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Ecommerce And Planned Obsolescence

Dec 2, 2007
Have you ever heard of the term 'planned obsolescence'? Prior to 1920 products were made with the intent to stand the test of time. These products were sturdy; often hand machined, and ultimately provided the best in long-term value.

The problem experienced by business owners and craftsmen was the lack of return customers. You see, you could have all the satisfied customers in the world, but if you could not get them to return as repeat customers the longevity of your business remained seriously in doubt.

In the 1920's and 1930's businesses began adopting the process of planned obsolescence. What this ultimately meant to consumers was that the products they bought would not last as long because parts were intentionally designed to wear out near the end of their planned lifespan. In other words if the company planned for the vehicle to last ten years parts would begin to wear out after ten years or the total number of miles driven.

Essentially a company would determine how long they wanted to advertise the life of the product (i.e. a washing machine for fifteen years) and then produce parts as cheaply as possible to reach or slightly exceed that 'life expectancy' of the product.

By reducing the time between replacement of products the companies actually began to see an increase in long-term repeat sales. America became used to the need for replacement. In fact, carried to its modern extreme we would almost be disappointed if we couldn't replace common items periodically.

In the world of ecommerce the functionality of planned obsolescence could be an important component in determining what type of products you will carry. For instance if you develop a business around a highly desired product that has an extended life expectancy you would need many more customers over a long period of time than if you chose a product that is highly desired and is often replaced by a smaller customer base. It might be the difference between selling a quality furnace and furnace filters. One lasts a long time and the other requires regular replacement.

Electronic devices may have the ability to last longer than they are typically used, but most consumers will replace them when the next generation of the device is unveiled. In this case planned obsolesce is made possible due to consumer demand for increased functionality.

A business developed around candles is an example of the need for a higher volume of customers. Unless a customer lights a candle each night the need for additional candles is diminished no matter how beautiful or well scented the candles might be. In this case an emphasis on candles as gifts may allow existing customers to become repeat customers.

This article is not designed to encourage you to pursue one type of product over another, but to draw your attention to the dynamics involved in consumer purchasing patterns of certain items. It is also designed to demonstrate that the longevity of the item's usefulness has a bearing on how you should ultimately market the product.
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