Is Apple Exploiting Consumer Irrationality?
John Nocera’s Sunday column ($$) attacks Apple for its business practices. Two in particular raise Nocera’s ire: (1) hiding Apple’s customer support number; and (2) building iPods that have relatively short usable lifespans. Nocera notes that Apple will repair iPods that die within the good’s one-year warranty, but suggests (through a source) that the device’s natural life is “just a hair longer than the warranty.”
Nocera claims that customers expect their devices to last a “good long time,” and we are “just not conditioned to believe that a $300 or $400 device is disposable.” But he admits having bought six iPods in the last five years, three of which were replacements, suggesting that at least one customer has been conditioned as to the device’s disposability. My own experience (3 iPods purchase; 2 replacements; 1 repair under warranty) are similar. I imagine that there are millions of Americans who are gradually learning that when you stuff increasing numbers of gizmos into increasingly smaller gadgets, friction makes for trouble in the motherboard.
But Nocera might be right in his implied argument that consumers are behaving irrationally by ignoring evidence like this, which would explain Apple’s growing market strength. The optimism bias is among the most robust of the cognitive tics exposed by experimental behavioral law and economics literature. We consistently underestimate the likelihood of bad things happening to us. So, although Apple’s one-year warranty suggests a steep product failure curve at month 13, we discount that risk in our purchase decision. This optimism is no doubt enhanced by Apple’s careful packaging, which makes it look like they’ve taken a swiss-like level of care in their manufacturing process, and iPod’s high-price, which suggests quality. That is, iPod’s effective life is a classic example of an experience good. Consumers are unable to determine the life of an iPod by looking at Apple advertisements (cf. price, design) and therefore they turn to Apple’s brand value to determine how long the iPod will last.
This analysis suggests that so long as Apple retains its brand – expensive, low-defect, attention to detail – it will continue to convince consumers to buy products with lower-than-expected lives. Competitors would be well advised to directly attack this brand. Why haven’t they succeeded?
Nocera thinks that one explanation is that folks are locked into iTunes, having spent time and money building a proprietary library through the software. This sounds like the beginning of a tying claim to me (although they better file quick, while patent-tying is still a strong antitrust theory.) But is a strange argument, because as I see it, iTunes has triumphed by virtue of its superior product characteristics, over an alternative format (WMP) that was supported by a titular monopolist! (I imagine that folks have thought about bringing an an implied UCC warranty claim for failure to serve a particular purpose – i.e., long term use – but that claim would be a stretch, at least on first glance.)
I obviously have mixed feelings about Nocera’s column. On the one hand, I concede that consumers are vulnerable to being misled about the life of the iPod. On the other hand, I love my iPod, even though I know it is not long for the world, and will buy another when it dies.
[UPDATE: Josh Wright responds here. Shorter version: the market will clear.]