Shopping online might be convenient, but it’s hard to get a feel for a product with nothing more to go on than a few poorly-lit photos, a fresh-from-the-marketing-department product description, and the thumbs-up or thumbs-down of someone calling himself “SatansXLover.” You’re basically playing a game of Amazon roulette, where the device you decide to purchase can either meet your wildest fantasies or elicit nothing more than a resigned “meh.” It’s even more challenging to shop for connected devices, which are often equally reliant on their physical and digital aspects.
“Tech products are sold in a completely different way from anything else you buy online,” says Amanda Peyton, CEO and co-founder of Grand St*, a curated online store. Unlike other products, which are often purchased based on their price or appearance, tech products are “much more about what it’s like to use the product.” A tech product — especially a connected device — can look promising on a website but perform poorly in your hand.
Even if you can get a feel for how a connected device’s hardware works, whether by a trial run or by visiting Best Buy, you probably won’t be able to understand how it would work once it’s connected to the Internet. A salesman can show you a video of how the Belkin WeMo works and display the products and their packaging, but they can’t help you experience the WeMo’s Web interface or IFTTT integration, which allows the device to respond to all kinds of digital stimuli. Connected devices might bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds, but they’re frustrating to sell in either.
Distributors are trying to solve this problem in multiple ways. Some, like Grand St., aim to fastidiously curate their wares and send users carefully-considered, infrequent emails to keep them coming back to the website. The physical and digital aspects of each product are explained (mostly) without resorting to PR-produced double-speak, and the company constantly changes its product offerings with new or newly-discovered products, making it less like an Amazon for the Internet of Things and more like a Fab for connected devices.
Others, like Anvil, are trying to embrace the software aspect of connected devices by creating an “App Store for hardware.” Anvil isn’t trying to find and share the best connected devices on the market. It’s trying to sell everything that belongs to the category, and it’s doing so with few rules and little guidance. And, like Grand St., much of Anvil’s focus is on explaining why you might want to purchase a connected device instead of a more mundane product.
“We recognize that, in order for customers to really understand why they’re paying $250 for this metal thermostat instead of a plastic one from Honeywell, they really need to understand that they’re also paying for the software and services that go with it,” says Anvil CEO Thomas Marriott. He, like Peyton, believes that connected devices should be sold through their own “central distribution platform.” (Which, I mean, of course they do — they’re building companies to suit that purpose, after all.)
Despite all of this, however, neither Anvil nor Grand St. are really solving the problem of fully understanding connected devices before they’re purchased. You can read about Nest’s service, requirements, and features on as many websites as you want, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand just how useful it can be, or even if you can install one in your home. It’s a bit like sex, really: You might get a general idea for how it works and feels through secondary sources, but you don’t really “get it” until you’ve done the deed yourself.
A solution might be found by considering one of the least tech-related startups in recent memory: Warby Parker*. The company, which sells cheap glasses to hipsters, allows potential customers to order up to five pairs of glasses and have them shipped to their home without committing to a purchase. You place your order, get a box filled with whichever glasses you chose, and then try them on for yourself; once you’re done you return the glasses and either make a purchase or don’t.
This is probably the best part of Warby Parker’s service. Sure, the glasses themselves are fine and (mostly) affordable, but they don’t matter as much as the company’s willingness to help you make an informed decision. You don’t have to guess at what a pair of glasses might look like once you’re wearing them or rely on those creepy, not-quite-right simulators that put a pair of virtual glasses on your photo, or look like a doofus as you try on every pair of glasses in a doctor’s office.
It’s hard to think of a category better suited to this try-before-you-buy practice than connected devices. You wouldn’t have to wonder how many people had gotten their hands on the device before you or commit to a purchase based on nothing more than a few images and product descriptions — you could experience the device, both as a hardware product and as a service, and make an informed decision. That seems much better than having to put your Amazon Prime membership to work and hoping that whatever you find in that smiling cardboard box is what you really want.
* Warby Parker and Grand St. are both backed by First Round Capital, and founding partner Josh Kopelman is an investor in PandoDaily. Warby Parker and PandoDaily are also backed by Lerer Ventures and SV Angel.
[Image via Need Supply Co.]