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Bad Call! What’s your worst consumer product prediction?

For my high school graduation gift my brother Steven, who had just returned from Japan, bought me a minidisc player. It was so futuristic! The minidisc was far superior to its older brother, the compact disc. It was smaller, durable (no scratched discs), the player didn’t skip, and you could record entire CDs onto an individual minidisc, which cost less than US$1 apiece. During the first semester of my freshman year at Boston University, I gave all my new friends the minidisc sales pitch. Minidisc! It’s the future fellas! After my pitch, I’d ask to borrow their CD collection and I’d burn their albums onto my minidiscs.

It was a cost-efficient system that kept me buried in new music. That was until my friend Jarred introduced me to Napster. What’s Nap-Star?  After his two-minute Napster presentation (no sales pitch needed) and a quick primer about a computer file-type called MP3, I knew my 78 minidiscs and player were futuristic garbage.

Collaborating with consumers is an effective way to tap into the collective creativity and unmet needs of customers. But that doesn’t mean a consumer, or even a product expert, is always correct about what will be a successful consumer product.

What product or technology did you predict would be the Next Big Thing that ended up in the clearance bin?

Jack Cahill, Global Facilities Manager, Communispace

As a technology enthusiast and future IT guy, I was über-excited when Apple Computer, Inc. released the Newton™ in 1993. The first real PDA/handheld computer had arrived! I worked with PCs at the time but preferred Macintosh. I was sure that the Newton would bring Apple back into the workplace (and consequently, to my desk). Alas, it was not to be. PC notebooks were popular and getting more affordable. Early versions of the Newton were bulky, bug-ridden, expensive and poorly marketed by Apple. Popular satire such as Doonesbury and The Simpsons helped doom the device, which was taken out of service in 1998. It would be a while before Apple would tackle the PDA market again, but of course, that is a much different story…

Stephanie Bakkum, Community Manager, Communispace

Madison, Wisconsin; 1997. The film, “Spice World,” had just taken the world by storm and girl power was all the rage. Not only did Scary, Ginger, Sporty, Baby and Posh empower girls everywhere to start speaking in British accents and sing lyrics to songs that (I only now know) 11-year-olds should not have been singing; but they ignited a whole new sense of FASHION for 7th-grade girls everywhere … or so I thought.

Standing in Famous Footwear one fateful day, I could not resist the 4-inch, foam, hot-red, l.e.i. (remember l.e.i.!!?) Velcro® sandals. After all, they were basically an exact replica of what Mel B. (Scary Spice) wore in the film. I spent my babysitting money and the rest of the summer trying to convince my friends (nonverbally, of course) that they should get on-board too. Needless to say, the foam platforms did not make it to the next season…

Ed Chao, Director of Client Services, Communispace

Years ago, I was leading new product innovation for a kitchen appliance business. We had a high potential product concept – essentially, an electric countertop device which made great “slow and low” barbeque without all the fuss. The concept scored exceptionally well with consumers, garnering one of the all-time-highest scores on purchase intent. In addition, our retail partners expressed strong interest and excitement in our early planning sessions.

As the industrial designers and engineers started work, the early warning signs appeared. For all sorts of functional and safety reasons, the size of the appliance began to grow, as did the material costs. In the end, instead of a svelte device selling for less than $50, we had a cooker the size of a large toaster oven, with a price tag of around $80. Undeterred, we marched ahead with commercialization. Surely this is such a great idea that consumers will find it attractive even if we are off a bit on pricing or aesthetics. A couple of million dollars for tooling and several million for marketing later, we launched the product.  total bomb; after several months, it was off the shelves forever.

For me, this was an expensive – but invaluable – lesson. Consumers are not forgiving. If a product doesn’t hit the sweet spot on all elements, it will not sell, no matter how great the concept. Close enough is not good enough.

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