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WebTV’s Shelf Potato Story

WebTV is a great example of a Shelf Potato success.

WebTV has been around for more than a decade. And while it hasn’t found a broad enough mass audience to dominate tech conversation, it has sold quite well to a niche consumer electronic audience.

But WebTV sold poorly at the start. The Philips version hit the shelf late 1996 supported by around $10 million in sexy :30 television spots. And, it sat on the shelf…and sat and sat. I have been told that it only sold when the regional specialists from Philips were in the store.

In the beginning, it took a specialist because consumers needed a massive information fix at retail. Unfortunately, in the same 45 minutes it took a salesman to make one WebTV sale, that salesman could sell 3 DVD players of equal value. So retailers didn’t drive sales because selling WebTVs lost them money.

Then, in October 1997, Philips released a half hour infomercial for the product. And by mid November, with only a few million in ad dollars, they had to take the infomercial off-air because they had sold out at retail. (And, of course, they put it back on-air as soon as the stores were re-stocked.)

Why did a few million dollars in infomercial time dramatically outperform over $10M in :30 second spot time? The infomercial solved the communication problem that kept units on the shelf. With the infomercial on-air average sell time dropped from 45 minutes to 5 minutes and it no longer required the regional specialist.

What lesson do we learn from this? WebTV was a perfectly good product with a strong market potential. So lackluster sales don’t necessarily say anything about the value of the product. And sometimes it’s a matter of putting out the right communication for the product to fly off the shelves.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

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