By Brendan I. Koerner
Scant brainpower is required to realize that there's a strong correlation between a product's price and the number of middlemen involved in getting it to market. The more hands a doohickey passes through, the more expensive it tends to be—a major reason, I figure, as to why a gallon of gas costs 60 cents in Dhahran, but $3.45 up at the Esso station on 145th Street.
The bottom line is that it's always better to minimize the number of folks involved in the transaction, preferably by buying direct from the manufacturer. Alas, when it comes to low-end gadgets, most factories don't want to hear from you unless you're willing to ante up for 10,000 units, minimum. You just want one measly flash drive? Then head down to Chinatown with the rest of the consumerite masses.
But does it really need to play out like that? I thinketh not, and neither do the minds behind the Anergé brand, a straight-outta-Shenzhen line of thumb drives, MP3 players, and assorted other electronics flotsam. Rather than peddle to Wally's Discount Emporium or your local cell hut, this shadowy company is selling its wares factory direct—and maybe, just maybe, signaling the advent of a low-end revolution while they're at it. After the jump, the scoop on some seriously cheap goods, as well as some seriously Engrish-fied marketing copy.
I first came across Anergé while researching another column idea, on the stunning decline in prices for keychain USB drives. Froogle got me to this little number, a one-gig model for just $31.95. That sounded hella cheap to me, at around three cents per meg of memory—did I wake up in 2009? Or did I miss some sort of sea change in our collective understanding of Fowler-Nordheim tunneling?
I'd never heard of the Anergé brand that this drive was being marketed under, so I did the requisite Google check. Nothing, save for some product listings and a page for a Japanese apartment complex. Then I trolled the nation's corporate records, looking for at least a "doing business as" entry. Again, nothing. Gizmodo archives? Zip. And if it hasn't been mentioned on this fair site, well, does it really exist?
Turns out that Anergé products are sold exclusively via two affiliated sites, Campus111.com and USA111.com. Why the triple ones? As the former site so helpfully instructs, it's because their "goal is to make Your Satisfaction Assured 111%! No.1 Price, No.1 Quality, No.1 Service! Student Prices for Everyone, Everyday!!!"
The plethora of ones tipped me off pretty quickly that we were dealing with an author who's native language is probably Chinese—the fascination with numerology is a distinctively Chinese interest, as my pal Jennifer 8. Lee can well attest. And, indeed, if you read a little further, you'll see that, despite having a post-office box in Columbus, Campus111 and USA111 are really subsidiaries of a factory located in Shenzhen's Nanshan District. USA111, it turns out, is legally incorporated in Ohio, thanks to the legal assistance of this guy. But make no mistake, all the action is going down at the Fangda Building many thousands of miles away.
The deal here seems to be that the Shenzhen factory is pressing out low-end copies of existing designs, then stamping them with one of several, um, unique brands: Anergé, I-Spirit, and Smarts. The factory's MP3 players, for example, bear an eerie resemblance to an iRiver unit that I reviewed for Wired a few years ago. The major difference, of course, is price, and the ones listed at Campus111 really can't be beat—$39.95 for a 512MB MP3 player, $59.95 for a four-megapixel digital camcorder.
Part of their secret is obviously a willingness to dupe slightly outmoded designs—a classic low-end strategy. But you've got to think that the factory-direct element plays into their cost-cutting, too—the only place the product goes between Shenzhen and your doorstep is probably a warehouse in Columbus, owned and operated by the same businessmen. That means a smaller retail markup, especially since they're obviously competing exclusively on price. And, boy, God bless them for it.
The gadgets may not be exactly cutting edge, but this business model strikes me as somewhat futuristic. The Guangdong factories now realize that, if they're targeting the low-end market, there's not reason they can't bypass the discount stores and take the whole kitty for themselves. Campus111/USA111 knows that there's enough Internet competence out there to support a low-end e-commerce venture—in other words, even us cheap-ass types now see the wisdom in forking over for a sub-$20 DSL hookup, and looking for bargain online. And they've solved the problem of presentation—that is, designing sites that are professional enough to avoid skeeving anyone out about the safety of their credit-card info. (The factory also sells on eBay as a Platinum Powerseller, as the Campus111 site makes clear about 4,000 times.)
All that said, you'd think these guys would be raking it in enough to hire a somewhat more fluent English speaker to handle their copy. I can understand that they want to keep this a Chinese affair, but come on, check out a job fair at Ohio State and hire some poor English major who's wondering what to do with his/her life. If anything's gonna skeeve out a potential buyer, it's Engrish lines like: "WOW! ANERGE USB 2.0 FLASH MEMORY DRIVE. Your Close Secretary!" Or, my personal favorite, "Let's share happiness together!"
Um, let's not. Just send me some low-end gadgets, okay? And while you're at it, throw in one of those $1.95 copies of The Way of the Dragon that you're also selling. Doh jeh.