How People Really Shop for TVs

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 5 min read

There's been talk of the mythical Apple TV set for years. Apple launched the first Apple TV in 2007, and people have been asking ever since if Apple intends to just make the whole damn set themselves. They’ve left us hanging year after year, defiantly refusing to make one. They seem totally content to leave that work to others while they crank away on their streaming boxes.

But what’s holding them back? Apple makes great software and great displays. Doesn’t it make sense that they would bring us all the television of our dreams?

Well, I happen to have some experience selling TVs in my days at Target, and that experience has given me a couple insights as to why Apple might not be as eager to make a television as we might like. Just like when I wrote about who buys iPods these days, this is just my experience and is not indicative of the entire marketplace. That said, you learn a thing or two about buying habits when you sell hundreds (probably thousands) of something for 3 years.

The TV wall is one of the most-trafficked parts of the electronics department. It's big, bright, and engages the “what one would I get?” part of our brains. It’s where the most window shopping happens as well, as most people are just scoping out the landscape, waiting for a deal that’s too good to pass up.

People also have a lot of questions about TVs, so it’s the area where you got the most back-and-forth with shoppers. Most people walk in the door knowing what tablet or game console they want to buy, but most have no idea what TV they want. They just know they want one and figure it out in the store. I learned quite a bit about what people bought, and what made them choose the TVs they ultimately walked out the door with.

The most important thing I find most people looked for was brightness. Seriously, there is a reason television manufacturers crank the brightness up for “showroom mode”, it sells! I could have a $400 Magnavox next to a $700 Samsung and people would prefer the looks of the Magnavox every time. Every. Time.

There were a few times where this exact situation would come up and I would be asked what the extra money was for if the cheaper TV looked better. I would calmly explain that their brightnesses were simply at different levels and that it wasn’t a good way to judge the screens, especially since you’ll have each of them at lower settings when you get them home. I proved it to a few people by grabbing a remote and messing around with the settings so I could make as fair a comparison as possible. They were amazed at how quickly a "crappy" image could look great just by moving the brightness slider up a few clicks.

Now maybe I could have taken the time to figure out a standard setting I would get all TVs to and therefore get our customers a truly fair comparison of all sets. Well first off, the idea of taking the time in the retail world to do that was laughable. Retail is fast paced. Even when it’s boring, you have a shit ton of stuff to do. Second, and this sounds bad, but without the fake difference of brightness as a differentiator, many customers would not be able to decipher the difference between screens and they wouldn’t be able to make a decision. People need guidance when making decisions, and brightness was a simple one anyone can see and use to narrow down their voices.

If I were really smart I would have made the expensive TVs brighter and the cheaper ones darker to drive people towards the higher end models. Oh well, my job was more to sell TV accessories (100% to 500% margin) rather than televisions (-10% to 5% margin), but that’s definitely something I should write about one day.

After people have made their first impression of the screen (based on brightness), they move onto price. Not brand, not features, not connectivity options, but price. If 2 TVs look basically the same and one is $50 less, that’s the one people will go with. It’s a very price-sensitive market, and thou with the cheapest sets will prosper.

There’s a shockingly low amount of brand loyalty in the crowd I was selling to. The most common question we would get is “do you know anything about Vizios?” You can replace Vizio with any other brand and the question would still come up a lot. People would find the set they wanted and basically wanted you to say “it’s a fine brand!” I certainly noticed more loyalty amongst older shoppers. but even then they were more interested in saying “this is what I had, but I’ll get anything that’s decent”.

There were a few other things that sold TVs. Saturation is something some people noticed, but just like with brightness, the more saturated an image was, the better it sold. More and more people wanted a smart TV, but they were more than happy to save $100 and just stick their Chromecast or Roku into it. Finally, people would want to get more HDMI ports, but they’re so freaking stingy on all models that your options were usually 2 or 3; so not much differentiation.

That was my experience selling TVs for 3 years at Target. I sold to 18 year olds going off to college and needed something cheap and small, and I sold to middle aged men and women who had cash to burn and wanted something great. Our cheapest TV was $109 and our most expensive was about $1,299. We didn’t carry TVs that the John Siracusas of the world would buy, but we sold to the general public and I got a pretty broad spread of customers.

Based on this experience, I don’t know how or why Apple would want to get into this market. It’s a terrible place to sell something, as quality is widely passed over in favor of who can make your retinas bleed on the showroom floor. It’s a market with razor thin margins. It’s a market where your sets are sold by retail employees who simply can’t know everything about every model and often bullshit their way through their sales pitch.

But the same things could be said about the PC market. Margins are terrible, price is all that matters to most people, and silly things like laptop color are all that people care about. Still, Apple is able to make high end products that defy the PC market expectations. Apple shouldn’t do as well as they do in laptops when their entry level model costs more than just about any consumer laptop their competitors sell in volume.

And yet they pull it off. I think they are able to do this for 2 reasons. One, almost every new Mac owner has a terrible, terrible story they can tell you about their last Windows computer that made them switch. Two, people use their computers to get work done, important work, and the software experience matters. I don’t think that either of these help Apple get people to spend more on one of their TV sets. Few people hate their current TV, at worst they want something bigger. They also probably already have a cable box, BluRay player, media box, or video game console they’re going to plug into their TV anyway, so spending hundreds more for better software doesn’t have a great appeal.

The only way I see Apple making a dent in the market is if they can make us think different (sorry) about what our TVs do. Having a non-shitty smart TV interface would be a start, but they’d need more. Maybe it’s cameras or motion and voice controls. Maybe it’s a radically better-looking design that makes our black TVs look dated in comparison. Maybe it’s something completely different.

All I can say is what I learned in my experience selling these things, and I don’t think that slapping an Apple logo on a screen with a slightly better screen and software is going to be more than a whimper in the market. If they actually are bringing out an Apple television, it’s going to have to be something really special.