Thinking that it might be fun to add a few movies to my DVD collection, a recent visit to a popular online shopping site made this a virtual impossibility. The vast majority of leading movies consisted of titles that had not yet been released, which made it difficult to purchase any popular movie for viewing.

This is a trend that has been exasperated by the immediacy of the Internet. Shoppers expect the most up-to-date list of product content, and this has advanced to transcend actual product availability.

Remember the advent of “It”? When Segway was announced, Amazon provided a rather cryptic page where you could place your name on a list to order this unknown product once it became available. Meanwhile, over at RPM Collectibles they describe pre-ordering as the only way to really buy any of their NASCAR replicas. Imagine pre-ordering the Dr. Martin Flag-Boot without even trying it on, it seems shopping is more about desire than necessity.

Using the web, it is possible for vendors to describe product that doesn’t exist yet. This is a dramatic shift from a traditional storefront, where shoppers select from the items available on the shelves or in nearby warehouses. In fact, using a computer to render a virtual representation of a product, the consumer would be unable to distinguish a pre-production widget from something that is readily available.

At one point vaporware was considered the purview of software engineers. Today the concept of vaporware extends to all forms of productization, even new automobiles are demonstrated as concept cars and a flurry of pre-orders ensue.

While the gap endures between design and mass production, shoppers will continue to be tantalized by product they cannot readily obtain. This is not a healthy consumer paradigm, decisions about new material acquisitions are based on items that don’t exist yet. Imagine a company provides a pre-ordering mechanism for a widget not yet prepared for production. Rather than mass produce an item on a specific date, the company is accumulating pre-orders to determine when it makes sense to run a mass-production of an item that will meet the pent-up demand. In fact, there may never be enough demand for the product and therefore it may never get produced in quantity.

Another possibility is pre-ordering a virtual widget only to discover a few days later that other companies already produce this kind of widget. In fact, there was no need to pre-order because this product could already be acquired from other manufacturers.

Of course there is always the concern that pre-order demand will exceed product availability. This leaves the vendor in an awkward situation, where there is a backorder for pre-ordered items and it’s not always clear when the supplier will have more product available.

The consumer is left with a difficult decision. It is even possible the customer is left with an impossible decision, they are waiting for a product that will never be delivered.

The sensible alternative is something like Nike’s NIKE iD offering, where consumers can request a specific product design with a particular look and have it built for them. Ultimately, demand-based mass-produced products can be adapted to this kind of model, where production is on a per-order basis.

Not surprisingly, the publishing industry is at the forefront of this revolution. Consumers can purchase an on-demand printing of a book that is indistinguishable from a mass-produced book. For example, the Xerox DocuTech Book Factory system is capable of printing and binding a book for less than $2.25, and there are other systems available that can print and bind thicker books in hardcover and paperback.

In the future, it may be possible to order a popular book and have it printed according to your exact specifications. There are already some companies offering books in this format, this is likely to continue expanding as professional and academic authors seek practical publishing solutions.

Meanwhile, pre-ordering will continue to bridge the gap to general product availability. Although this can be misconstrued as supply and demand, I think most consumers will observe the pre-order frenzy with frustration. You are not buying a product with a pre-order, you are submitting your name to a wish-list for an item no one has seen.

Categories: Technology