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Business consumer mindset

Many small electronics retailers have been lamenting their lack of power against the superstores. But if they just exercise a little creativity, they might be surprised at how sharp they can make their competitive edge.

It was a cold day in early November, the smell of Christmas commerce already in the air. On the way through Illinois, heading for Chicago on business, I swung off the freeway to be a consumer for a moment and do some shopping in a regional city. As with using regional airports, this kind of ad hoc shopping is often much easier in regional centers than the vast suburbs or downtowns of big Urbania. Thanks to franchising, the same stores seem to be everywhere (Gucci in Peoria?) but they’re much easier to find and use where the streets aren’t plugged with traffic and the stores are not scattered over 300 square miles. Besides, mid-range town USA is the hotbed of growing small and medium-sized businesses, many of them retail.

My target was any kind of electronics store. I needed a special battery and a direction motor for an FM antenna–not the sort of things available at megastores with inventory the proverbial mile deep and inch wide. The store I found within five minutes of driving into town happened to be an independent, more or less in the computer business but selling other consumer electronic gear as well. As I entered the store, the sales clerk actually looked at me and said hello. How many other times had I encountered a salesperson looking anywhere but at the customer? The difference here was simply that the salesperson was also the owner, Todd.

Todd knew his stuff (as he should, of course, but that’s not always a given). Electronics was not only his business, but also his hobby: He kept up with what was new, as well as having an eidetic memory for what he had or could get. He found my battery immediately; the FM part was problematic. Wouldn’t you know it, he happened to have one in the back storeroom?

“Haven’t seen it in years,” he said. “It might be dusty.”

It was priced for 1992, which made it a good deal. Todd was just happy he had one, so he could have a happy customer.

I appreciate old fashioned business practices, so I was happy. I asked him, “How’s business?”

He said, “Oh, let’s see how Christmas goes. I’m just putting up the displays.”

“Got any hot items?”

“Oh, that depends. You mean hot items in this store, or the stuff in the advertisements?”

“There’s a difference?”

“Sure. This year half the stuff that’s getting the hype isn’t going to sell in the store. Take for instance the tablet PC; I keep one to show to people, but I haven’t sold one in here. On the other hand, we’ve sold 20 of them outside the store.”

He grinned, and I knew that something clever was in the wind. So I grinned. I told him that I did a lot of computer journalism and would be interested in anything he might say about business uses of hot technology.

He asked me if I had used a tablet PC. I said, “Recently, yes. I’ve been testing the newest Toshiba. Much better than the first version, but not perfect; the handwriting–it’s still difficult to get the hang of it.”

“Sure is,” he said. “That’s why I took the HP model over to this guy in town who does a lot of corporate training. I asked him if he could figure out a way to train people for using the Tablet PC. He did, and he hooked up with a software company that made a small training program for doctors. Then all of us took the package over to the local hospital and sold it to the head administrator. Now there are 20 doctors over there who are using it. Maybe by Christmas Santa Claus drops off another order.” He grinned.

“Anything selling in the store?” I asked.

Todd looked around, and went over to a phone display and picked up one of the latest models of camphone (mobile phone with a display screen and digital camera capability). “These are selling really well. Six this week alone, and I figure, oh, maybe 10 or more a week as we get close to Christmas. I ask people why they want to send live pictures; I haven’t had anybody yet tell me. Then again, some camera models don’t cost much more than regular models, so why not? Anyway, I sat here one weekday and tried to figure out how somebody in business could use them. The resolution’s not good enough for real estate or insurance people. Who needs to phone pictures in real time? I couldn’t think of a thing!”

Todd walked over to a display unit with dozens of digital cameras. “Now these beauties, they’re selling well, too. I’m kind of a digital darkroom nut, so I spend a lot of time telling people how to choose models–megapixels and all that. It works for consumers. Then I thought about a couple of customers of mine, real-estate hotshots, selling big homes and estates. They’ve bought digital cameras from me because I could show them how to use the software. I worked out a gig with one of them: He goes on a ‘tour’ of a place like a mansion, calls the prospective buyer with his camphone, and shows pictures like a PowerPoint presentation while he talks over the phone about everything they’re looking at. If the buyer is interested, he takes better-quality pictures with the digital camera, and that gets sent over e-mail, or he prints them. We worked out this whole package–camphone, digital camera, printer, software–and it works like a charm. We’ve sold eight packages so far, and I can see other similar uses.”

“So the trick,” I said, “if you can call it that, is to figure out angles to use the inexpensive consumer technology for business purposes.”

“Exactly,” said Todd. “A place like mine doesn’t make it on consumer business alone.”

After I left Todd’s emporium, I thought about the year ahead. It doesn’t look like there will be any Next Big Thing in 2004, especially in corporate IT. Web services will advance only as far as the proprietary hassle over standards doesn’t intrude, Internet evils like spam and invasion of privacy will still be the bane of corporate operations, and security issues will continue to scare money out of small budgets. All these things need doing, but they’re not new or even stimulating (they’re mostly reactive too).

In 2004 consumer products will have momentum. It might be proactive to systematically consider the so-called consumer-oriented products for business advantages. Wireless networks, camphones, media center PCs, and digital cameras are all big on the consumer market right now, and the products are following that ever-enticing curve of better and cheaper. Clever individuals–at home or in business–will find profitable uses for consumer products. There’s no reason entire companies can’t also find advantages.

So, looking ahead (as I am in November) I think that instead of lamenting the lack of new in the computer and communications industries, I’ll remember Todd in Illinois and be on the lookout for creative uses of improved. If marginally improved consumer products have the momentum, then what’s left to say to business people is: “Seize the momentum.” All things considered in an economically uncertain year, that might be good enough.

Editor’s note: After this issue, Nelson King’s Pursuits column will be appearing bimonthly. Look for the next installment in our March issue.

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