Connected products aren’t like traditional gadgets, which may last long after the original manufacturer goes defunct. In many cases, a connected product dies when its company does. This is inconvenient, but not surprising. It’s even becoming a somewhat accepted risk of using these products. What’s unacceptable is that the retail channels where consumers can buy these products haven’t adapted to the connected era.
I was in Target’s Open House in San Francisco last week when I came across a Hiku kitchen magnet for sale. The Hiku is a connected device that was released in 2016; it lets you say a product name or scan a UPC code to add that product to a shared grocery list. It was an Amazon Dash Wand before the Amazon Dash Wand existed, and without being tied to Amazon’s ordering system. But back in May, Hiku sent a letter to users saying it was shutting down the service at the end of the month. Well it’s July and while the Hiku service is still up and running, no one should spend $50 on a device that could be turned off at any moment.
I emailed Rob Katcher, CEO of Hiku, who said he needed to talk to Target to get the device off the shelf. All of which highlights a huge gap in the retail channel when it comes to dying or defunct connected device companies. Who tracks store shelves, Amazon, or other retail channels to ensure that devices that are useless without a working back end service get pulled when the company stops providing that service?
Amazon offers dozens of examples of this. Most recently, on this year’s Prime Day, one could buy a Jibo robot for $499. Actually, as of Thursday July 26th, one could still buy it, for $699, despite the fact that the company has laid off a majority of its work force and is pursuing a sale of the business. For most people, spending $700 for a device that could become quickly obsolete would hurt.
But the case of Jibo and Hiku also show how hard it is for retailers to navigate these new connected device waters. On Amazon, customers can leave reviews with relevant information, and Amazon does sometimes pull defunct products (and can police third-party sellers offering defunct products), but much of the onus is on the buyer. Caveat emptor is very much the name of the game in the connected world.
So when should a retailer pull stock? When a company lays off its workers and tries to find a buyer? At that point it’s still a functioning business that might make it; selling more products could even help that process. Should the retailer pull stock after a company says it will close down and gives an end date to product support? What if that end date is a year into the future?
And what about the responsibility of the manufacturing company? Should a failing company have a process in place to notify all potential sellers of its plans to shut down? Customers get emailed notices, but do retailers? And do those retailers follow through? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered through Best Buy or Home Depot and seen in the clearance bin connected light bulbs that I know are no longer supported. Sure those bulbs may work as bulbs, but they also have components that allow them to be connected to a network, which could provide a vulnerability going forward.
As it stands, we can’t expect to buy a product and forget about it. There are updates and services that will come with all connected devices. Given this, how should retailers adapt the retail channel for the connected world?