One of the best relationships of Deborah Snoonian's life ended on Dec. 8, 2001. That she was celebrating her birthday did not matter to her heartbreaker.
The love object sat silent, not a chirp as Snoonian departed.
"I nearly cried the next day when I realized I'd lost it," said Snoonian, a magazine editor. "I knew I'd never find its equal."
Her lost love was a Touchpoint dual-band cell phone, circa 1999, with a flip-down mouthpiece and fax capabilities, that she inadvertently left in a taxi. The model had been discontinued.
"I loved everything about it," said Snoonian, whose boyfriend is weary of hearing her rave about its benefits. "It had the best mix of ring tones, everything from The Entertainer to Ride of the Valkyries. It was the perfect size for my purse, and it had this feature called 'four-digit dialing,' which I really liked."
To judge by marketing hype and iPhone mania, most people live in perpetual anticipation of the next super product: a bigger plasma TV, a sleeker BlackBerry, a more shock-absorbing running shoe. But the truth is, many consumers bemoan the incessant rush of innovation that pushes manufacturers to tamper with products the consumers feel are already perfect.
Their grief is not just nostalgia. Drivers who miss the subcompact Japanese cars of yesteryear, and runners who yearn for the discontinued New Balance 855 running shoe with an antipronating roll bar, are victims of "feature creep," said Jon Linkov, a managing editor at Consumer Reports. This phenomenon, generated by market forces, media hype and twitchy retailers, creates a cycle in which products are constantly improved even if they don't need to be.
Feature creep, Linkov said, transformed a typical 1980s BMW from a nimble and relatively small car into the heavy luxury liner of today. "Here was a company that talked about 'no cup holders,' " he said. "You're supposed to be driving, not drinking in your car. Now they are power everything, bigger, heavier in every way. They are these luxury tourers filled with leather and wood."
We'll take the old model, thank you
Frank Beaudoin, founder of the International Honda Civic Wagon Club, a Web site devoted to the vehicle, which has not been produced since the mid 1990s, drives a 1990 Honda wagon, a four-wheel-drive model with 133,000 miles on it. In his job as an inspector for the Chicago Transit Authority, Beaudoin needs a dependable car that can handle deep snow but does not cost a lot to maintain. "Right now," he said, speaking on a cell phone during his commute, "it's purring like a kitten."
Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesman, said the company has no plans to put the 1990 Civic wagon back into production. He acknowledged that Honda realized a few years ago it might have abandoned its old customer base, those who want small, practical, inexpensive cars. So it introduced the compact $13,850 Fit wagon for the 2007 model year and sold all 50,000 imported into the United States.
Not all jilted consumers eventually get what they want. Many runners have had the experience of going to a sporting goods store wanting to replace their worn-out shoes, only to find their favorite models have been "improved" past all recognition.
David Willey, editor of Runner's World magazine, said his publication contributes to feature creep by only reviewing new or improved models of shoes. "There's this need to continue to evolve and have consumers feel like things are getting better, and that the needle is being moved even if it isn't," he said.
New Balance, aware that it was upsetting some longtime customers by continually tinkering with its footwear, recently adopted a "template system" to rein in overly ambitious designers. It allows them to change cosmetics and materials for annual shoe upgrades but not the basic fit and feel, said John Morgan, the company's group merchandising manager for footwear.
Consumer backlash sometimes wins out
Newest is not always best. For Andre Ribuoli, director of Pamplemousse Press, a fine art printing studio in Manhattan, there was never a better inkjet printer than the Iris 3047. Capable of rendering perfect full-color images on sandpaper, fabric or anything else that can bend, the lifeboat-size machine was made in the early 1990s by an Israeli company that has since closed.
"If I have to be the last man in the world running a 3047," Ribuoli said, hands on his hips and gazing lovingly at the beige-and-black machines one recent afternoon, "I will be the last man running a 3047."
Some consumers are fighting back less quietly.
When Lancome discontinued a moisturizer called Nutrix in 2004 to make way for a new version, Nutrix Royal, the company received more than 1,000 phone calls, e-mail messages and letters from bewildered devotees. Like Coca-Cola, which brought back its original formula after a consumer outcry over New Coke, Lancome bowed to the pressure in January and exhumed the 71-year-old original.
To stave off such consumer backlash, MAC Cosmetics has a section on its Web site called Goodbyes, where it sells limited edition or discontinued products, like Speed Demon Lip Varnish.
It is not always bad business for a company to stick with a successful product even as fashions change.
Since 1993, Casio has been selling the same dependable digital watch, model F30-9, for $7.95, with the same functions: time and date in a black case on a black band, nothing more.
And since 1983, the company has sold 45-million of its G-Shock series of digital watches. Though there have been additions to the line over the years, many original designs are still sold. For the 25th anniversary of the G-Shock next year, Casio plans to issue a special version of the first model, the DW-5000, which came only in black.
"It's going to be very true to the original but it will be in white, which is the trend," said David Johnson, senior general manager for Casio's timepiece division. "White is wicked hot in watches right now."