Sonos Puts Short Term Profit Over Long Term Impact with “Trade Up” Program

Once again, a manufacturer puts short term profit over long term impact. And, worst of all, they are greenwashing (read: lying) to their customers. This is shameful and we don’t support it.

First, a bit of background – once hip and cool wireless speaker maker Sonos has earned the ire of many in the press, public and their customer base with the recent discovery of their “Trade Up” program. All customers that agree to put their Sonos device in “recycle” mode get a 30% discount towards the purchase of a new device. This is supposedly great news for all involved. The customer gets a price break and the Sonos device will be recycled. But the truth is a bit more insidious. After all, the most effective form of recycling is actually REUSE. When the thing you don’t want any more has utility to someone else, you sell it, donate it, gift it. Your friend gets a free/cheap device with a few miles on it, you get the shiny new one, everyone benefits.

But with this Sonos “Trade Up” program, reuse is impossible, and recycling is not tracked (so it probably won’t happen in most cases).

See, Recycle mode just turns your old/unwanted Sonos device into a brick. The device can no longer talk to the Sonos cloud, can no longer be used by the Sonos app, and is just another pile of plastic and metal that has to go downstream to the land of recycled computer bits. Heck, the key component that makes a Sonos a Sonos (the brain) can’t be used as a spare part in a repair situation. It is literally 100% destined for a smelter. And since Sonos doesn’t track the device to a certified e-waste recycler, the devices may simply be destined for the landfill, or worse, an un-ethical e-waste recycler contributing to the global catastrophe that is the black market e-waste trade.

So, in this situation we must ask the question: Qui Bono?

By giving existing customers a 30% discount on new equipment, Sonos is clearly hoping to increase sales of newer, more feature-rich products to those existing customers. This is a sensible, business-savvy hope, and I’m sure they’re hoping that their year-end reports show positive results. I’d posit that by bricking older equipment though, they guarantee that lower-income customers, who may have become new customers via some low-cost used gear will never get on the ladder of Sonos ownership.

When I say the “ladder of ownership”, I’m thinking of the big car companies and their “tiers” of products. The thought was once that a kid would get a base model Chevy for his 17th birthday, when he became a working-class stiff with a couple kids, he’d move up to a Buick station wagon, and when he got the job in the management team, he would splurge and get himself a Cadillac for weekend drives. That hypothetical kid becomes a captive consumer. Every car he’s ever owned was all from the GM family. They’ve got a product for everyone, a solution for every budget. Brilliant, and it worked wonders for their sales numbers for decades.

But now, imagine if General Motors bricked every used Chevrolet that could have been resold, but in exchange they gave their existing Chevy owners a 30% discount on a Cadillac. This MAY increase Cadillac sales, but what does a person in the market for a used car have available to buy? Well, the used Chevy market doesn’t exist in this hypothetical market, so our buyer will pick up a used Toyota, Dodge or Volkswagen. And now those (presumably) lower-income customers will begin to build brand loyalty to the “wrong” brand as far as GM is concerned, and they’re on someone else’s product ladder. Now they move along from a Toyota to a Lexus, a VW to an Audi, presto. The short-term Cadillac sales increase ends up destroying the “farm team” of up-and-coming buyers.

I think that Sonos’ move smacks of desperation.

It’s a shame, because it could also be read as a compliment to the quality of their older product line for lasting as long as it did. As we can see, wireless speakers live forever, with many Sonos units hitting 10 years of age. But the plastics and toxins within each of these boxes will last far longer in our waste stream.

The bottom line is this: the new features Sonos and others have come up with are “neat” but clearly they are not world-changing enough to warrant the sales numbers they require to satisfy investors without resorting to dirty tricks (environmentally dirty that is). Build a better mousetrap, and folks will beat a path to your door. Brick my old mousetrap, and I’ll get a new one from someone else.

POST SCRIPT: I must say, that any product that can be bricked by making a change in a cloud database sounds like a product we never really “owned” in the first place, and frankly I don’t want to own anything that someone can turn off at a whim, or when they go out of business. I’ll stick with my circa 1975 Dynaco ST70 tube amp and my 40 dollar Logitech Bluetooth adapter. It sounds better than any Sonos, the Spotify interface for playing music is better than any experience anyone else has made, and I own every piece of this gear outright. No cloud needed. Get yourself one (the adapter that is, the tube amp is MINE!)