What’s in a Laptop?

In the consumer driven world, choice seems to be everywhere. Gone are the days where you could only have the model-T in black. You can now have the model A-Z, in any colour.

confused man looks at laptop

How does choice work in the computer industry? The IT world is constantly changing and most people don’t have the time or care to stay informed; and yet consumers are still offered a large amount of choice. Does this customisability make it too difficult for the consumer to choose what they want? Are we making the purchasing experience too stressful? Will there be a rise of  default computers? Will customers finally rise up and say, “you tell me what’s good”?

Dell computers used to be the one place computer savvy people went to make sure they bought the system they wanted. The Dell website allowed people to customise almost every aspect of the unit; hardware, software, casing and lighting, everything. In the mid-2000’s this changed, Dell now relies on pre-built default systems with some minor customisation. This new method gives people just enough customisability to make them think the unit is ‘theirs’ but stops them from having a buyers overload.

There are some obvious consumer benefits to default systems. The units can be made quicker and cheaper for example. When performing tech support the technician doesn’t have to spend an hour working out exactly what is in your unit. These, however, are benefits the consumer can see and understand. It’s the benefits they don’t understand that should keep them coming back to a default system.

A fully customisable system relies on consumers knowing what they want and understanding how it goes together. In the computer world  it is a full time job staying on top of what is available.

Imagine you’re going online to customise and order your new computer; exciting right? Let’s get started.

Okay processor first, well that’s easy, I know exactly the one I want. Wait that isn’t the best anymore, or even the second best. Time to go and learn all over again what I thought I already knew.

6-hours and 6 coffees later.

Okay so now I know what I want, time to start putting it all together. Except that those two pieces of hardware aren’t actually compatible, maybe I’ll just have to upgrade the first one. Wait now it’s too expensive, I can’t afford that. Okay downgrade the second one instead, damn that won’t play that new game I really wanted. Maybe if I just alter a few other things.

3 hours and 3 Redbulls later.

Okays it’s the right price. Not quite what I wanted, but you win some you lose some. Time to review the specs I set. Wait is that right? I’ve changed it so many times I’ve forgotten where the hell I started. Let’s review the specs.

2 hours and 4 espresso martinis later

Okay, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I’ve raised the price a little so I can at least be satisfied with my purchase. It’s only a little higher; I’ll just order that. Wait, why are you now asking me to customise peripherals?

1 hour and a handful of nodoz later.

Okay it’s ordered. It’s going to take two weeks to build, longer then I was hoping, but that’s okay. It’s what I wanted; sort of. For the price I was willing to pay; kind of. Oh god what did I buy?

Congratulations! Through your initial ignorance you have ended up with something that is uniquely yours. It’s too expensive, going to take a while to get to you, and isn’t quite what you wanted, but hey it’s yours.

A default system on the other hand, though also not being quite what you wanted would have been cheaper and already on its way.

Numerous studies on consumer behaviour around decisions have all shown that with increased alternatives, attributes and uncertainty the consumer gets overwhelmed cognitively and emotionally. This normally has the effect of the consumer not making a decision or relying on other people to make the decision for them (in the form of default systems in the computer world).

These studies have shown that the default systems lower stress, thereby making the buying experience more enjoyable and the customer more willing to come back or recommend the retailer to friends. They have also shown that a customer is more willing to accept when the default system isn’t quite right because it wasn’t them that made the decision.

Where choice among defaults was available the choice was much easier as the alternatives can be easily compared against each other. Defaults do not require the consumer to go to expert websites and learn new things as the attributes are always simple and easily comparable. The consumer can also rely on word of mouth and user generated content as it will always be about a limited number of options, one of which will be the one they are looking at.

Yet here’s the weird thing. Dell suffered major consumer backlash when switching onto a default system. Dells share price went so low that the original private investor, Mr Dell, bought all the shares back. Dell had massive customer service issues as well at the time but the lack of customisability formed on half of the complaints. Dells experience is contrary to what the studies found, yet it happened. The modern consumer wants choice; just make sure there isn’t too much.

In the computer world, full of ignorant people, the consumer still wants to be able to customise something they don’t understand; or at least it seems like a good idea to them before they start. In today’s society consumers think; as frustrating as it is to not know what you’re doing, it’s even worse to not have a choice.

Marketers need to find the balance between enough choice to lure consumers but not so much that the consumer gets scared away.


11 thoughts on “What’s in a Laptop?

  1. Companies that offer this customization may need to look at their 4’ps again, especially in terms of Place. How and where the product is sold, technical staff may need to assist customers during their selection process to eliminate technical or pricing dilemmas, provide feasible options to the customer based on their requirements. Once a product is bough, customers should be provided with a clear mapping of the chosen specs used, which can allow for easier servicing in the future. To me communication and service is key to a product of this category. Now, to do this, a business may also need to consider costs of additional staff, and retail front which would incur higher overheads, which would lead to the question of overall profitability. Plan plan plan carefully, understand your customers and their buying experience, think about the long term usage and what services or support is needed.


    • Thanks for the reply. It seems right that the customer should have access to all the things you have noted but it also seems dangerous to me. The company has now included a single point for customers to direct their anger if they didn’t get what they wanted, the poor technical assistant.

      The assistant would be the expert in the room (one would hope) with full knowledge of how the systems work. Customers however have been told, and like to feel, that they are always right. They will come in to the store with pre-conceived ideas that will inevitably be wrong as the computer world changes so quickly. They are now however in a situation where the only access to information is the person selling to them. They will view this as a conflict of interest.

      The inevitable outcome. They will view the sales person as pushy and a know it all but they will have a good product. They will end up with a product that isn’t the best because they got their way, even though they were being told otherwise. Or they will leave without purchasing but feeling like they had their time wasted. Either way they will leave with a negative impression. The consumer will their beliefs to their friends and the company image will be damaged.

      I don’t believe that large scale customisability can be done in a bricks and mortar store without coming back to damage the company.


  2. Great post. Dell are very much an internet based company now that markets products mostly online (if we discussing home-based consumer orders), but I do like the fact that they have decided to work through the likes of other retailers, like JB HiFi to sell their product.

    As you rightly pointed out, the online ordering process can become daunting in itself and I think that Dell realized this and decided that for the portion of consumers that don’t jump on the web to order their products, need that extra bit of care and offering where they can walk into a store and get assistance.


  3. When it comes to computers/laptops consumers are expected to devote sufficient time to find out what will be good choice in terms of purchase, as computer is not a low involvement product instead it is high involvement product to most of the consumers, they are expected to do a wide information search, and then build up their consideration set and slowly narrow it down by holding on to their importance weights. Almost everyone needs a computer or have computer knowledge in modern globalised world even if a person is not computer savy still he must be having sufficient knowledge to know what kind of computer will be be best for him and if he is ignorant of this then ofcourse he is expected to go through the pain of information search and evaluation processes as it will be his money that will be on stake.


    • I am left wondering whether we can expect that of the consumer. Consumers generally make their minds up based on pre-concieved ideas, not fact. Although the method you suggest would be the best outcome for the consumer it relies on them being able to understand the information they are reading. There is simply too many alternatives, attributes and uncertainties. And too little time and bother.

      Offerings of default systems removes the need for the information search and so should endear a company to the consumer. The work has been done for them. Now they just need to pick between insignificant points. The laptop will work and (as a general rule) do what most consumers want, face book email, picture of cute kittens.

      So why do people want the pain of having to find out information?


  4. I had a hard time deciding which laptop to buy with only 4 options in the Apple Store! I think i suffered an anxiety attack just reading through this process, not to mention a caffeine overdose! I definitely would be too overwhelmed to make a customised purchase through Dell, however I can see how loyal Dell customers would be upset by the option being taken away. That was a huge point of difference for them, and I am quite surprised that they’d move away from the niche market they’ve created to join the mainstream competition with standardized models.


  5. For people who are not really too IT savvy from the hardware perspective, and there’s lots of people like that, and also not really too interested in shopping, the default option with maybe one or two minor differentials is ideal. Unless you really understand the product, sometimes time poor people just want a product that’s going to do the job, last the distance, and be reliable. I love your analogy!! That probably happens to lots of people when they get carried away deciding what they want to own, but ultimately price and function win out most of the time.


  6. A great post Ben, thank you! Just goes to show that buying anything isn’t as simple as it sounds, or as you expect it to be, especially when techonolgy is involved becasue it’s constantly evolving. Look at the current focus on TVs. How many hertz? Plasma or LCD, they have OLED now? Size etc. It can be mind bogling. A good experience with one particular item/brand can set you up for the next time, just as a dud can turn you away. Price & function may win most of the time with logical purchases/people, and given what we know of marketing & the other blogs we’ve read, just how logical are our decisions when it comes down to the purchase?


  7. Very good post and a great example by selecting Dell. As you and some others have mentioned, Dell once were the innovators in the industry by being the first to be able to provide high quality PCs and Laptops at very competitive prices. This suited most consumers that weren’t too fussed, and possible too well educated, about the technicalities of each component. At this stage they would have definitely fallen into the ‘star’ classification of the BCG matrix. However the increase in competition from ‘quick to follow’ companies as well as a more demanding and better educated customer has almost forced Dell to move more towards the ‘?’ classification.
    In saying all this, its probably important to note that Dell is still very much a market leader despite having to share the limelight with its competitors.


  8. Customisable computers offer consumers the choice that they want but they require knowledge about computers which consumers do not usually have, in addition they add to costs and the time required to manufacture and deliver the product. In short it’s a complicated tiresome process. Research supports the assertion that customisable computers increase the stress levels of consumer.

    Default processors (pre-manufactured) are less stressful, easier to manufacture and cheaper for consumers. Yet there was significant backlash when Dell switched to Default processors. The bottom line is consumers want both choice and simplicity, these goals seem to be at odds with each other.

    What is the right level of customisability i.e. a level not too complex but providing an adequate level of choice?


  9. Thank you Ben, it’s a great post and it is a good example on computer/laptops by selecting Dell. As you guys mentioned on top, Dell has been providing very good quality specs to the consumers. Both desktop and laptops are highly recommended with their spec by Dell or you can either select the specs by your own. After Alienware bought by Dell in March 22, 2006, Dell’s XPS version laptop had surprisingly improved to a similar level spec comparing to Alienware. By combining Alienware and Dell specs together, consumer definitely have more option for their laptop or desktop to upgrade or purchase. With all this upgrading specs from Alienware transfer to Dell Company, this leads Dell more to a market leader in the computer or laptops field due to consumer prefer and the quality that Dell provides to all the consumer.


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