How Do You Get a Million People to Buy a Gadget That Nobody's Even Used Yet?

The iPhone and the iPad are card-carrying members. Modern Warfare 3 is, like, the President. I'm talking, of course, about the Million-Plus Preorder Club. Now the Amazon Kindle Fire has joined the ranks. Before anyone even touched a Kindle Fire.

How does that happen?!

Until now, Amazon didn't even make a tablet. Sure the Kindle is technically a tablet in form, but it's a far cry from an iPad. Now, not only did Amazon build a tablet, but an Android tablet. A tablet with an OS that historically doesn't exactly wow people away from their iPads. So how the hell did the people who sell you used video games and Ginsu knives get over a million customers to pre-order a tablet no one had ever seen or used?

Not surprisingly one of the main factors is trust. Amazon has a great history with consumers. We want stuff, Amazon drops it off. You want to read books without lugging around actual books, Amazon has us covered. This trust was hard-earned. Amazon didn't get a million pre-orders for the first Kindle. (Hell even the first iPod was slow to get attention outside the tech press.) Companies like Amazon build brands that are so solid, they can sell products by just announcing them onstage. But this trust can be dangerous. Not for the companies, but for the consumers.

Remember the iPhone 4? It sold millions before anyone noticed that if you held it wrong, you would lose reception. It was a large enough issue that Consumer Reports did not recommend buying the phone, and Apple ended up giving out free cases to alleviate the grip of death. But even after the iPhone 4 antenna issue, we gladly pre-ordered the iPhone 4S only to be met with battery issues. That fancy new Kindle Fire that millions of people, including myself, pre-ordered could have a flaw of its own. The reported lag time is certainly pissing some people off.

So why do we pre-order when we know there's a chance we're going to end up with something that doesn't meet the hype? For many of us, it dates back to that traumatic holiday season of 2006. Remember how everyone wanted a Wii and nobody could get one? The much-hyped console launched and immediately sold out. If you wanted a Wii for the holidays, you either had to buy one from Ebay for way too much money, or become really good friends with a Best Buy employee. I mean REALLY good friends.

This created what Lars Perner, an Assistant Professor at USC's Department of Clinical Marketing calls a self-perpetuating shortage. Because we couldn't have Wiis, everyone wanted one. This led to a shortage that created even more demand. Great. It got so bad that people got into fist fights. Over a console.

After the Wii shortage many decided, that, instead of standing in the cold for hours on launch day, they'd hop online and pre-order something as soon as it was announced. Suddenly the buzz isn't about people standing in line at 2am, it's the huge pre-order numbers a company like Apple or Amazon can tout the Monday after a product launch. They've taken the opening weekend buzz from Hollywood and ported it to retail. The silver lining with pre-orders is that if a shortage does occur, you can just sell the device for a profit. Buy low and sell high while capitalizing on the buzz. It's the American way.

The dark side of this whole process is that as a society, we've become obsessed with our latest piece of technology. Professor Perner describes it as the extended-self. In regular-folk speak, we've become tied to our device or platform of choice. When your ego is tied to the tiny computer you have in your pocket, you're no longer purchasing because it's cool. You're purchasing because it makes you feel better and it's become part of who you are. Feeling good because you bought the latest Apple product isn't any way to live. So when the next product is announced, maybe we should all step back and think what we're about to buy. And while you're doing that, I'll be entering my credit card information.


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