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SPECIAL REPORT: DIGITAL TELEVISION

Retailers' Top Challenge: Educating the Consumer

But before they try to teach others, salespeople must first understand the differences between digital and analog themselves.

November 16, 1998|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the front line in the push for acceptance of digital television are retailers--who are likely to be consumers' first contact with the new, and potentially confusing, technology.

Manufacturers are working with retailers to launch training campaigns designed to clue in salespeople on the technical merits of digital TV and the peripheral issues affecting its introduction in the nation's top 10 TV markets this month.

"The No. 1 challenge the industry faces is educating the consumer," said John Strobel, vice president of marketing for digital TV at Philips Electronics.

Electronics salespeople must first understand the difference between digital TV and traditional analog TV themselves before they can educate others. They also need to know what high-definition programming is available in the city they work in--both from local stations and the networks. And, of course, they need to be familiar with TV sets from different manufacturers.

At Best Buy, salespeople are "certified" to sell digital TVs after taking about five hours of mandatory digital-TV training and passing a 40-minute test, said Victoria Dias, a regional management trainer at Best Buy.

Some retailers, such as SuperCo Home Theater & Appliances specialty stores, invited manufacturers to come in and answer customers' questions about HDTVs.

But in their attempts to simplify things for consumers, retailers risk sending them home with a product that they will be unable to operate.

"Our first challenge is signal reception,' said Bill Mannion, general manager of Panasonic Consumer Electronics' TV division. "Usually it's a matter of working at it to receive the signal. You won't see an image until the antenna is oriented right to receive the signal."

To avoid HDTV returns by consumers who can't receive digital signals, Panasonic is urging retailers to take a digital set-top box to customers' homes to ensure that they can receive a digital signal.

Among the toughest challenges is explaining to customers that if they buy an HDTV set now, it won't become obsolete in a few years, said John Keating, merchandising manager for the Good Guys.

Tom Campbell, corporate director at Dow Stereo/Video stores, said salespeople should emphasize what HDTV can offer consumers now, rather than what they will be able to do with it in the future. Dow was among the first to offer HDTV sets for sale earlier this year.

"If a retailer tries to sell these on the merits of HDTV, they couldn't give it away, because there isn't any programming," Campbell said. "The reason people are buying is because it looks so good right now."

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Digital Checklist

Here are questions to ask when shopping for a digital TV:

* If I buy a digital TV today, will it be obsolete next year?

* What vertical and horizontal resolution is this set capable of displaying?*

* Do I need additional equipment to ensure my TV functions properly when I get it home?

* What digital programming is available in my area through networks, cable and local stations?

* Is it cheaper to buy a digital-ready TV and a converter box, or a digital set with the tuner built into it?

* When will digital TV sets with fewer features be available?

* Sets on the market today will receive all 18 digital formats and will display them in the highest resolution, 1080 interlace. Sets coming out in 1999 will display digital in lower resolutions.

Source: Times research

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Times staff writer Jennifer Oldham can be reached via e-mail at jennifer.oldham@latimes.com.

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