Could 'try before you buy' with hardware work?

Summary:Could 'try before you buy' replace the existing 'buy and find problems later, and try and get a refund if at all possible' model? Deposit, try, return, get deposit back. Could this work?

Apple's App Store now allows you to 'try before you buy'. It is a smart way to reduce software piracy and it allows customers to try a product, ensure that it works and suits the needs of the customer. In my experience it does increase the chances of paying for it.

I've bought a few applications for my BlackBerry, of which the BlackBerry World equivalent allows many free trials and full-product demo's before you hand over your card details, and it has encouraged me to purchase applications of which I know full-well that I cannot crack, hack, or copy a key from elsewhere.

Some are apprehensive but I for one am pleased at this change in consumer process. Nobody wants to buy something of which then it doesn't work. It's pointless and it decreases the chance of a consumer purchasing anything again from that same place, brand or manufacturer.

And then I had a brilliant thought.

I would like to buy a Mac. Nothing too flashy, nothing too expensive, and something that will combine the hardware efforts and the software efforts into one single device, doing what Apple does best. Windows on a PC or laptop is a 'one size fits all' model and in my personal experience, this causes problems. With a Mac, it's not about the 'Apple culture', the social status, or trying to wedge a division between the two camps.

But the Apple store for me makes it difficult to spend any more than thirty-seconds in there because of the constant barrage of über-nerds, the eruption of an unparalleled social class status, Apple retail staff crawling so far up your arse you can taste them, and that more crucially, you don't get the academic discount in store.

I need to buy online. That's fine; I can handle buying something online because frankly it involves speaking to absolutely nobody. It means I can stay within my four walls of my city terraced house with the sound of the cathedral bells in the distance, as I punch in my debit card details and sipping on a cup of tea. Bliss.

The problem is, is that I can't try before I buy. You can to some extent within the Apple store, or any store for that matter. To ask for a demonstration or whether something will fulfil its purpose is not out of the question. You'll often find that salespeople will do anything they can to make a sale...

So I spoke to Sam Diaz, senior editor, and explained my quandary to him. He pointed out that in the US there is a cooling off period, where you can not only cancel your order even once a payment has gone through but also return goods after 30 days provided that they aren't perishable, personalised with engraving, or like sealed software discs with expensive license keys for example.

Again in my experience, returning a product within the 30 days which is not faulty can be difficult. It's not impossible, but it's not easy. UK laws are different but align themselves similarly to US consumer advice. So how about - instead of making a 'purchase' and 'refund' process, why not offer a 'deposit returned on safe return' process instead?

Renting a piece of technology would enable consumers who cannot afford to pay upfront would enable those in less economically developed areas to access technology, even those in affluent countries but are still marginalised by lack of home Internet access for example. Renting something usually costs more in the first place but it does knock down the price over a weekly or monthly basis to make it more manageable.

But instead of outright buying a new computer - give the customer an opportunity to really take it away, use it, feel it, learn the quirks, the design features, the speeds, how hot the device gets and all of these tiny but important things. In return, the customer puts down a deposit of the exact price the product would in fact ordinarily cost, so that if the device is not returned after 30 days or is returned but damaged, then the deposit is held onto and the customer 'buys' the product.

It protects the product manufacturer, but also the consumer. It allows them the time to really jump in head first into the new product and take time to work out whether this is an investment they really want to take before they cash out hundreds of dollars for something they hate after a month of use.

There are some issues I can think of which might restrict this from being a good idea. The manufacturer, say Apple in this case, would have to manufacture more devices than necessary at a loss to them, and these devices would have to be separate from retail products - because a consumer will want something literally brand new and straight off the production line.

Perhaps investing in a set of 'showroom devices' of which get sent out, returned and sent out elsewhere provided they are meet quality assurance levels to not degrade the experience for others?

And there is a risk that devices could be 'whored out' in that someone could put down a deposit for a new device, use it for a short period of time for a specific purpose, then hand it back after the work is done and claim their full deposit back.

What do you think? A viable solution, or an idea with more holes than a colander?

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software, Hardware, IT Employment, Piracy, Security, Software

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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