Product Spam Makes Tech Shopping Confusing, Painful

Canon sells seven different Digital Elphs, 9 different A-series cameras and 15 different all-in-one printers. Samsung's US website lists 31 LCD TVs—plus another nine plasmas. Garmin currently promotes 32 different models of in-car portable GPS navigator. I'm sick of writing up 14 products from one company that all sound the same, and I'm sick of staring at the "Compare Models" tool on a manufacturer's website just so that I can finally, in good conscience, tell my friend/family member/colleague, "Just buy the cheaper one." We call this product spam and yeah, it's getting to be a problem.

There's a famous and oft-cited work by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice that says when we have too much to choose from, we collapse in a heap of indecision. At the book's crux is a simple finding: if shoppers taste 6 different jams, they will pick one. If the same shoppers are offered samples of 24 different jams, they walk away with nothing.

Over the years, I've heard many arguments for multiple product lines: Different editions go to different retailers. Some consumers ask for a certain feature while others specifically steer clear of it. To be fair to Garmin, not all of the products listed on its website are for sale in America, and some of them are older than peat moss. But that simply shows product spam is as much a marketing problem as a manufacturing one: if it's out-of-date or not sold in a particular region, don't confuse shoppers by proudly displaying it on the website they visit.

The cellphone industry gets particularly out of hand. We laugh about Motorola's one-trick pony, the RAZR, but for most handset makers, the opposite is true. Most have 30 different ponies all more or less doing the same tricks. Sony Ericsson lists 34 phones as for sale in the US market, compatible for the most part with just two of the four nationwide carriers. Samsung lists 20 for AT&T, 20 for Sprint, 21 for T-Mobile and (a mere) 18 for Verizon Wireless. LG has a similarly busy lineup. There are some overlaps in there, sure, but it's still more than plenty.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of the first things he did was streamline the company's product offering. It's been a gospel truth among corporate reformers since the mid 1990s, but even Apple and RIM, companies praised for having a simple product set, are starting to slide into Spamsville. Why does AT&T sell both a BlackBerry 8320 Curve without Wi-Fi and an 8820 with Wi-Fi, while T-Mobile sells a third almost identical phone, the 8320 Curve with Wi-Fi? And there's no need to get started on the frustration that Apple is offering too many competing choices with its current iPod lineup, rather than the small, medium and large that we've grown to expect. It's not spam yet, but it does cause a similar customer confusion.

Perhaps it is inevitable. Fittingly, today, even the real Spam now comes with an impressive seven different choices. We will investigate this issue to make sure we're not being unjustly cruel to certain companies who have more than enough reason to do what they do. But the alternatives speak clearly. Compared to Samsung's 31 LCDs, Sony has 21 (and no plasmas), while Panasonic has just 12 plasmas and 3 LCDs. Garmin's chief competitor in the portable navigator space, TomTom, has only recently expanded its lineup to just six models, and business is booming. Motorola has just seven different core phones in the US at the moment, with various editions and tweaks available across all carriers. The streamline strategy worked with RAZR, though we're not sure the public will support the RAZR2 with as much fervor, in spite of its technical excellence. The reason wouldn't be spam-induced consumer confusion, though. If the RAZR2 fails, it's because of its lame-tastic name.

Tell us what you think? We'd love to hear your defense of product spamming, or your own finger pointing at any particularly offensive product spammers that have been bugging the crap out of you.

Thanks to Adrian, Charlie, Brian and Sam!