What are the limits of built-in obsolescence in product marketing?
We know that companies like Apple and Ikea are constantly upgrading their stuff in the quest for more money and more capabilities. Customers line up around the block for a chance to buy the latest gadget, and in most cases people know what has been improved, even if they don’t know why they need it.
Sometimes a company replaces their stuff to try to trick buyers, like redesigning a box of crackers or shaving cream, just to keep people wondering what’s been improved. Every so often, a company needs to phase out products or reset their product mix to force consumers out of a trance.
And a lot of us hate this, we really do. I hate when I enter the grocery store to find that my favorite type of cereal is gone, or maybe it’s just been repackaged or renamed, and now I have to re-learn what I like. In the words of Scott Adams, every time a product is updated, we get dumber.
But we can rest assured that from Apple to Froot Loops, most companies are trying to make it easier for us to buy and appreciate their stuff, and product phase-outs and launches are just a side-effect of their quest for excellence. They’re not actually trying to keep us in the dark.
I love tea. I switched over from coffee almost entirely a few years ago, to try to fight an ailment that presented to my doctors as adult-onset asthma (only to discover that overall fitness was the problem instead). What was it that made me think it was the coffee? In truth, the amount of cream and sugar I was adding to the drink was probably a factor. But anyway, an Englishwoman I worked with showed me the merits of a good strong dark tea. “Those fruity teas make me vomit,” she’d say, and I’ve been drinking unflavored black tea ever since.
The only problem was that if you want decent tea, it isn’t easy to find. The supermarket carries mostly big-brand stuff that isn’t bad, it just isn’t great. A lot of them are one-steep bags, and even the upscale brands that offer a lot of flavors are selling a comparatively low-grade tea in throwaway bags. As a newly-minted tea snob, I needed one of those boutique-y places that will sell loose-leaf stuff by the ounce.
So when a nearby mall opened an upscale wing, they included a Teavana store. This self-described ‘Heaven of Tea’ was a place where they sell a lot of hardware, most of which I have no use for. Hot water is hot water even when it comes out of a $6 aluminum pot. But their wall of variety teas behind the counter was what grabbed me. I ordered some of their teas, mostly blacks but one green, went through Teavana’s patented hard-sell process, including the expensive tea tins, and walked out $85 poorer but a thousand times happier, laden with over a pound of tea that would last me for several months.
I loved the teas. The best one by far was a variety they called Assam Gold Rain, a black with a tinge of char. I found that this tea was unforgiving if I steeped it for a few seconds too long, but at the right time & temperature is was blissfully perfect. And it wasn’t even very expensive at less than $10.00 per two ounces (Teavana does this to confuse customers). I replenished my supply for over a year, and never had any problems with the staff although they did try to upsell regularly. Apparently Teavana employees are mistreated if they don’t.
All Good Things…
Then they discontinued the Assam. This was a disaster. First, it meant that unless I bought the rest of the store’s stock (and they did sell it in special tins), I would lose that mighty tea. But more importantly, I had no idea what I would replace it with, and I was now back to square one, an idiot at the mercy of the store’s staff.
Of course, this is Teavana’s plan. A customer who knows what he wants cannot be tolerated, and the only way to reset a complacent customer is to discontinue his favorite product. At Teavana, all the tea is kept in tins behind the counter, and a customer who no longer knows what he wants has no choice but to deal with the staff and their hard-sell. And the staff knows they have the upper hand. The Assam was about $9.80 for two ounces, and the staff at first refused to show me any new tea variety that was less than double that price.
So not only was I rendered a simpleton, but I was going to have to pay a lot more to find a tea that approached the Assam in flavor. Apparently, they discontinue tea a lot. Over a year after the tea was discontinued, I have yet to discover a replacement. And Teavana wants it that way.
Time To Dump The Tea…vana?
So have I met my limit? A cereal company that tried this on a regular basis would not sell me cereal for long. Yet, I know I have few alternatives. Small boutique tea stores in places like Salem and Somerville cannot offer the variety that Teavana has, and they’re even more subject to running out of batches and are at the mercy of their own suppliers. I don’t mind the hard-sell, although a more easygoing approach at a smaller store would be welcome.
I’m sure the folks at Teavana have their own reasons for discontinuing teas, one of which is that the teas are not necessarily as popular as I think they are. On the Assam Gold Rain, I call BS. That was definitely a popular tea, maybe too popular. I’m not saying these people aren’t smart. I’m just saying a business model dependent on keeping customers stupid defies my ethics.
Or maybe people really are trending toward fruity teas. God, I hope that’s not the case. It’s enough to make me (and my teadrinking mentor) vomit.