How the Paradox of Choice Will Impact Holiday Tech Sales

by Tim Bajarin   |   October 11th, 2013

The concept of buyer’s remorse in the world of technology is not new. For decades companies have rolled out new TVs, stereos, PCs, laptops and more recently tablets and smartphones and as soon as a person bought one a new model or something better came onto the market.  One of the reasons Steve Jobs moved his product launches to a full year apart was because of this issue. When he updated products every six months, he got highly negative feedback from customers who were mad that the product they just bought would be obsolete so quickly.  PC and CE vendors still hear this lament all the time as the world of technology has become so competitive they feel compelled to update their products often, thus creating some buyer’s remorse within their user community. 

I suspect we are about to enter a period where the number of choices in laptops, laptop convertibles, 2 in 1′s and tablets will offer so much with new models coming out almost monthly, we may have perpetual buyer’s remorse for at least the next six months if not longer. For the first time in my memory, when a user goes out to buy a laptop or a tablet, the amount of products they will have to choose from will be enormous. I believe it will make the decision even harder for consumers to figure out what to buy during this heavy tech buying season and cause a lot of buying confusion.

In the past, if a person were going to buy a laptop, the key criteria would be screen size, processor speeds, hard disk space and price.  Except for Apple laptops, brand loyalty was low on the buyers list as they all pretty much looked alike. It was a clamshell with screen and keyboard and not much more. But this year users will also have a plethora of products called convertibles or 2 in 1′s to choose from. These are products in which the laptop screen can either be folded under or used as a tablet or it will be a clamshell design where the screen pops off the keyboard base and can be used as a stand-alone tablet. 

At the same time users will have access to new lower priced Ultrabooks which are laptops that are very slim and lightweight. Also up this year will be products called Ultra-lights, which are similar to Ultrabooks but are much cheaper and not as high powered. And, consumers will now have non-Windows based laptops called Chromebooks to pick from. Bottom line is that there will be dozens of new designs to choose from when buying a new laptop. 

It gets even more interesting if you want to buy a tablet. The 7″ tablets will be as low as $79 but the bulk of the really good ones will be $139 to $249. Some will be WiFi only while others will have 4G wireless radios in them. Some will have screens with medium resolution, others with very high HD resolution. And the 9-10″ models will be more powerful than ever, something that suggests they could be used more as an alternative to a laptop or PC. In fact, one thing we see happening with a lot of families is that the tablet in most cases has now become their primary computer in the home and the laptop is relegated to being used less often usually just for tasks like paying bills, long emails, document creation, media management and long form writing.

There is a great book on the market called the Paradox of Choice-Why More is less Written by Barry Schwartz. In the book’s description it says:

“We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress.”

In the tech world, it could mean perpetual buyer’s remorse as the product a person buys may not actually meet their needs. It may also be a new, updated version could come out just weeks after they buy it. I have talked to a lot of people who need to upgrade their laptops but are actually dreading going out and buying one given the amount of choices they face and the fear they will buy the wrong thing.

We are also seeing concern from folks about how they use these products in their work/home lifestyles. At work they can’t get away from using a PC. But at home they can now do about 80% of what they used to do on a laptop on their tablet. So the question that comes up is “should I buy a better tablet and a cheap laptop, or even consider one of the new convertibles or 2 in 1’s that will be out this holiday?” On the other hand, consumers are weighing another scenario in which they buy a cheap tablet and an updated but cheap laptop or Chromebook.

What I see happening this holiday season is a lot of consumer perplexity when it comes to what to buy. While price is always an issue with consumers, how they use the products in their lifestyles is becoming equally important. What I suspect might happen is that consumers will have a lot of choices, which may cause some confusion in the buying process and we could see the highest return rates of original purchases of PC’s we have ever seen.

What could happen in some cases is for people will get whatever they buy home and quickly realize it does not meet their need. They then take it back and try something else until they find the exact product that fits their digital lifestyle. While this may happen with a only a minority of buyers, it still could be a real problem for all PC vendors since any amount of returns for any reason is a big headache to them and their retailers and hits their bottom line.

While tech products will be high on consumers shopping lists this holiday, this is the first time they will have to consider a huge amount of products coming out in a whole host of shapes and sizes with new features and functions rather than in the past just having to figure out what the best laptop, iPad or basic Android tablet was to buy. I see the paradox of choice being a huge issue this holiday season, something that could especially impact PC/laptop sales while cheap and mid-priced tablets will probably be the big winners in this next quarter.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • Brian M. Monroe

    This is true for the Windows 8, Android and Chrome OS crowds. However, if you stay within the Apple universe, many of these things are non issues. I know that talking to some people around me they are waiting on Apple’s full fall product refresh. So I do predict that Apple will do really well this quarter and next. But at least they know that once Apple does their refresh they do not have to worry about another update for another year. But it does cause issues in the months leading up to the time that Apple does refresh their product portfolio where buyers will wait to purchase new systems.

    • http://twitter.com/matthewwanderer matthew

      @Brian,

      I agree. Apple customers are largely protected from the “paradox of choice” (but perhaps less so today than in the past) due largely to Apple’s comparatively narrow product lines and considered refresh cycle. But I think there’s more to the story.

      Apple’s post-sale customer experience is a huge part of this equation. Apple’s network of Apple Stores being so close at hand is yet another meaningful differentiator, and it’s a piece of the customer experience Apple’s competitors haven’t been able to (or have chosen not to) replicate.

  • Glaurung-Quena

    One response to too many choices is to buy nothing and make do with what you already have for a while longer; another is to go with something familiar and safe (what we had worked ok, let’s get another one like that).

    So, I feel pretty comfortable predicting that sales of wintel machines this Christmas will be quite poor, and that sales of “experimental” form factors will be even poorer.

  • http://www.BarnesFamily.com/ davebarnes

    Choice? Mine are easy. I ask Tim what I should buy. So simple.

  • stefnagel

    I can see it … you wonder into a store … the best buy guy says what brand do you want … you go uh uh give me an Apple. Mindshare trumps marketshare.

  • kayeu

    I agree with the other comments here. Apple makes purchasing easier. And where once it was all about price, price, price, consumers are now much happier to pay more to ensure they get “a good one”. This is becoming a real consumer market where Apple leads the others. And I’m thinking of the local electronics store. You walk in and there’s the Apple display. Apple obviously controls how their products are displayed. So they’re nicely displayed and it’s all shiny, shiny, ooh, aah. And then there’s this crowded sea of “everything else”: undifferentiated products and confusing choice. Now Samsung is getting in on the act. They are controlling their products’ displays in some retailers. In terms of tablets, the kids make a bee-line for the iPads. Kids are a big part of selling your products these days. And iPads are crack cocaine for kids. Kids drive a lot of your sales. Don’t you worry, the kids will be in there helping mum and dad decide what to buy! iPads should continue to do very nicely this Christmas.

  • klahanas

    I guess it’s all about your outlook. Choice is not a paradox, or a tyranny, that one needs ‘freedom from”. Even so, I agree that Apple is a quality choice, with a trap… I like to salt my food myself…
    Should you ever want to use something else, even if you own Apple devices, you’re locked in. Classic and primary example is iTunes movies and TV episodes.

  • obarthelemy

    My brother used to work in a large firm’s IT dept. His main gripe was that some segments (application streaming…) are not monopolized by MS yet, so he had to do the work of evaluating products, and then take the risk of making a recommendation.

    Avoiding work and risk is even more prevalent with consumers. Most don’t have the knowledge to make a good choice anyway.