What were they thinking? Part 2- The VCR high priests

I have written before of businesses that institute policies that drive customers away, such as the grocery store with no prices on the items and the retail store that had so few clerks manning the checkout stations that the long lines made shopping a turn-off. The other day, I remembered a very early manifestation of this “what are they thinking” phenomenon; one from years ago.

Back in the 1970s, (yes, I am that old) VCRs that made it possible to record TV shows came out and they were a fascinating, and expensive novelty. They were expensive ($700-1500) and sold mostly by electronic or specialty stores in malls. (The Internet was still just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye at the time.) My wife and I dropped in on such a place at the local mall to see if we wanted to take the plunge. The only way we would consider one would be if it was a basic, less expensive model.


The shop was brand new and only sold VCRs. Great, we thought. They should know what they are talking about. inside were cloth-covered display tables of various heights and on the tables were a variety of the newfangled machines, still gleaming from the factory. Our plan had been to see what the various prices and features were and decide accordingly, but like everyone else at the time. we had no real experience in these things because they were so new. We immediately ran into  a problem: there were no prices marked or listed. We called a salesman over, and noticed he was wearing a suit, which we took as a possible sign of either high prices, pretentiousness, or both.

He confirmed that the prices were not on display, because “it doesn’t work that way.”

“So, how does it work? Charades?”

“Different models have different features and are best for different uses.”

“It’s a video recorder,” I said. “What else can you use it for…a doorstop?”

“Well, you might record frequently or sporadically. You might record to build an archive of movies or programs, or you might record as a way to watch programs the next day. You might rerecord over and over on the same tape.”


“You tell us how you plan to use the VCR and we will determine exactly which model best suits those requirements. Then we can talk about price.”

“I can’t just buy the cheapest and see how it goes?”

“No. We will determine which VCR is best for you.”

“But I have never had a VCR. I really don’t know exactly how I will use it yet. If the price isn’t right, I don’t want one at all.”

“We can discuss your preferences for what you watch now and come up with ways to use your new VCR to enhance the experience. Then we will be able to determine which model is best for you.”

“Or…I could go somewhere that doesn’t treat prices as a state secret. Thanks for your time.”

The place was out of business within six months. They had a hot new product, but found a way to make it hard for customers to buy it. If they had simply offered the sales consultation as an option, that would have been a good feature for some people, but making it the only way to buy was a huge turn off for the casual buyer.

What were they thinking?

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