Month: January 2010

Consumer Electronics Show Fails

CESWebLogoI recently attended my first Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Several years ago I had a consulting gig at the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper and my hotel was right next to the CES.  Each night I saw see people pour in to the hotel lobby with bags of swag.  The swag was el-primo:  USB drives, mugs, music players, tiny pocket cameras and BMWs.

I made it my mission to find a way to attend that glorious giveaway event someday.

The CES is only open to people “in the bidness.”   I’ve worked in newspapers my entire life (in print production and I.T.) and probably could have scammed my way in by pretending to be a technology reporter.  I don’t have the nerve to pull off something like that.

Now that I sit behind a desk at a software company, it was easier to get credentials to attend the show.  I applied last summer and was approved.  The anticipation and excitement bubbled until show day.

I attended with my buddy and co-worker, Blaine.  We were most interested in looking at digital photography gear and ways to embed GPS coordinates in photos that newspaper journalists shoot.  The systems that we sell can then use that GPS data to create maps and help researchers find data specific to a location.

We wanted to see cool new stuff.

Oh, and by the way, we wanted swag.  Lots of it.  We drove to Las Vegas from Provo, Utah in Blaine’s Camry.  We went with the bare essentials in order to have plenty of room for the giveaways that undoubtedly would be thrown at us.  We stopped just short of removing the back seat.

On show day we started at the hearty $29 breakfast buffet at our hotel.  We stoked our furnaces with piles of their very excellent hash browns.  Then we got on the shuttle to the show.

I’ll cut to the chase.  At least one chase.  There was no swag.

I know, I know.  It’s the economy.  But this is THE biggest show for technology, gadgets and fun stuff in the world!  If not here, then where?  And what better way to drum up business, build enthusiasm, brand or product awareness than to give away cool stuff?

So you’re selling website design?  Give me a 200 GB USB drive with sample websites on it!  Give me a big fancy mug!  Give me a music player loaded with your jingle or a podcast or something!!  Give me a camera with your logo on it!  Give me stuff!   I have come for stuff!

So, after about nine hours on the floors of two of the 36 buildings with CES content on hand, I came away with three ink pens.  One doesn’t write.  I also have several bags.  Bags like you get at the grocery store to reduce the number of regular plastic grocery bags that end up along the roadside or wrapped around bird beaks.

Several of the bags shed the ink used to print the logo on the bag.   That created a real mess in my suitcase.

Yes, I joke about wanting free stuff, but the real message here is that I left with nothing to show my cronies back at the office.  I saw 14,325 vendors and I don’t remember #349 because they weren’t’ giving away anything to help me remember their product or message.

But the misses don’t end there.  I totally understand that a business could spend huge sums on giveaways and most of them would not yield any benefits.  I’m sad, but I get it.

However, this is the biggest show for the industry.  The heavy hitters and newbies are there for this one chance to make an impact and build sales momentum for the coming year.  And in so many, many instances, they totally botched it.


Many vendors had very elaborate displays with great graphics, blinding lights, booming music and sexy models prowling around.  Okay, I see you, but who are you?  I see your name on the $50,000 banner…but what does “Superdohicky” do?

Display after display left me thinking “Okay, here you are, but what do you do?”  “What do you sell?”  “Do I want to step in or keep walking?”

So much money and effort apparently went into the production of booths, why didn’t they include something that would tell a passerby what product or service is offered there?

I was interested in anything about digital imaging.  If you sell retrofit home wiring systems, I’m not the least bit interested in you.  And you don’t want me in your booth because you’ll be wasting time and effort on a dude who is going to throw you zero business.

Another impact of not having a good visual message is that the salespeople on the floor feel compelled to latch on to every warm body to try to TELL them why they should be interested in them.

“Do you wish you could do your job better?” one sales kid asked of every ear canal in range.  Well sure, the obvious answer is that most of us probably wish we could do our jobs better.  But what an ineffective, slow and plodding way to try to get people into your booth!!  Imagine if they just added the words “We Do Process Analysis To Improve Your Workflow” to their signage!

Since I’m after digital imaging I’m going to walk right by and I won’t waste my time or yours.  On the other hand, Freddie is frustrated by all the steps it takes to make his widgets, so he’d be interested in hiring a third set of eyes to review his processes and maybe shave off some hours in his manufacturing process.  He’s the guy you want, not me.  A few words would have made these types of displays far more effective.


Maybe I’ve said it before, but CES is the biggest thing in the world for these people.  They plan all year (at least you’d think they would).  They put a lot of eggs in this basket.  You’d think they’d carefully select the people they put out in public.  No, I’m not saying that people with horns, three eyes or antennae should be banned from the show.  But those chosen to work the show should be coached, prepped and ready!

This usually was not the case.

I like radios.  I have several old radios and have spent years looking for the perfect floor model from the 1930s.  I’m also an amateur woodworker.  So when I saw the Pure radio display of cool tabletop radios made with lots of wood, I was interested.  No, I’m not going to buy 10,000 units for my chain of electronics stores.  But I might want one for my desk at work.  But you don’t know that yet.  And you really shouldn’t care — a sale, interest, consumer enthusiasm, word of mouth:  all of it should be like gold to you!

So I started to fondle and drool over the radios.  They’re very cool.  They look retro.  They’re well-made.  They have built-in rechargeable batteries.  They have jacks for external players.  They have a USB port.  So I was ready to buy!!  I was very interested.

I wanted to hear it play.  Doh!  It wasn’t plugged in!  The battery wasn’t charged!  They must have had 50 radios on display but most of them weren’t even set up to work.

A sales dude came over and started to tell me all the great features about the radio in my hands.  He told me all the same stuff that was on the printed placard beside the radio.  But of course I wanted to know how much the thing costs.

“What’s the price on this one?”  I asked.

“Ummmmm….” the dude responded.  He actually looked panicked.  You’d think I had just yelled “Fire!”

“Let me see if I can find a price sheet somewhere.” He said and scurried off.

Excuse me?  You don’t know how much it sells for?  Isn’t that why you’re here…to sell stuff?

He walked around, conferred with associates and pointed at me like I had  just insulted his mother.

I hung around for about five more minutes while various Pure People huddled and pointed.

To this day I don’t know how much it costs.  Or where to buy it.

By contrast, I stopped at a teeny, tiny booth.  One of those tucked around on the back side of a row.  The CES low rent district.

This guy was selling radios very similar to what Pure had on display.  I have to think Pure’s booth costs six figures.  This guy was by himself and had set his products up on folding tables.   Maybe he financed his entire display by collecting empty soda cans littered around the nearest state park.  But his radios looked just as cool as Pure’s.

I generally think twice or five times before entering the tiny booths because you’re really trapped.  They can put the sales spiel on you or start asking probing questions about you, your business, your Dun and Bradstreet listing and your shoe size.  Often the only way to leave is to be downright anti-social and walk away.

But that’s not how this was.  This guy, I think he was from India, was on his game.  Here’s about how it went:

Radio Dude:  “Hello.  I have here a line of very high quality tabletop radios.  We use beautiful woods for the case, internal antennas and have great sound quality.  Inside is a rechargeable battery that lasts about 10 hours.  We support USB and auxiliary connections.”

Quick.  To the point.  Told me what he had.  My choice to stay or move on.

I stayed.

I went to a radio and turned it on.  It worked.  In fact, every radio he had was plugged in.  Even those that were turned off were pre-tuned to an actual station.  They were ready to try.  The radio sounded great.  It was heavy.  It was solid.

Radio Dude:  “If you have any questions, please just ask.”

He didn’t hound me.  He was there if I needed him.  He had good signs that told me all the details about each model…except price.

Me:  “What’s the price on this one?” I asked, thinking the good experience was about to fall apart.

Radio Dude:  “Are you interested in bulk wholesale pricing or individual pricing?”

Me:  “I’m not a reseller, I’m just interested for myself.”

Radio Dude:  “The one you’re looking at is listed at $279.  The range of our models goes from $225 to $500.”  He reached behind his table and pulled out a small card.  “This web address will show you a list of current resellers where you can buy one.”


The guy was nice, knew his product, and didn’t try to “sell” me.  The big Pure kids could have learned a lot from him.


You shouldn’t lie.  It’s a bad thing.  It’s naughty.  If I had a five-year-old, he’d know better.

But it’s especially bad when you lie to me about your competitor’s product when I can walk down the aisle and see your competitor’s product and instantly know you’re a weasel

This happened when we stopped at the booth of a company that makes hard-sided foam-filled cases for schlepping fragile gear around the world.   These cases are made for shipping cameras, computers and the like.

We liked this particular vendor it had many cases out on display and were happy to let us play with them.  They also had these clever spring-loaded latches that looked really cool.

The representative told us that “no other manufacturer” had “any kind of latch” like it.  He added that “all other manufacturers” used latches that could be bumped open.  Wow, we were impressed.  We sure didn’t want our case being “bumped open” to let our netbooks, cameras and Ming vases fall out onto the pavement.

Then we asked about a handle and wheels, which the case in question did not have.  He said that “nobody puts handles and wheels on these very large cases” because they just don’t hold up.

Still, the case was very impressive and we took a flyer and thought about stopping back to buy a case for our workplace needs.

But lo and behold, not 30 minutes later, we were at the booth of one his competitors.  Not only did they have latches that were all but identical to his, but they had pull-out handles and wheels.

Now maybe the guy just didn’t know his market (though he should), but I think he was telling tales in an attempt to get us to give him business on the spot.  At best he should have said “I’m not aware of any other company out there doing this.”  But to say with such authority that he was alone in the marketplace, essentially without competition, was a really ugly way to do business.


One of the benefits of a big show like this is to touch and feel.  I’ve been to tons of car shows, gun shows and woodworking shows in my time.  They let you touch, try, feel and see.

I have an expensive scrollsaw in my shop that I bought years ago at a woodworking show in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The DeWalt booth had a bunch of them set up, with piles of wood on hand, so you could actually MAKE THINGS!  I fell in love with the saw.  It was so much better than the Ryobi I already had that I bought it on the spot and hauled it out to my truck!  Seeing it on static display in a store, or written about in magazines would not have made a sale.  It was three times the price of my old saw.  But USING it made me NEED it!

At the CES I was stunned by how many items were under glass and protected lest anyone might actually want to use it/

You may remember that I was interested in digital imaging and photography gear.   I own Canon equipment, so I gravitated toward their display.  I thought maybe they’d be giving away tiny, pocket cameras.  Or maybe they were giving away memory cards or cleaning kits or SOMETHING.

Not only did they have no swag but the cameras were under glass!  Only the very cheap consumer cameras were “out.”  And not very many of them.  And they had no power.  You couldn’t see how images displayed.  You couldn’t take a shot or two.  You couldn’t try out the controls.

What was the point!?  Maybe I’m trying to decide whether I want to get Canon or Nikon and what better place to COMPARE?

Such a wasted opportunity.

By contrast Kodak was loaded for bear in this regard.  They had multiple kiosks with seemingly every camera they make on display.  Plugged in.  In working order.  With a Kodak Person at each kiosk to explain, help and answer questions.  In fact, I spent some time with the very cool Kodak Zi8 video camera.  The lady at the kiosk explained how it worked, compared features to the other market leader Flip (without bad-mouthing that Flip was a garbage camera made by child labor in a torture camp in some Asian swamp).  Just facts.  And I was able to take movies and see them and really give the device a test.

If you’re going to try to sell something this is the place to let me touch it and use it and try it.

There weren’t very many computer vendors in the buildings we visited, but those that were didn’t even have their computers turned on.  And those that were had a password on the screensaver.

Do they expect to sell based only on the pretty case?  I want to try the keyboard, see what the display looks like, and see how responsive it is.  But so many vendors didn’t allow this.


The CES is an international show.  It’s held in America.  I’m an American snob I suppose, I do know that not “everyone” speaks English.  But I would suggest at a show like this that English is the predominant language spoken.  And maybe Spanish.  Maybe some of the languages from Japan, China, Vietnam.

But when I stop at your booth because you have a very cool looking box on display, with flashing lights and buttons that just beg to be pushed and I ask “What is it?” your Booth Boy should not say “Rugged!” with a thick unidentifiable accent.

I thought of course he didn’t understand me.  So I asked again, more slowly, “What is this, what does it do?”


Another Booth Boy walked over and I figured this one must speak English so he’s coming over to help out his friend.

“What is this, what does it do?” I repeat.

“We case metal.” he says.

Uh, yeah, okay.



The Eye-Fi wireless camera data card.

Clearly the highlight of our visit to CES was the Eye-Fi booth.  Photography is my biggest hobby.  And the software company where I work sells content-management databases for newspapers.  We’re all about saving, finding, routing, manipulating and displaying pictures.

I was particularly interested in the Eye-Fi product that automatically transmits pictures from a camera to your computer and/or the web.  And it can embed GPS data.  It’s absolute magic.

Before the show I’d done some research but simply didn’t believe it could work.  It would have been easier to get me to buy into the idea of a functional Invisibility Cloak than it would be to convince me that I could take a picture and have it move from camera to web without me doing anything.

But the Eye-Fi people were masters of the CES in my opinion.  We stepped up to the display and even if we didn’t already know about them, their display clearly communicated what they were up to.  There were quite a few people standing around with their jaw hinges in the full-open position.  Clearly something very cool was going on.

One of the Eye-Fi People was sort of saying to nobody in particular what they do…and if you’d like to give it a try for yourself, please step right up.

I stepped.

I met Berend Ozceri, a Systems Architect at Eye-Fi.  He had a digital camera and a laptop.  He took my picture while he was explaining what their product did.  While he was talking, my ugly mug appeared on the website that was open on his computer.

His basic spiel answered all of the obvious questions one might have about the product and left me as one of the jaw-dropped ones who couldn’t believe what they just saw.

He then handed the camera to me and said “Give it a try.”

Excuse me!  You’re going to let me actually try it?  Use it?  See how it works?  What if it does something bad and embarrasses you?

He didn’t care.

He wasn’t embarrassed.  It worked.  I took pictures and they flew through the ethers and showed up on his computer.

So then I started to ask the hard questions.  I got technical.  I explained the business I’m in and how we’d be interested in sports photographers for newspapers being able to shoot a football game on deadline and have their shots immediately available to a newsroom for print production while at the same time be on the newspaper’s website immediately.

He was un-phased.   He jumped right in with enthusiasm about the product, explained various workflows that would answer the need.

I asked more questions and he was totally honest when I asked about features that didn’t exist.  He told me what they planned to do in future versions and was honest about things they did NOT plan to do.  I trusted this guy.  He wasn’t blowing smoke.

I made it clear that apart from buying a single card for my own hobbyist shooting, I wasn’t going to buy anything.  I told him the best I could do was maybe demonstrate, recommend or suggest the technology to our newspaper customers.

That didn’t matter to Berend.  He stuck with me.  He didn’t get distracted by other potential customers.  He had engaged with me and he was going to make sure I had taken all the pictures I wanted, asked all my “What if?” questions and was now a walking and talking expert on Eye-Fi technology.

When I was done he handed me his card and said “Email or call me with any other questions that might come up.  If I can’t help you directly, I’ll get you the help you need.”

Clearly this guy believed in his product (which is easy to do because it’s so freakin’ brilliant).  He knew his product and he was expert at helping someone understand it.

At the same time, he wasn’t trying to get me to write a big check on the spot.  Though if I worked for a big-box store, I’d be buying tons of these things and selling them just like Berend was demonstrating them.  (And, shhh, I wouldn’t be selling them for $149, either.  I’d double the price still sell bucket loads).

And Eye-Fi  understood that I wanted to touch it!  I wanted to use it!  I wanted to see behind the smoke and mirrors and look up the sleeve.

This should have been the rule rather than the exception.  But I’m so glad I found these folks because they have a great product and understood how to interact with people.

I won’t go to CES again.

Even if I had walked out with one of those cool $500 radios made with aircraft-style dials and deluxe wooden cabinets.

I literally can get the same information by searching online or visiting BestBuy.

I’m no marketing genius, I’m just a guy.  But if any CES vendors want me to review your display ideas and presentation plans for CES 2011 I’m available.  My consultation rates are very reasonable.  I’m sure I have a price list around here somewhere….

At Leisure

FastTrafficI came into the world towards the end of all the hype about how computers and other technology would remove the mundane and tedious from our lives.  We would be left with a small amount of work to do and an abundance of time for leisure.

Oh, and we’d become a paperless society, too, because we’d get and share all the world’s information on “tubes.”  I stopped holding my breath on that one in 1987.

But where’s my leisure?  I want my leisure!

I know, I know…I spend more time sitting on my big cheeks than most people.  And I puzzle over those around me who are in constant motion and all the time busy, busy, busy.  But as a society, where’s all this leisure “they” said we would have?

I was just pondering activities that people used to do in the early 1970s and how Progress has dramatically shortened the amount of time required for those tasks.  Progress has in many cases totally eliminated the need to do many tasks.

ATMs and debit cards might be good examples.  I remember trips with my dad when he’d go to the bank for cash.  We’d drive from home to the bank which was a 20-minute drive, each way.  (Oh, and we’d make the trip in a Ford truck with a 390 cubic-inch V8 that, with a good Michigan tailwind, would get a stunning 10 miles to the 75¢ gallon of leaded gasoline).  Once at the bank we’d find a place to park.  Then we’d get out.  Then we’d walk into the bank.  We’d go to the glass-topped table to fill out a withdrawal slip.  Then we’d get in line.  We’d wait a little bit.  Then we’d get to the teller who would do some stuff behind the window and then give dad his money.

It seems so archaic and backwards now!   Today’s world has all but eliminated the need to even have cash.  Now with a debit card we have access to all of our money all the time — we don’t have to anticipate or guess what we’ll need.  So that entire 50-minute ritual no longer needs to be undertaken.  It’s gone.  Poof!

So let’s say we did that once a week:  that’s 50 minutes of time available for…?  For what?   Leisure?

Well, I suppose.  In reality I think other “work” sneaks in and eats up that time.  It’s subtle and takes place over time and we don’t even realize we’ve saved time on one hand while the other hand is creating more work that craves its own time.

Leisure seems to be a dirty word.  We look down our noses with some envy, but mostly disdain, at those countries where workers get what we perceive to be huge amounts of paid time off.  How can they compete, we wonder?  They must not be very smart or ambitious.  But we envy them and their time.

But if some magical new administration made it so for us, would we leisure-ize the time or just fill it with more busy-ness?

Some Type-A personalities thrive on being busy and filling every minute with work.  That’s just the way they’re wired I suppose.  I’m more of a slow and plodding person I guess.  I love my job and get very geeked up over a tech challenge that gets the juices flowing.  But I also look forward to those quiet hours at night when I watch some TV, read a book and am at leisure.

I don’t think leisure time, whether it be a few hours at night or a few weeks a year to travel, bake bread, take pictures or get back to nature, is a bad thing.  No matter how much we might love (or hate) our jobs and the day-to-day “work” required to stay alive and not be eaten by wolves, it is a necessary evil I think.  I mean, in the Garden of Eden do we ever hear about Adam going off to work or Eve toiling for hours picking up Adam’s socks?

Gotta go now, need to move laundry from the washer to the dryer….