Dream Tech Gifts Often Baffle New Owners

If you're struggling to get your new high-definition TV working with your DVD player, and are too embarrassed to call for help, you're likely not alone.

The complex maze of cables required to get a home entertainment system working has become such a challenge, retailers are quickly expanding their tech support groups to offer house calls for those eager to watch a movie or football game on their new set without a major headache.

"The manual was like Greek," said Colleen Morrison, who bought a high-definition TV for a husband she described as an "avid" New England Patriots fan.

"He was sick of watching … without high definition and I was sick of listening to him, so I broke down and got him a TV," she explained.

But now she needs to learn how to use this new product, and sought help from a retailer to organize the new system.

"We've got this big transition going on from old stuff to new stuff and the new stuff is always more complicated," said Ted Schadler, a consumer technology analyst with Forrester Research. "And consumers are definitely caught by surprise."

Retailers Spot a Trend

From digital cameras to flat screen TVs and MP3 players, this holiday has been all about consumer electronics.

The market research firm NPD Group estimated that sales for technology for the week ending Nov. 25 after Black Friday were up 12 percent from the same period last year, topping $2 billion. And the Consumer Electronics Association estimates that digital television sales for 2006 will hit $20.5 billion, up from $15.6 billion in 2005.

That points to a big demand for Tech 101 as many consumers don't know how to use the gifts they both gave and received.

In a study last year, Forrester Research found 50 percent of households with high-definition televisions don't subscribe to high-definition programming to make the new TVs worthwhile. The analysts also found 34 percent of digital camera owners don't print the pictures they take.

To fill that gap, retailers like Circuit City and Best Buy are expanding their service departments to offer house calls to bewildered consumers.

It's like calling a plumber, said analyst Steve Baker, of NPD Techworld. "If you don't know how to fix the sink, you have to get it fixed, it has to work right," he said.

Circuit City has 3,300 PC technicians and home theater installers known as "firedogs," and Best Buy's computer Geek Squad employs 12,000 technicians. The company's Magnolia Home Theater installation group has 2,847 experts, up from roughly 1,000 last year.

Baker said much of the confusion for consumers stems from trying to get their products to work together, from the TV to recording devices.

"We are in the initial stages of convergence and how we use these products," he said. "Digital TV doesn't do a heck of a lot of good without the accoutrements that you have to get the most out of it."

"We are at the infancy of those products working together to meet those expectations. Hence, we have to have some way to walk before we run," Baker added.

Don't Touch the Remote!

New TV owner Morrison was more than willing to pay the extra $450 to bring in a technician from Circuit City to have her set installed. She knew she was no match for the inputs, the outputs, the cables and the wall mounting that kept two professionals busy for an afternoon.

"I wanted to get this, but also wanted to use it, not just have it sitting in the box," Morrison said.

"These things ought to be intuitive and sometimes they aren't because [they] do too much," said Steven Kovsky, of Current Analysis.

"It's all new. Especially with consumers who have been out there for decades, baby boomers and pre-baby boomers, it's very difficult stuff," he said. "TVs in many ways do not at all resemble TVs we grew up with."

Kovsky spent several hours helping his father-in-law, who is in his 70s, learn to use the new remote controls for his DVD player and HDTV. "We had to take one of the remote controls and wrote on it with a Sharpie 'under no circumstances, don't push this button,'" Kovsky said.

Services like Best Buy's Geek Squad may get people out of a jam and make for happy customers, which is, of course, good for business.

Kovsky said service dollars offer a high margin of return, decrease the chance that customers will return the product and also increase the chance that customers will spend more in a store that offers better service.

And it's one service that offers big relief to those who just want to enjoy their new products. Kovsky said in that case, there's no shame in asking for some help.

"For some reason, we all think we are qualified to do this," he said. "In fact, it's become quite complex."