Research Shows There is Such a Thing as a "Harbinger of Failure"

By Esther Inglis-Arkell on at

You probably know at least one person who always tends to bet on the loser. From Betamax to HDDVD, they adore the unpopular product. Turns out that that’s a predictable trait, and the people who display it are “Harbingers of Failure”.

What happens when a group of professors from MIT, Northwestern University, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology take a look at the products bought at department stores between 2003 and 2009? Apparently, they come up with hurtful names — but they do so after reviewing a lot of data. After looking at the six-year set of data from department stores, they tracked a group’s individual purchases between 2003 and 2005. Screening out the regular purchases that people made, they looked particularly at new product purchases made over the time — and identified a group of people they call Harbingers of Failure (HOF).

About 50 per cent of a HOF’s new purchases disappear from stores less than three years after they were introduced, due to massive public indifference. This is true in a number of different consumer categories, from foods to household tools. A HOF will pick out a loser half the time.

What’s more, they won’t buy it due to ignorance, confusion, or a need to rush through the store. HOFs are as informed and deliberate as anyone else. According to the study, they “systematically purchase new products that flop.” The earlier they do it, the more likely the product will fail.

It’s possible that these people are just willing to try more stuff than others. Maybe they are more willing to make those, “Well, why the hell not?” purchases than other consumers, who will only stick to what they know. This study shows that’s unlikely. Some HOFs would purchase products three times in a row — and when they did, the chances of that product succeeding dropped 56 per cent. These people like what everyone else doesn’t like.

Perhaps a better name for them would be “Ultimate Nonconformists”, or “Naturally Alternative”, but clearly no one involved with this study was interested in tactful euphemisms. For anyone marketing a new idea, these people are the first, and surest, signs of imminent product death. If they are buying your stuff, it’s probably best to have a back-up plan ready.

Do you know any Harbingers of Failure? What did they buy?

[Source: Harbingers of Failure]


Want more updates from Gizmodo UK? Make sure to check out our @GizmodoUK Twitter feed, and our Facebook page.