Consumer Phrase of the Day: ‘Fear of Obsolescence’

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A significant chunk of both the workforce and the recently unemployed fear that their skills and experience are obsolete, and no longer needed in the workplace. Older workers in particular have been driven to extraordinary lengths to appear less dinosaur-like: Some are even getting cosmetic surgery to improve their career prospects. There’s another kind of “fear of obsolescence,” however, and in this instance it’s what’s holding many consumers back from buying new electronic gadgets.

The SF Chronicle reports that (big shock here!) consumers are frustrated and confused by the nonstop rapid blur of upgrades and technological advances. One obvious reason that manufacturers and retailers keep on rolling out upgrades and new models is so that they can keep selling new products. But at some point—and it looks like we’re reaching that point—consumers feel paralyzed by a marketplace that moves too fast to ever get caught up with. It’s hard to tell what to buy, when to buy it, or whether you’ll be scratching your head in a few months wondering why you bought the latest much-hyped gadget. I call this malady Next Great Whatever Fatigue, and it’s one of the reasons why consumers aren’t buying TVs like they used to, and why early adopters may feel like trendsetters or suckers (or often, some combination) of the two.

For the most part, these are all problems to be dealt with by consumers, not the forces trying to convince consumers they need new stuff, upgraded stuff, or just more stuff. But if consumers are so overwhelmed by the choices, and the fear that whatever they buy will soon be obsolete, they will buy less stuff—and that’s a situation that’ll grab the attention of retailers and manufacturers everywhere. The Chronicle story reports:

In a survey of more than 1,000 customers last year, Best Buy found that 40 percent said anxiety over possibly making the wrong product choice was preventing them from deciding.

“We were seeing a fairly new phenomenon, which is fear of obsolescence,” said George Sherman, senior vice president at Best Buy.

Best Buy created its Buy Back program—a system of dubious value in which customers can trade in recently purchased electronics for a small portion of the original purchase price—to allay this fear. And more importantly, the program was launched to convince customers that it was OK to keep buying stuff at a steady clip, no matter of the likelihood that gadgets would be worthless or outdated in the near future.

Not every consumer is motivated by fear, however. Many are getting off the new-every-two treadmill by simply saying no to upgrades they deem unnecessary and wasteful. Personally, I’m more scared of going into debt, or just feeling like a fool for buying something I really don’t need, than I am of owning an uncool and outdated cell phone or TV.

With Electronic Gadgets, Even the Concept of ‘Built to Last’ Is Outdated