Here you are, standing at a fork in the road. Both are paved with the same black asphalt, adorned with the same broken lines down the center, and both feature light posts along the sides. You search and search for a single difference between the two. The lights feature different shaped sconces. One road features white broken lines, while the other features yellow. And just when you thought that was it, you tilt your head slightly north, noticing the small print on the small green street signs. One says iRobot and the other Neato: the biggest difference.
However, now you’re left having to decide, which road do you take? Do you follow the words of Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken”, venturing down Neato? Or do you hedge all of your bets in the safe, more well-known choice, iRobot? You begin to wonder, how many more forks will you happen upon? Will you have to decide between ECOVACS Ln. or Samsung Av. or even Shark St.? The decisions are many and sometimes hard to differentiate due to their vast number of similarities, often leaving just about anyone feeling overwhelmed and at a loss.
However, in the blink of an eye, things have changed, leaving these once similar choices more dissimilar by the second. The roads that were once void of any major variance, are now so different that one might find oneself pondering if the choices overlap in any way. Robotic vacuums have evolved and changed in such a short period of time, and with an increased number of brands trying to get a piece of the action, will a robot that simply vacuums make the cut anymore?
Robots from the Past
According to a paper published in 2008 by Ja-Young Sung et al. at Georgia Institute of Technology, 48.9% of the study’s participants always or occasionally manually vacuumed in addition to the use of their robotic vacuums. It is important to note that the paper included only Roomba owners given the relative newness of the robotic segment in 2008. In addition to the need for additional vacuuming, the respondents were also asked if they own pets, what other non-cleaning uses they had for the robotic vacuums, and if they owned other robotic devices.
According to their survey, almost half of the respondents (49.6%) owned at least one pet. Within the non-cleaning uses, 6% of those included in the survey (21 respondents) answered that they hacked their robotic companion(s), “…mounting cameras and TV screens… adding height sensors to stop [the] Roomba from getting stuck under low spaces.” Finally, of the respondents who owned other robotic devices, roughly 10.7% claimed to own a Scooba, iRobot’s initial robotic mop that was later replaced by the Braava series. Keep in mind, this survey was conducted in 2008, only six years after iRobot launched its robotic vacuums in the US market. Unknowingly to the writers of this paper or to the respondents of their survey, robotic vacuum manufacturers would begin to produce devices that not only addressed their needs but also their wants.
A Fork in the Road
Previously, the segment was comprised of robotic vacuums that featured slight variations in color, shape, and size, with little else to base decisions. With that, vacuum companies have grown, adapting their offerings, creating a unique option for the varying needs and desires of those interested in the robotic market. Based on the aforementioned findings, many brands have recently released new devices that do much more than simply vacuum. Anker, bObsweep, and Neato have all released robotic vacuums that are equipped with attachments and other functionalities that allow them to more effectively clean up after pets.
As for needing to perform additional vacuuming tasks on top of the robotic vacuum’s set runs, Shark recently released its ION S87, offering customers a robotic vacuum with an included handheld vacuum. This allows users to clean in the spaces that a robotic vacuum can’t, creating a more robust offering that is cohesive and compact. Further, iRobot has tried to increase the automation involved with using a robotic vacuum. From the improved smart mapping technology to the self-emptying base, the innovative brand is continuing to build on its robotic offerings. While both of these options are unique, one might also come across ECOVACS DEEBOT R98, which combines both the included handheld vacuum, as well as the self-emptying charging base into one.
Finally, with the 10.6% of respondents who claimed to own a robotic mop, this represents an additional expenditure for an additional device. That being said, some manufacturers have created a robotic device that accommodates both the need for a vacuum and the need for a mop. Two of the recent brands to release robotic vacuums with dry and wet functionality include ECOVACS and Amatrix. While the two aforementioned brands include a water tank, other brands are including mop pad attachments for vacuums, likely in an effort to decrease manufacturing costs, as well as give customers additional incentives to purchase their offering.
These unique and robust options are gaining online and retail placements. So what does this mean for the consumer? For one, it means there are more options than ever, giving customers the ability to choose what best suits their needs instead of settling for an item that they have hack to do what they want. Secondly, it allows users to minimize the number of devices they need to perform multiple cleaning tasks. Lastly, brands are coming up with innovations that make cleaning a house more efficient and less time consuming. But this begs the question, do consumers actually want these enhancements made to their robotic vacuums and are they willing to pay a premium to have these enhancements?
Can Customers Pay to Play?
With the increased technology involved in producing a unique robotic vacuum, price premiums are expected. That being said, while brands are addressing a wide range of needs from a variety of customer demographics, the increased cost will likely limit the actual number of customers willing to purchase these upgraded devices. So where does that leave the customers who are priced out and what happens to the run-of-the-mill robotic vacuum that doesn’t offer fancy bells and whistles? The early majority and late majority happen. In marketing terms there are the innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. These customer segments enter markets at different stages in the product’s life cycle based on a variety of socioeconomic factors, as well as other personality related reasons. Although iRobot introduced its vacuums in 2002, the robotic market has taken some time to flourish. At this point, robotic vacuums are starting to attract customers in the late majority segment, as the devices are more accessible to a wider range of consumers who can research older reviews and which brand offers the “right” price for what they are getting.
Since April 2017, the average net price offered for dry robotic vacuums within the retail channel has fallen 8%. However, this is a nominal drop and will likely continue to decrease at an insignificant rate. The reasoning for this can be seen by the drop in the lowest price to $200 accompanied by a sharp increase in the most expensive option at $1,200. Robotic vacuum companies such as Samsung and iRobot command a higher price for their premium models, understanding that the innovator customer segment or customers who are brand loyal will continue to pay the higher price for a the same perceived quality. Conversely, newer and smaller brands such as Anker and ECOVACS have changed the game, offering lower priced options, reaching into a relatively unoccupied price band within the retail channel. That being said, robotic vacuums are continually innovating and are seen as a premium product. Therefore, one can’t expect that brands would sacrifice their high-quality image to make the devices less expensive and therefore more accessible. This can be further seen with how Samsung promotes its POWERbot R9350 SKU within the retail channel, offering $200 savings on the normally priced $1,199 device. The attached incentive is likely intended to drive sales within the same customer segment that it targets at its typical $1,199 shelf price. Therefore, while Samsung is offering aggressive savings resulting in a 17% discount, the brand maintains its status as a premium offeirng within the robotic segment as it continues to represent the most expensive option within the retail segment.
So what does all of this mean? Although more brands are entering the segment, earlier brands and even some of the newer brands see that cleaning needs extend far beyond just vacuuming. Further, with the recent boom in smart technology and the connected home, a multitude of technology advancements are being included with each new generation of robotic vacuums, including voice command through virtual assistants, smart mapping floor plans, height sensors, and much more. This places more power in the hands of the manufacturers, making the decisions all the more difficult but all the more unique for consumers venturing into the world of robotic vacuums. "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somwhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference" (Frost, 15-20).
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