It was only a year ago that New Yorkers were lining up 150 deep to buy Spectacles out of a vending machine. The glasses, which record video for the Snapchat app, had attracted so much buzz that the five-hour line stretched around the block and down into the subway. One tech journalist advised packing “snacks or a thermos of hot cocoa.”
So as far as stunts in artificial scarcity go, it went great. But Spectacles are now readily available online—directly from the company or from, um, Brookstone—and demand for the $129.99 glasses has not kept up. Not even close.
In fact, the glasses sold so poorly compared to expectations that Snap—which shortened its company name but still runs the Snapchat app—admitted this week to spending $39.9 million on “excess inventory reserves and inventory-purchase commitment cancellation charges” for Spectacles. Last month, The Information reported that “hundreds of thousands” of Spectacles, assembled and unassembled, are sitting unsold in warehouses. Which naturally leads us to the question: What is going to happen, like physically happen, to all those Spectacles?
Snap was not forthcoming. As in, they ignored my interview request.
Assuming a booth at a London pop-up mall made out of shipping containers does not quite recapture the buzz, Snap can follow in the footsteps of many famous failures. It can strip the devices for parts, either for a new version of Spectacles or another product from Snap Labs, the company’s hardware unit. Or it can donate them, like Amazon donated 1,000 Fire Phones for aid workers during the Ebola outbreak. Or it can try to sell them at a deep discount, as Microsoft did with its ill-fated Kin phone from the early 2010s.
An entire liquidation industry exists to helps retailers and manufacturers unload excess inventory by the pallet. On Liquidation.com, for example, you can bid on a pallet of 3,500 iPhone SE, 5, and 5S cases. (Current minimum bid: $2,350.00.) Liquidation.com sells everything from socks to televisions to sushi kits—sourced from excess inventory as well as customer returns and assets seized by government agencies.
Consumer electronics are a major part of the business, says Liquidation.com spokesperson Julie Davis, and the company has helped a number of hardware manufacturers unload excess inventory. For example, a line of laptops from a certain major tech company that sold poorly ended up on Liquidation.com. Davis did not want to name the company, citing their business relationship.
Who buys this stuff? Sometimes it’s people looking to extract precious metals from computer processors. More lucrative, though, is selling the devices in other countries. “They may be exporting what U.S. consumers view as not a top product or perhaps an older generation, but there are markets throughout the globe,” says Davis.
The market for an outdated phone or even a commercial dud like the Microsoft Zune makes sense; they at least have understandable utility. But what about an entirely new device, like sunglasses that only take video for an app that is itself struggling? What do you do with something that has no obvious market?
Well, consider the CueCat, one of the 50 worst inventions ever according to TIME. CueCats are small, vaguely cat-shaped barcode scanners. (They took the name seriously.) In the early 2000s, RadioShack gave CueCats out for free and magazines like Wired and Forbes sent them to their subscribers. Magazines and newspapers then added barcodes to their print editions, which readers could scan to visit a webpage. The CueCats had software installed that made its barcode scanner only usable in this context, and the company planned to make money by licensing this software.
Anyway, it obviously never took off. When the company behind CueCats went bankrupt in the dot-com bust, millions of CueCats made their way to liquidators. By 2005, one site was selling 2 million CueCats for 30 cents each, minimum order of 500,000.
Despite being worthless for their intended purpose, CueCats did make a mark on hacker culture. Hackers quickly figured out you could tinker with the software to use the CueCat as a regular barcode scanner, say to catalogue your home library. The company, which was trying to make money by licensing its proprietary software, did not take to this kindly, and its lawyers fired off cease-and-desist letters.
But today, Dave Mathews, cofounder of the company behind CueCat, embraced the hackers who took to CueCat. “CueCats are still the most sold and hacked product from the Y2K era on Amazon and eBay today,” he wrote to me in an email. “It was cool geek-enabling hardware long before its time.” You can still buy CueCats on eBay and hack them for your own ends.
So who knows, someday, somewhere, first-generation Spectacles might yet find their true calling.