When it comes to cutting-edge technology products establishing themselves in the retail space, how important are early adopters?
Some would say “very.”
Apple, for one, has essentially built into its business model a direct appeal to consumers who desire to be among the first to get their hands on its newest devices, starting with the release of the first iPhone back in 2007, then the iPad and, more recently, the Apple Watch.
While Apple’s products are ubiquitous today, the company nonetheless maintains its strategy of relying on early adopters to help generate buzz for the rollout of every new item (or model), as doing so can subsequently make a broader customer base more confident in making a similar purchasing decision, thus establishing sales growth in the long term.
Initially, in the lead-up to the release of its virtual reality headset — a consumer product category as unproven in the retail landscape today as smartphones were in the late 2000s — Oculus appeared to be employing an analogous approach.
Months ago, the Facebook-owned company began taking pre-orders for the $599 Oculus Rift, giving early adopters the opportunity to own the VR headset by March 28 (the product’s official release date) and ostensibly — as was the case for Apple products before it — setting the stage for wider consumer acceptance (and sales) of the gadget.
More than a month after the release date of the Oculus Rift, a lot of those early adopters have yet to receive their headsets, with a supply shortage pushing their pre-order ship date all the way to August.
Disappointing as that is to those consumers, those feelings have been ameliorated somewhat by their understanding that when they do finally receive their Rifts, it will be well in advance of the general consumer populous, and they will remain rewarded, in that respect, for having shown their faith in — and committing their dollars to — an untested product before the majority of people can get their hands on it.
That was the understanding, anyway … before yesterday (May 2), when Oculus announced that the Rift would be available at 48 Best Buy stores beginning on May 7 (with more locations added this summer) and on Amazon and Microsoft’s website on May 6.
Is this shift a virtual slap in the face to the early adopters, particularly those who — despite having ordered their Rift months ago — will now not be receiving the item until three months after it first became available at brick-and-mortar (as well as online) retail locations?
While Oculus is saying “heck no” to such a notion — making it known in its blog post announcing the Best Buy plan that any pre-order customers who haven’t received their Rifts can cancel those orders, purchase the item from retail instead and maintain their pre-order benefits (including the “EVE: Valkyrie” Founder’s Pack and priority status for Touch pre-orders) — the company’s efforts at assuagement are not exactly keeping a lot of those early adopters from feeling burnt.
A central argument among that consumer group is that the understood benefit of having pre-ordered the Oculus Rift, in addition to having it before other people did, was that it would prevent them from having to wait in a line at a store to buy one — an advantage that has now effectively been negated by Oculus’ new strategy.
Furthermore, a portion of the inventory that Oculus had previously designated for pre-orders will now be allocated to third-party retail outlets, meaning that the number of early adopters (who aren’t willing to effectively wait in an another line) whose Rift orders will be delayed is actually increasing. While Oculus told Polygon that the number of units being shifted therein is “very small,” the author of an op-ed piece for the site [WARNING: link includes one instance of salty language; some people really are mad about all of this] argues that any amount of headsets being kept from early adopters is counterintuitive to the very purpose of a retail brand engaging with that consumer group.
As Forbes points out, a big reason for Oculus making the Rift available at brick-at-mortar locations at this time is that — more than just increasing immediate sales — it gives consumers the opportunity to try out the device. This is a perfectly understandable, arguably necessary, strategy element with regards to an untested consumer product. But is Oculus carrying it out at the expense of the potential sales boost that early adopters could have helped kickstart?
PC Invasion is among the (several) outlets that make that case, attesting that Oculus’ switcheroo rollout will turn off Rift early adopters to a degree that will actually benefit the sales of competing VR headsets, such as the HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR.
Hindsight makes it easy to say that a product like the iPhone would not have achieved the level of consumer penetration that it has without Apple’s reliance on early adopters in its positioning strategy, but clearly, Oculus — being first out of the gate, as it were, with a virtual reality offering in the retail space — is not willing to bank entirely on a direct connection between the most forward-thinking consumer group and long-term sales success, instead hedging its bets a little.
In that sense, ironically, the company is actually behaving like early adopters themselves — taking a risk.