January 7-10, 2008, in Las Vegas, Nevada. I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but this year marked the 25th anniversary of my first visit to CES. CES has changed a lot in 25 years and sadly I don’t think it’s what it once was. Back in the 80’s, tens of thousands of independent retailers represented a large portion of the consumer electronics distribution channel. Manufacturers needed a show like CES to introduce new products to dealers, and decide what to carry for the coming year. You could actually see exhibitors taking orders from retailers in their booths. Today, a handful of national retailers represent the bulk of the market, and they expect private visits from the manufacturers to sell their lines. The cost of exhibiting at CES (or any show) has continued to rise, and with the consolidation of the market and the emergence of the internet, the value of exhibiting has shrunk. Today, the main job of CES is to generate industry buzz and serve as a press opportunity for the Consumer Electronics industry. Small, innovative companies have very little chance of elevating their message above the noise. As often as not, Mac World, successfully steals the entire news cycle from CES anyway.
Here are some of my favorite consumer gadgets and retail technology from the show:
So it’s not a shock that CES 2008 wasn’t very exciting. As a consumer electronics geek, I saw very little that I had to have. Sure, TV’s are getting better and better, and the stars this year were the super thin OLED based panels. I didn’t see one I want though, because there are no affordable ones in the large sizes that most people have gotten used to in their homes, and frankly a 0.5” thick TV doesn’t look much different mounted to a wall than a 1” thick LCD does. What did I buy as a result of CES? Logitech finally offered an upgrade to the classic Harmony 880 universal remote, called the Harmony One. The 880 was a perfect mix of all the hard buttons you’d find on a PVR remote, with a decent touch screen and easy programmability. It had some really annoying flaws (bad buttons, and flawed battery recharging), which the Harmony One finally fixes. I bought two, one for my living room and one for my bedroom. They activity based, so when you pick it up you see menu choices like “Watch TV, Listen to Apple TV, etc…”
The other thing I always look for at CES, as how manufacturers merchandise and demonstrate their products on the show floor. In theory, you’d expect an exhibitor who spends six or seven digits to exhibit at CES to have really thought the very best way to merchandise their new products, but in most cases they do a worse job than you can expect to see in a live store. I think the challenge is that the exhibits are usually outsourced to exhibit firms that are great at exhibits, but that don’t have any specific experience with product merchandising. It’s a shame that more brands don’t engage their own visual merchants to help with exhibit design; many brands have great visual merchants working for them.
In any case, there wasn’t a lot interesting from a visual merchandising perspective. The most common trend in booths was to use digital picture frames as shelf talking’s to give you the specs about new TV’s. It’s a reasonable idea for many product categories, but it’s kind of sad to use a 2-3 generation old LCD panel to try and sell a state of the art video display. I’d like to see more manufacturers cook their marketing message into high quality content that plays on the TV’s. Manufacturers also need to think about putting these super thin units on articulating arms or pivots, so shoppers can swing them around and see how thin they truly are.
Probably the best retail merchandising oriented demo at the show was in the Microsoft booth for their Surface product. For those that aren’t familiar Surface is Microsoft’s effort to commercialize an experience that was first demonstrated by Jeff Hunn of NYU at the TED conference. It’s a touch sensitive table with a built in video display that can sense multiple touches at once, and even recognize objects placed on the surface of the table. The envision Surface being used in a variety of retail and customer service environments. Today it uses a rear projector, and an IR based CCD to recognize touch. They are faking the object recognition for the moment, using pictographs with IR ink. Frankly, Microsoft has a long way to go on the hardware. They announced a set of initial retail customers that would deploy Surface, but almost a year later none of those customers are on the verge of live pilots, much less deployments. What Microsoft really got right however, is the great demo’s they invented for Surface. Some customer experience folks at Microsoft clearly put a lot of thought into how a multi-touch interface could change how people shop, and the
fake relatively scripted experiences they came up with to demo on Surface are all very innovative. Microsoft seems to have added a Surface demo to a lot of their trade show booths, so I highly recommend anyone interested in retail take the time to watch the demos and play with a unit.
My own employer, MTI, exhibits at CES. We generally get a great booth location (this year between LG and Microsoft) because we are the 37th most senior exhibitor at the show. Our booth really isn’t of interest to the average CES attendee, but because many of our biggest CE retail clients attend the show, it makes sense for us to have a booth. If you can forgive the amateur talent in some of the vignettes (me), you can watch a walk-through of our booth on YouTube.