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3D Mystery Shopper

It was an otherwise innocuous press release: Display Search noted “3D TV Not Growing as Fast as TV Makers Expected in 2010,” the company slightly cutting shipments projections from 3.4 million units in the U.S. this year to 3.2 million units. Not a shock; initial forecasts of a new technology often are overly optimistic, backers hoping to project an image of success to spur consumer interest and demand. Once the realities of the marketplace and the current recessed economy took their toll, a quiet (shhhh!) adjustment of said numbers out of the public eye shouldn’t appear too damning.

Except, as is often the case, there’s more to these lower-than-expected uptake numbers than meets the eye. If 3D HDTV fails to catch on, the manufacturers – specifically the retail merchandising managers and trainers, along with the retailers themselves – will have a lot to answer for, at least if my recent 3D mystery shopper trip last week is typical.

Ostensibly, I went out to three Best Buy locations in midtown Manhattan – the store on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, 23d Street and Sixth Avenue, and in Union Square where Panasonic made a big splash with the first-ever 3D intro last March – to test out the new universal 3D glasses from XpanD, which went on sale last week. XpanD’s universal glasses would give me the excuse to devote this column to the quest to unify the nascent 3D equipment experience, including the efforts of CEA’s own universal glasses committee. Attaining a one-standard-glasses-for-all,everyone agrees, would immeasurably ease consumer confusion. The Magnolia stores inside Best Buy, both myself and XpanD figured, would be the perfect place to test their glasses on a variety of 3D HDTV makes and models and, at the same time, take the temperature of the 3D market.

A raging fever doesn’t begin to describe the problems in 3D HDTV.

Only one 3D HDTV in each store I visited actually was playing 3D content, all Panasonic sets, each matched four feet away with glasses mounted on height-adjustable stanchions. At the Fifth Avenue store, there was a 3D Samsung LED HDTV showing not a 3D demo, but ESPN’s SportsCenter because, one employee working in a nearby department told me, they wanted to keep track of scores and news. I loitered around the Magnolia store-within-a-store for 15 minutes, fruitlessly waiting for someone to notice a customer interested in the high-priced item. During my wait, several customers wandered over and Pavlovianly (if that’s a word) donned the 3D glasses tethered to the table opposite the Samsung. I advised each one that the set was not showing 3D (how they didn’t notice this themselves I can’t begin to understand), and to try the nearby Panasonic – which they attempted to do using the Samsung glasses. I let them know that wouldn’t work either, that they’d have to use the glasses mounted on the stanchion in front of the Panasonic – and that’s not the punch line. (One fellow thought I worked there; he was disappointed when I told him I didn’t.)

When I finally beckoned a sales associate and asked her to show me a 3D demo on the Samsung, she acted as if I’d asked her to do my laundry. She then took five minutes to find the remote and run through the TV’s menus until successfully locating the right input settings. It was then we discovered one set of the tethered glasses was missing the power button and the other pair had no power at all. She shrugged her shoulders and wandered off, offering no solution, a potential 3D customer lost. I, of course, whipped out my XpanD universal glasses and fulfilled my original mission.

My experience at the other two Best Buys were actually worse. Along with single working Panasonic demos, both also had single Samsung and Sony 3D sets – neither displaying a 3D demo, neither with glasses anywhere in sight. Only the price tag indicated the set’s status as 3D. And a second Panasonic set in the Union Square store was showing 3D – but there were no glasses mounted in the stanchion. And as in the Fifth Avenue store, I wandered around the 3D TVs in the other two stores for around 15 minutes each, with nary a sales representative in sight.

I’m shocked any 3D sets are actually bought except by those who know exactly what they want and who don’t need a demo, or they are buying a high-end set for other reasons than its 3D credentials. Yes, other stores sell 3D HDTVs, both other big box retailers such as Sears as well as high-end boutiques. But Best Buy, as the biggest nationwide electronics big box retailers, is the 3D front line, and, if my three-store-tour is an actual trend (and I suspect it is), the center of that front line is buckling like the Atlantic Wall on D-Day – not from overwhelming force, but from complete neglect.*

Perhaps the (finally!)release of Avatar in 3D on Dec. 1 will improve matters, but if there are no glasses on sets other than Panasonics, hardly anyone will see it.

Oh, the XpanD glasses proved superior to Panasonic’s RealD-made lenses, offering brighter colors, deeper contrast and blacks, and more 3D depth. But suddenly this seems way beside the point.

*Editor’s Note: We happened to do our own Best Buy 3DTV shopping in Dallas (only one store) two weeks ago with similar results. 3D content was being displayed on a new set and there were glasses present but they didn’t work, which probably means the batteries were drained.