Getting all the goodies first

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Getting all the goodies first

A compact disc weighs 15 grams, or about half an ounce. So the idea of a “CD lifter” might seem ludicrous. And after you have seen this aluminum device with a rubber puff in the center that moves the disc from its case to the player, it still might seem ludicrous. Unless, that is, you are an “early adopter.”
The term “early adopter” is found in “Diffusion of Innovations,” a book by Everett Rogers, who divides the spending patterns of modern consumers into five categories.
According to Mr. Rogers there are the “innovators,” consumers who have substantial financial resources and the ability to apply complex technical knowledge to try new ideas. There is the “early majority,” those who adopt new ideas just before the average member of a social system does, and the “late majority,” who adopt new ideas just after the average member of a social system. “Laggards,” the group adhering to traditional values, are the last to adopt any innovation.
Between the innovators and early majority, Mr. Rogers slipped in “early adopters” who are less eager than innovators to try something new but still have a great deal of “opinion leadership” and are willing to experiment with new ideas.
Earlier this year, Sony Korea held an exhibition called “The Early Adopter” at a Seoul museum, which, according to organizers, drew more than 21,000 people within just two weeks. The show displayed some of the world’s quirkier inventions.
The “CD lifter,” by the Danish designer Tommy Larsen, was one of the most popular items. A Japanese design firm, H Concept, introduced “smart” animal-shaped elastic bands, which snapped back into their original shapes. There was a glittery parade of nifty timepieces: cylinders that rolled as they ticked, a voice clock wedged between picture frames that included a digital recorder for customized wake-up calls. A puzzle clock, well, was a puzzle.
Besides enigmas, the exhibit also included the downright useless, such as “Mutsu,” an interactive fish that responds to voice commands. Utility apparently is a secondary concern for some inventors.
Kim Jae-han, a 23-year-old university student in Seoul, recently traveled to Tokyo to buy “Ala,” an inkpad that includes tiny packs of ink sheets and paper. (Ink and paper? Sounds like a retro adopter.)
Mr. Kim, who tests products for a local computer company and is a self-proclaimed early adopter, says it was love at first sight when he discovered “Ala” through a Web site.
“It’s thrilling to investigate the functions of offbeat products like this before going to a shop or searching the Internet,” Mr. Kim says. “It’s a joy to purchase the product and have a chance to actually use it and explain to friends what it is used for, and how.”
Jeon Sae-bom, 22, says she feels similarly about buying things before they are in wide use. “You look at certain products and say to yourself, ‘Boy, I could have thought about this sooner and got a royalty,’” says Ms. Jeon.
According to a recent survey by Cheil Communications, the majority of early adopters in Korea are between the ages 20 and 30. Marketing surveys in other countries show this group to be older.
“The early adopter is respected by his or her peers, and is the embodiment of the successful, discrete use of new ideas,” writes Rogers in his book. “The early adopter knows that to continue to earn this esteem from colleagues and to maintain a central position in the communication network, he or she must make judicious innovation-decisions.
“The early adopter decreases uncertainty about a new idea by adopting it, and then conveying a subjective evaluation of the innovation to near-peers through interpersonal networks.” In other words, to maintain the envy of friends, one must spend money on new things that often are of questionable value.
Cheil’s research, however, shows that the lifestyle of a Korean early adopter, or “Koarly adopter,” displays a notable difference in spending patterns compared to similar consumers in the United States.
The difference, according to Cheil researchers, largely has to do with the history of Korean consumerism, which grew out of a rapidly advancing consumer electronics market and its waves of digital cameras, DVDs, mobile phones and MP3 players. Korea was inundated with these gadgets at the same time it was emerging from the foreign exchange crisis and entering a new millennium ― powerful psychological incentives.
Cheil cites several distinct features of Korean early adopters:
1. Koarly adopters indicate that their consumption is less a habit than a survival instinct.
2. Early adopters in Korea aim for speed as a way of life. About 64 percent say they prefer fast exercise, fast eating and fast decision-making.
3. They are not impulsive. The survey shows 84 percent of early adopters in Korea went through a careful Internet search to compare brands when they had a specific product in mind.
4. Koarly adopters are interested in a wide range of products, unlike in the United States, where people hone in on digital appliances and IT products.
Jin Gye-ryeong, a manager at Do Art, a product design firm, says the product range among early adopters in Korea is slowly moving from digital tools to clothes and furniture.
Sohn Seung-won, a content adviser at Ebadaque, an online service that provides information on products that are not yet available on the Korean market, says that Ebadaque’s Web site has attracted more than 100,000 members in less than two years, most between the ages of 20 and 40.
“It’s quite evident that these people have the spending power to satisfy their habit,” Mr. Sohn says. “Our company is mainly an information provider, but we see our members using a variety of channels to purchase the products they like. They travel overseas and organize collectives to make online purchases.”
Lee Hyun-sook, a supervisor of UcanC Consulting, a public relations agency representing Sony, says that every consumer products manufacturer maintains a list of their early adopters. Sony’s new digital camera, DSC-F77A, for which online reservations were being taken on the company’s Korean Web site starting Sept. 15, was waitlisted two weeks in advance.
“These are people who have bookmarked the Sony site and update themselves regularly,” Ms. Lee says. “We have a clients’ list for every product for them to sample before they are introduced to local markets.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Kim, the ink pad and paper pioneer, wants to make the most of his time. His new Swatch, for which he paid 85,000 won ($73), allows ticketing on buses and the subway by passing the watch across the meter. The watch’s microchip and antenna provide a string of other functions that can replace keys and wallets.
How can he afford such items as a student? “Well, I just spend less hanging out with friends,” he says. “When I don’t have enough money, I sell my old items on the Internet and use that money to buy new ones.
“If the money is still not enough, I take a peek at products that some of my other early adopter friends have bought. Sometimes that can be just as pleasing.”

by Park Soo-mee
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