Now two authors and a growing list of academics and analysts say the consumer electronics business needn't be so brutal for product makers.
George Bailey and Hagen Wenzek recently wrote the book "Irresistible! Markets, Models and Meta-Value in Consumer Electronics" to explain how consumer electronics companies can improve with breakthrough technology, strategic partnerships and-? though it may sound obvious--paying attention to customers.
"We're not condemned in this industry to make 3 percent (profit margin). That's a self-imposed problem," Bailey, general manager of IBM's global electronics industry, said in an interview with CNET News.com.
Of course, it's easy to say, "Do what Apple does." But the numbers tell the story: Sony Electronics had $11.1 billion in sales in its most recent quarter, and an operating income of $412 million. Because Sony Electronics is a unit of Sony Corp., the final profit numbers for the individual business are unavailable. Apple, on the other hand, had a $472 million profit on $4.37 billion in sales in its most recent quarter.
So what does Apple do right that Sony does not? Two things: It innovates, and it gives customers what they want, from the packaging to the slick advertising, say the authors.
"That's sort of the secret formula for success that the book talks about," said Bailey.
Other companies are also managing to squeeze out comfortable profits by going high-end. Luxury audio/video maker Bang & Olufsen continues to woo its affluent customers with wine-tastings and exclusive golf tournaments even after the sale has been completed.
But consumer electronics companies don't need to be Apple or Bang & Olufsen as much as borrow their approach to sales. Apple products provide that proverbial "Apple experience." From stepping into an Apple Store to the ceremonial un-boxing of the iPod or the Macintosh, the company manages to deliver that intangible "wow" factor that seems to have befuddled competitors with much larger market share.
And like Apple, designing cutting-edge technology is one of the few ways device manufacturers can get away with raising prices. It sounds obvious, but few companies have the time or money to do it.
"In our industry the prices fall very quickly, unlike appliances where manufacturers can sell the same product the next year," said Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association. "We've succumbed to a constant source of deflation."
High costs of innovation
Innovation helps you stay that deflation, Wargo said. Take portable CD players. Ten years ago, you could buy a decent one for $50. Now, instead, people are buying $300 MP3 players. "The benefit of new technology is allowing the industry to grow revenues at a substantial rate. (Consumers are) willing to pay more for a new product, (but you must) convince them to buy the new product at a premium over the old product," he said.
Even traditional PC maker Hewlett-Packard is starting to move into the television market because of the potential it sees for home networking and the emergence of the PC as a media hub. On Aug. 10, HP released its new 37-inch MediaSmart high-definition LCD TV, which enables wireless networking with any home computer.
It's a logical transition, said Jan-Luc Blakborn, HP's director of digital entertainment.
"When we entered TV (three years ago), we said, 'We've got to innovate in this space if we want to make a difference and make some money.' A commodity play is not the best way to do that," Blakborn said.
Most companies don't go that route because the cost of innovation can be high, with no guarantee of success, said Haim Mendelson, professor of electronic business and commerce at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
Bailey and Wenzek also emphasize partnerships as a way to get the right mix.