhere, who can blame him for doing so?
But is charging customers just to browse the answer?
As a store owner, apply the logic to the job of the manufacturer/distributor salesman pitching his product to your store buyer. Imagine if he says he has the latest line of TVs, or mobile phones, or tablets, or digital cameras, or whatever, to show you. But here's the catch: you have to pay him $100 to hear the pitch. If you sign a purchase order, you get that back. If not, well consider the money a fee covering his time and energy.
Aren't these the very kind of fees we as Canadians have fought to eliminate from things like mobile phone carrier contracts? That pesky "admin fee" that essentially covers the time it took for the customer service rep to talk to you and run the purchase through or call up your account details? Isn't this part of the job? Since when have sales come with a guarantee? Wouldn't it be fantastic to guarantee sales every time you walk into an encounter because the shopper is being forced to pay just to look at what you have? Businesses would be booming across the country if this were the case. That, or the exact opposite: shoppers would just be more inclined to buy online, where they can click a button and do so for free, without even leaving the home.
On the extreme high end of the market, the entrance fee strategy might work. But chances are if I'm a wealthy client walking into Vera Wang, the store likely knows who I am, and wouldn't dare ask me to pay money to browse. For those who aren't so well known, they might view it as a sign of prestige to pay. But can you imagine such a strategy at a local big box, or independent CE store? Customers would be outraged (as they apparently already appear to be out in Brisbane) at the gall, the arrogance, the ignorance of the store. How dare you put yourself on such a pedestal to assume your product knowledge and demo is a waste of time if I decide not to buy? What if I pay only to encounter a sub-par salesperson? Will the store pay me for wasting my time?
There's a fine line between an ignorant customer and one who legitimately wants to research a product before buying; or might research and find that it isn't right for him. Likewise, there's also a fine line between a salesperson who doesn't want to divulge his vast knowledge only to have the customer shop elsewhere, and one who's just plain lazy and doesn't want to waste his oh-so-precious time on a sale that doesn't line his pockets. (Oh, if only sales were so easy!)
The strategy seems to be taking combating the showrooming issue a step too far. What's next? Bouncers out front checking shoppers' credit cards, limits, and financial status before determining if they're worthy of entering?
Here's something to consider: the Brisbane store owner claims that her store's pricing is competitive with others, but customers don't realize this. Customers aren't stupid. And if they aren't taking her "valuable" information then shopping elsewhere on the basis of cost savings, why are they doing it? She, like many other retailers, need to find the answer to this question. And if, as she claims, the customers really don't realize her pricing is competitive, why isn't she doing more to advertise this? To make customer's aware? Surely in her detailed conversations with these supposed showroomers where they walk away after stealing her vast knowledge, she must be able to find 15 seconds to convey that she offers competitive prices, and perhaps even that she's willing to match pricing should the customer believe he can find something elsewhere for less.
Retailing was never easy, but it's arguably never been tougher. Traditional bricks and mortar stores are not only competing with the retailer down the street. They're now competing with the World Wide Web. And smartphones that make it easy for a shopper to, within minutes, find another store, Website, or even a friend selling the very item he seeks for less money.
The no soup for you browsing fee might be a model that works for some. But most retailers should approach the strategy with caution. Most shoppers will likely respond by simply heading back home, or to the local grocery store, where a quick bowl of piping hot chicken noodle can be acquired within minutes.
No, this isn't a cute reference to furry bunnies and the upcoming Easter holidays. Fox Broadcasting Company is hoping to block the sale of DISH Network's Dish Hopper with Sling technology, stating that the integrated technology that allows users to skip ads whilst watching TV programming violates contracts.
Naturally, Fox believes that making it so simple for consumers to skip advertisements during live TV programming (from what I gather, it's a simple "ad skip" button versus the slightly more cumbersome capability to fast forward manually with a standard PVR) will negatively effect its advertising base, from which the network relies on heavily in order to provide programming. Indeed, CBS, NBC/Comcast, and ABC/Disney have also filed suits against the company for the Dish Hopper.
Fox also isn't fond of the feature that allows for watching programming on "second" screens, like mobile devices, using the Sling technology. This includes both live programming that's "place-shifted," as well as offline content that's transferred for later viewing on an iPad. According to the firm's filing, this capability could effect relationships with providers like iTunes and Amazon, both of which pay for the rights to offer Fox programming in video-on-demand, commercial-free formats to customers.
It's a contentious issue for the industry as a whole. On the one hand, the whole "second screen" phenomenon is a growing one across all areas of entertainment. Consumers want, and arguably should be able to, view programming to which they subscribe via various mediums. Transferring a program to watch on the iPad because your spouse wants to use the living room TV to play video games isn't a negative for the industry, nor the networks. If anything, it promotes further engagement with programming, not to mention sheds light on the forward-thinking networks and devices that allow for a multitude of viewing options.
On the other hand, however, networks must look after their best interests. Without advertising support, the programming you love wouldn't be possible. And if consumers can so flippantly disregard the 1.5 minutes of commercial breaks every 10 minutes, advertisers may look to other mediums to spend their dollars.
However, in this day and age, the idea of "live" television is slowly becoming passé. Personally, I can't remember the last program I watched live. Even highly anticipated events, like the Grammy's earlier this month, enjoyed that little red record button on my PVR, allowing me to not only pass by the commercials, but also the portions of the show itself I wasn't interested in viewing.
The reality is that TV advertising has taken its own shift toward product placements (some far more vomit-inducing then others), in-show mentions; even ads integrated with the content. Popular family sitcom Modern Family had an entire episode surrounding the Apple iPad. The Sony Xperia TL is known as the "Bond" phone, because it's the device Daniel Craig holds close to his hip in the latest flick Skyfall. Several episodes of teen drama 90210 have seen Microsoft laptops and tablets pushed blatantly, but worked into parts of the show's storyline. And as much as this often makes me cringe, it's a necessity for the industry. Because like it or not, time-shifting is a reality. And whether consumers have a Dish Hopper with Sling, or a regular ol' PVR, they ARE going to watch shows how they want and when they want.
That said, for now, networks like Fox will continue to fight what it feels is the good fight.
"Paying Dish for a satellite television subscription does not buy anyone the right to receive Fox's live broadcast signal over the Internet or to make copies of Fox programs to watch ‘on the go' because Dish does not have the right to offer these services to its subscribers in the first place," reads the amending file from Fox, which was presented to Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for California's Central District.
Does paying for a music CD, then, not give the consumer the right to play it on his stereo at home? In the CD player of his car? Or to take it to his friend's place and play it there? One could argue these issues are very similar.
In Canada, many providers have embraced the multiple screen strategy, arguably in large part due to the fact that they control all sides. Rogers, for example, embraces customers viewing programming online through its own Rogers On Demand Online portal, or via its mobile TV service. Ditto for Bell with its partner options. In fact, Bell just announced this week that the Academy Awards would be streamed live this Sunday over CTV (which Bell owns) and via the Mobile TV service.
Funny enough, last month CNET came under fire after it was revealed that the company's editors had voted in the Dish Hopper with Sling as a Best of CES device, only to have reportedly (and controversially) kept that vote under wraps after receiving pressure from parent company CBS to remove it from the list due to pending litigation.
As for blocking the Hopper, there's a hearing scheduled for March 22. For now, the Dish Hopper with Sling has already found its place within more than two million American homes...and counting.
In the next issue of Marketnews Magazine, we have a feature on smart TV, and another on alternative devices and services that contain all the smarts, and view the TV as just a cool looking monitor used to push content to your eyes. These are drastically different viewpoints and methods of consuming content on the big screen. Which one will ring most true for the future?
First, there's smart TV. These TVs come with built-in "smart" features for accessing content through manufacturer-specific portals; but also via partnerships with over-the-top (OTT) services like Netflix and other Web-based options like YouTube. And in some cases, you can connect other devices through a home Wi-Fi network to access content through the portal as well.
Then there are third-party devices like the D-Link Boxee Box, Apple TV, and Western Digital WDTV, that provide content on an a la carte or subscription basis; or let you load content onto the drives and play it back through a dedicated menu, maybe even controlled via a smartphone app. There are other options in this space as well, like using a Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming console as a conduit for Netflix on TVs that don't have built-in smarts, or simply connecting your own laptop via HDMI.
With advanced users, many have likely picked up multiple options. Consider my own household: we have Bell Fibe TV, which provides content and PVR functionality through a subscription to the IPTV-based service (a direct rival to cable and satellite,) plus Apple TV for playing content from our "i" devices or accessing iTunes or Netflix. And yes, we also have a Netflix subscription, which, as mentioned above, we can access through our Xbox 360, computer Web browser, et cetera. But that's not all. We also have a Western Digital WDTV drive loaded up with tons of library title movies; plus a terabyte Toshiba drive with even more content.
On any given day, we use a multitude of these methods to access content. Predominantly, Bell Fibe is used for "live" television programming and new, on-demand movies. But if we want to share a funny video, clip, photos, et cetera with one another, or with visitors, we'll boot up the Apple TV instead of passing around a smartphone or tablet. For older movies, the WDTV device gets powered on. And if I want to check out an old show I never really got into, I'll access Netflix through various means.
I don't yet have a smart TV, but would I access all of these options through a TV itself if that option were available? Could a TV keep up with my hours upon hours of scheduled recordings? My thousands of movie archives in digital storage? I can't imagine there's a television out there with enough processing power to handle my heavy usage. What's more, they all accomplish these tasks in differing ways, which inevitably means some type of learning curve in order to navigate through a new portal. And as smart as TV is, it still doesn't provide access to live television.
For the average user, the setup will eventually involve one; maybe two; of these options. Because let's face it, having so many devices and methods of accessing content can be clunky, unorganized, and inefficient. (In my case, however, helpful to my job!)
So this begs the question: which method will mainstream consumers adopt?
The Bell Fibe service is great because it's one box with all of the functions I need integrated into one. But it functions much the same as standard cable and satellite TV. While access to live TV and pay-per-view movies is abundant, I can't access a library of content comparable to Netflix, or access my mobile devices to view YouTube clips or family photos on the TV directly from Fibe. Neither can you from traditional cable or satellite.
While all of the other devices play an important role in accessing my own stored/streamed content, or library content, they don't give me access to live television. I also can't record content using them.
As enticing as smart TV features straight from the manufacturer are, I kind of like having a separate box I can rely on. What's more, it also means I can access everything from multiple TVs; not just one display in the home.
But clearly, my AV rack will topple if I add any more source devices to it. And for the average used with a wall-mounted TV and simple stand, plus even relatively standard gear like a receiver, pre-amp, and speakers, we want one device that can do it all, not 10.
Intel just announced its plans to get into the game with a streaming box that could offer both live TV and on-demand content, but do it over the ‘Net. (Interestingly, Intel's announcement came after I had already begun composing this blog, deep in thought about an option that might solve the issue.)
Will Intel's device be THE option of the future? Chances are we'll see plenty of options throughout the next decade until we land on one, two, or maybe even three that grab the majority of consumers.
Consider that when CDs and DVDs came into circulation, cassette tapes, records, VHS, and Mini Discs were still (and arguably continue to be) around. So whether OTT content eventually phases out traditional TV services as we know it, and whether we access it through the TV itself, or a tiny box that sits beside it, all options will be available for some time to come.
For now, which option(s) will you choose?