A few years ago there was an advertising campaign on television, the punchline of which was, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Like so many commercials, I remember the joke but not the product — I believe it was margarine, but I do not know or care which brand.
Recently those of us who follow the technological world learned, yet again, that there’s a corollary to the fake-butter commercial: If you fool with the market, you do so at your risk.
Here’s what happened:
Just under two months ago, the Hewlett Packard Company released its entry in the trendy tablet computer field. Its version was called the “TouchPad.” The technical specifications were impressive, reviewers noted, but it suffered from a lack of applications software — what we used to call “programs” but which those in too much of a hurry to say four whole syllables now call “apps.”. Whether it was a real challenge to the Apple iPad entertainment computer tablet was doubtful. HP said they were in it for the long haul, that they would do whatever was needed to be a contender.
It turns out that “long haul,” in HP terms, was something less than two months. On August 18, the company announced that it was discontinuing the TouchPad — and its entire personal computer business to boot (pun intended).
The company’s actions thereafter suggested they weren’t just stopping the manufacture of TouchPads. They seemed to hate the thing and wanted to be rid of it and everything that reminded them of it. In the technological equivalent of the cliched scene in which the angry girlfriend throws the boyfriend’s clothes out the second-story window, HP said that it was selling TouchPads for $99 and $149 for the 16-gigabyte and 32-gb versions respectively. They had originally been $500 and $600.
The sudden price reduction resulted in a buying frenzy.
There was at first a great deal of confusion. HP apparently hadn’t informed stores selling the device that the price was being slashed. At Staples and Best Buy stores around the country, people rushed in to buy their cheap TouchPads, only to find clerks who had not heard of the sale. That got straightened out pretty quickly, though, and by the time most people heard of the sale, the TouchPads were all gone, but the frenzy wasn’t.
Soon TouchPads started appearing for sale on the Internet, at places like Amazon and of course eBay, new in the box, for only slightly less — and in some cases more — than the pre-announcement retail price. I watched the Amazon page for a few days, hitting “reload” every hour or two, watching the prices rise and fall.
Within a few days the market — that amazing phenomenon described by Adam Smith and other economists and generally accepted until John Maynard Keynes brought raving insanity to economics* — set the price of the TouchPad. If HP, seeking to unload its TouchPads, had priced them at twice their fire-sale price, they would have sold just as many and made twice as much money. This surely would have lessened the sting of dropping a product that had cost a lot to develop and manufacture.
If the company hadn’t acted like a jilted lover in a fit of pique, it could have done much better for itself. Weekend before last, hundreds of thousands if not millions of TouchPads were sold at an absurdly low price. Smart and opportunistic persons took a risk and, where they found the tablets for sale at the new very low price, bought dozens of them. They then put them on eBay and Amazon and elsewhere at twice what they’d cost — and they made money.
The market always wins, and it is always right, and one fights it at his peril. It is not a difficult proposition; indeed, it’s something taught (well, it used to be, anyway) the first week of any elementary economics class: Price something too high and few people will buy it; price something too low and more people will want the product than there is product for sale. But there is a happy point, called “equilibrium,” where the price is such that the number of items for sale exactly matches the number of people willing to purchase it at that price. Everybody is happy.
You would suppose that the accomplished persons who run the enormous Hewlett Packard Company might have known this, in which case it would have been a simple thing to figure out a price that the market would bear, then sold their excess inventory at that price. I guess they missed that day in freshman economics.
The New York Times suggested that technology companies have become like movie studios: success or failure is determined in the first few days; there is no “long haul.” The HP announcement that it was in the game for as long as it would take was so unequivocal that now you’d have to be an idiot to believe the company’s pronouncements, on any topic, ever.
Over at Apple, the newly retired Steve Jobs, who knows a little something about long hauls, has to be laughing.
*Keynesian macroeconomics is an arithmetic game played by professors and politicians that unfortunately enjoys no real-world analogue; attempts to find one have universally failed.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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