RadioShack Starts Online Classes For Tech Prep

In case you ever doubted that America is being bullied by its proliferating army of cell phones, PDAs, HDTVs and gaming systems, it's come to this: RadioShack is now offering free online classes to teach consumers how to make their gizmos work.

To some, RadioShack's unprecedented offer should be a massive red flag to electronics marketers that products are too hard to use. After all, courses have titles like "Select, Set Up, and Configure your HDTV Set" and "Find out what's great about Satellite Radio," and run for two to four weeks each.

To others, it's a novel approach to a marketing problem that is vexing many retailers. Consumers want products with many features--the more features, the better. But they are also very frustrated when the product is too difficult to use.

"People are going to love these courses," predicted Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. "But it isn't going to solve any problems for electronics retailers. When products are so hard to use, people will be dissatisfied. So they'll either return the products, or marketers will lose them as loyal customers."

RadioShack thinks that by reaching shoppers in the critical holiday fourth quarter, they have time to learn exactly what they want in a digital camera or an HDTV--before they go shopping. The online courses are being marketed on the RadioShack Web site, through online efforts, and in circulars, said Charles Hodges, a spokesperson. While he declined to specify how many people have signed up, "we're very pleased with the response so far."

The Fort Worth, Texas-based retailer recently discovered that its wireless customers use only about 35 percent of their phones' features, and is hardly alone in recognizing how befuddled consumers are: In recent weeks, both Circuit City, through its new firedog service, and Target have offered consumers additional services to help them make complicated new devices work. And Best Buy was a pioneer in the field with its Geek Squad.

Nor can anyone argue that consumers want more complicated electronics. "Defeating Feature Fatigue," a recent study in the Harvard Business Review, asked consumers to choose between a digital audio or visual player with 7, 14 or 21 features, and 62 percent chose higher-feature models. When researchers asked consumers to choose from a menu of 25 features and design their own devices, they were just as greedy, tacking on an average of 19.6 features.

When they actually had to use the high-feature models, the majority changed their minds, and preferred devices with fewer options. Even those who selected the higher-feature models rated them as difficult, and were less confident about having made the right choice than those who selected the simpler machines. (It's no wonder, Schwartz said, that iPod is such a hit: it's simple and straightforward to use.)

"There's nothing wrong with making a complicated device," he said, "as long as the dominant use remains easy as pie."