Low End Theory: Gadgets Are the New ChapStick


By Brendan I. Koerner

Totally against my will, the missus dragged me along to Bed Bath & Beyond a couple of weekends ago. (Insert whip-cracking sound effects, wise guys.) It was every bit as horrific as I'd feared—I must lack whatever gene enables some folks to swoon over Casabella all-purpose gloves. Oh, and I had to miss the Mavs-Suns game in the name of stocking up on overpriced cleaning supplies. Brutal, just brutal.

The day's one saving grace came as we trudged toward the checkout line. To the right of the cash registers was a rack of low-end gadgets, of the sort you'd ordinarily find at an exceptionally raggedy Radio Shack. There was a USB minifan for five bucks (brand name: "Cool Breeze"), a host of Bandai-style LCD games, and quite possibly the flimsiest iPod speakers known to man. The cake-taker, however, was the Zadro iSing Shower Radio (pictured at right), which hits all the low-end high points. Shameless attempt to leech off the iPod's celebrity? Check. Using the "wow" factor of water resistance to mask otherwise craptacular craftsmanship? Check. Under a Hamilton? Yep—a lovely $9.99.

Now, absolutely no one goes to Bed Bath & Beyond looking for electro-dreck. These products were rather impulse buys, to be tossed in a shopper's cart just before she pays for a bevy of pillows and spatulas. In other words, here was strong evidence that gadgets are quickly morphing into the new ChapStick.

And that strikes me as sort of a big deal.

This wasn't the first time I'd noticed low-end electronics being hawked in a store where you wouldn't expect to find 'em, and near the cashiers to boot. Last month, while shopping for irregular tube socks at T.J. Maxx, I came across a shelf stuffed with ear buds and, oddly, large-buttoned remote controls—items that had obviously fallen off the proverbial truck. I didn't notice any takers, but T.J. Maxx (I suspect) isn't run by cretins; I'm sure someone at corporate headquarters was tipped off that, after a long hour or two of trying on size XXXL sweatpants, your average shopper may be unusually open to the idea of replacing their iPod's ear buds.

The obvious moral here is that consumers have grown inured to the ever decreasing lifespans of gadgets. I don't want to dump on the iPod too much, but I shudder to think what Apple's done to the next generation's expectations regarding how long a $300 piece of hardware should last. If no one expects a fancy MP3 player to survive much beyond the warranty's expiration, then what are they supposed to expect out of a USB beverage warmer? Or a shower radio? You've got the admire the sinister genius at work among the tech industry's powers-that-be. We've been conditioned to assume that low-end means low-qual, an equation that needn't necessarily be true.

But you've also got to consider—and, perhaps, lament—how quickly the satisfaction of buying a new gadget tends to dissipate. The thing about impulse buys like ChapStick, nail clippers, and breath mints is that folks get them even when they haven't exhausted their previous supply. That's the beauty of impulse items, at least from the vendor's standpoint—I mean, how many tubes of ChapStick or tins of Altoids do you have lying around? Probably a lot more than you need at any given moment. But we keep snatching them off the checkout-line rack anyway, looking for that quick hit of pleasure—"Hey, new nail clippers! Life is worth living!"

For us geeks with deep pockets and short arms, new low-end gadgets tend to elicit the same joyful, albeit very brief, reaction. You take home your $4.99 football remote control, use it that night, then wake up the next morning feeling slightly okay—the same buzz you might feel the day after your team wins the Super Bowlwinning $5 on a lottery scratcher. But the ecstasy fades quickly, even if the remote control works as advertised. You'd learn your lesson if it cost more but, hey, $4.99? You can barely get a decent Long John Silver's value basket combo for that. And so the impulse buying continues.

Not that I'm grumbling too much—I'm all for the free market, and people are obviously voting with their wallets if a chain like Bed Bath & Beyond sees fit to hawk iBlaster Retractable Ear Buds for $9.99. But as a controversial, now-legendary Gizmodo Ombudsman column once opined, perhaps it's wise to resist the urge to buy everything on God's green Earth that contains a circuit board. This is precisely what The Man wants you to do, which is why the iSing is positioned, Siren-like, near the Bed Bath & Beyond cash register. He knows your baser geek instincts will take over once confronted with such a novelty.

Low End Theory: Gadgets Are the New ChapStick

I was thisclose to heeding the Siren's call at Bed Bath & Beyond, but I didn't give in. Not that I'm calling myself a hero or anything, but I did save five bucks by resisting the urge. And I'm thus that much closer to finally having enough to buy that Apple TV thingamajig that's been haunting my dreams. And when that happy day arrives, man, that'll be a hit of rapture that a zillion iSings couldn't equal.

And, no, I don't expect my Apple TV to last more than a few days beyond the warranty's expiration. I just can't help myself on this one, and I'll bet you can't, either.

(By the way, if you ever see a low-end gadget positioned as an impulse item, please snap a camphone pic and let me know. Or just take the easy way out and share your finds in comments.)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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