There has been a lot of talk lately about the long tail, and its effect on online retailing. Basically, the idea is that as the cost of inventory, advertising, and delivery come down, there is an incentive for online retailers to have very large inventories. This means that they can mine niche products, rather than only carrying the most popular items. In fact, for a store like Amazon, or like iTunes, a substantial proportion of their sales may come not from the items that are most popular, but from the deeper stock. Sure, they still sell U2 and Radiohead, but you can easily find slightly less popular acts, like Metric or SoKo. I was a bit surprised in my Christmas shopping to find that tail cut off.
The mastiff we live with likes a particular dog toy, manufactured by Fat Cat, Inc. It’s a large and fairly expensive stuffed kitty toy that flops around nicely when a dog shakes it. You’ve probably seen a version of these if you have been in a pet shop: either in the smallest size, or the larger 14 inch size. You may not have seen the giant size that measures over 22 inches, and is our dog’s favorite. Although they are expensive, in the long run they make sense for us because even though the dog is fairly gentle with them most of the time, he would generally destroy the smaller size in a couple of days, and the larger ones tend to stick around much longer. When we went to order them, we found that pretty much every retailer has them listed as “discontinued.” It’s possible we were the only ones buying these toys, but I doubt it. Had we known they would stop making them, we probably would have stockpiled some. As it is, I guess it’s time to start watching eBay. I’m sure we can find an alternative he’ll be happy with for Christmas, but he does love a new “baby.”
My partner asked for a trackball like the one I use on my computer so that she could use it for work. She’s impossible to shop for, and so I was relieved to have such an easy shopping task. She is talking about the Microsoft Trackball Explorer, the best pointing device I have ever used with a computer. Microsoft really got it right with this thing. Anyone who uses it for more than five minutes covets it. When I bought mine, I think I paid something like $40 for it, so–given how the hardware market works–I hoped I might be able to find a discount on it. Despite wide adoration, Microsoft no longer makes it, and no one has stepped in to clone it. As a result, scratched and abused used versions of the trackball routinely sell for $150 on eBay, and that price is likely to continue to rise. I have bid on some of the lower-priced used versions, but I don’t hold out much hope for actually winning one of these auctions.
Now, these are both probably niche products. The big dog toy is probably a novelty unless you have a dog the size of ours, and there aren’t very many of those in the world. Likewise, although it turns out my trackball is nearly a fetish item for some geeks, the vast majority of computer users will continue to be happy with their mice, and wouldn’t even consider trying a trackball. (Like I once did, they probably associate it with Missile Command and Atari Football.) So these two products are both residents of that long tail–a tail that may have reached online retailing, but doesn’t stand up well to the scaling needed for Chinese electronics manufacturing.
We can probably try to replicate the dog toy. We do have a sewing machine, and I guess we can try to draw faces on with a permanent marker or something. I don’t know when we’ll find the time to make dog toys, but at least it is in the realm of possibilities. The same cannot be said of the trackball. The obvious way to do this would be to track down the factory that made the device in China and get them to do a short run. Even though there are people willing to exorbitantly for the devices, however, I suspect that the market is actually pretty small and deep. Unlike a short run for a T-shirt design or a book, I suspect there must still be a mass market before a complex gadget like the one I am using at this moment can be reproduced efficiently.
In the meantime, if you see a Microsoft Trackball Explorer on the back shelf of a computer retailer somewhere, and it’s priced at retail or below, snap it up–eBay is waiting.