Why consumers won't buy tablets (unless they're iPads)

Why can't non-iPads sell? Because the consistent marketing experience from Apple is something that competitors simply cannot reproduce.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

Can anybody besides Apple can make a tablet that can sell? That question rises yet again with word that the HP TouchPad is not selling well. If this is true, it puts the TouchPad in the same camp as all other tablets except the iPad. The line from the movie "if you build it they will come" has been proven conclusively to not apply to tablets, as HP is now discovering.

Why can't non-iPads sell? It's not like products such as Honeycomb tablets or the webOS-based TouchPad aren't acceptable to the market. They may not match the iPad in every area but by and large they are mostly functionally equivalent. It seems that all of the tablets don't appeal to the same market that is attracted to the iPad, which continues to sell as fast as Apple can make them.

The only way for any tablet maker to hit big sales is to break through the mainstream consumer market. Not the techies who follow the world of tablets looking for the Next Big Thing, but the regular folks who rarely buy technology items. These millions of folks are the ones who snatch up the iPad but aren't grabbing the competing products in Best Buy or other retailers. The iPod crowd, in other words.

If you think back to the prelaunch hype of the original iPad, Apple never aimed it at the techie crowd. They didn't go after the MacBook crowd nor even the iPhone crowd. They went after the audience that had been buying iPods by the hundreds of millions. The ones who didn't care if this new large iPod could replace their computer. The crowd that had no interest in whether the iPad could talk to their computer or iPhone. Regular people were the target for the iPad, and Apple's approach has proven successful with huge sales numbers.

Sure it helped that Apple had produced a solid product in the iPad, but those who remember the product originally launched remember it wasn't perfect. The tech world jumped on its shortcomings like it does all new products, but buyers didn't care. They weren't paying attention to the tech world. They were only paying attention to the message Apple put out to the public. The same message they used for years with the iPod, for this was the audience Apple wanted to reach.

This audience had been proving for years that if a product was simple, well designed and iconic, they would buy it. They are the crowd that not only lined up in Apple stores to buy the iPod, they were the crowd that shelled out big bucks for each new iteration of the gadget. The tech world laughed at the release of each new iteration of the iPod, as the same customers kept giving Apple money to get a slightly improved version of what they already had. The Apple faithful we called them.

Apple knew it needed to set the same tone for the iPad's message, and get the iPod crowd thinking about how "magical" the new tablet could be. That message was set out in all marketing Apple produced for the iPad. Every time you turned on your TV, you got the message; picked up print publications, you got the message; stepped outside and saw huge billboards, the message bombarded you. Remember the iconic iPod silhouette ads that made millions want the iPod? That same effect was created with the consistent iPad marketing from day one.

Apple didn't stop with just the marketing; it created a retail system that gave the same message. Whether prospective iPad buyers were visiting the Apple online store or a physical retail outlet, the message was front and center. The iPad was magical, the experience with it was everything a buyer could want, it was another iconic product in the vein of the iPod. This was the coup de grace from Apple, carrying the magical marketing experience right to the cash register.

This consistent marketing experience from Apple is something that competitors simply cannot reproduce. These companies are coming from a computer background for the most part, and they are set up to market new products to the audience that buys computers. That's why promotions around most Android tablets have tried to appeal to the tech-savvy crowd. Remember the early Motorola XOOM ads? Like virtually all tablet ads, they missed the iPad target market completely.

Even if companies producing Android tablets or HP with the TouchPad get the marketing message right to appeal to the iPod crowd, and I'm not sure they can, they still fall miserably short at the retail experience. Apple recognizes the importance of carrying the promotion all the way to the register, and competitors cannot do that. These companies either don't sell tablets themselves, leaving the important shopping experience to others, or their online retail operations are falling short at committing the buyer because these stores were designed for computer buyers.

If you don't believe that, simply visit hp.com and try to buy a TouchPad. It's in the Home & Home Office section, and the first thing you see is not magical marketing, it's a small sales page that compares the two models of the TouchPad. No pizazz, no marketing, just click to buy.

The same holds true for all online retailers selling tablets. They are designed for selling computers, and expect the customer to have some idea what they want coming in. Their sites aim to help you decide between competing products, which assumes some prior knowledge. There is no sales technique at play, simple point and click to buy. Or to leave, which is apparently what most customers are doing if sales numbers are accurate.

Physical retailers are even worse for non-iPads than the abysmal mixed online experience. Go in any Best Buy or other big box retailer that carries tablets and there's no telling what you'll find. Maybe there will be a counter with tablets scattered all over. Maybe some of them will actually work. The only consistent part of the retail buying experience for tablets is that the sales reps don't know much about any of the products, much less help you decide which one is right for you. They don't care, frankly, and that message gets through loud and clear.

The sad part of this whole tablet debacle is that many of the products not selling are quite good. They are no iPad, as we are all fond of saying, but they are decent products that would serve the market just fine. That market will never end up getting near them, unfortunately, and will certainly never be shown why they should buy one.

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