Skullcandy wants you to repair headphones

But there has been little innovation in designing products to last longer and resistance to efforts to make them more repairable, says Alex Lobos, professor of industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “It might prevent them from keeping costs down and from having consumers replace products often,” he says. 

Last year, President Biden signed an order that would require cell phone companies and tech companies to make available their proprietary software, repair manuals, tools, and other components so products can be repaired by anyone.

“It’s a good step, but there needs to be a way to make devices truly repairable,” Lobos says. For instance, most electronics and cell phones are made with glues and parts soldered together for cost efficiencies that are nearly impossible to take apart. More sustainable design, he says, may only happen with legislation.

Skullcandy changed the design of its headphones for different reasons: sustainability and product differentiation. When Skullcandy founder Rick Alden started the company on a Park City chairlift two decades ago, his startup was an innovator in the industry—among the first to put two speakers in each headphone cup. 

But today, Skullcandy sits in a saturated $85 billion market in which earphones have become a commodity. Since its birth, the 300-employee company has worked to protect the earth and climate by choosing everything from vendors and plastic components to how materials are transported and how energy-efficient its new Park City headquarters would be.  

Fortiér admits that Skullcandy is taking a risk in an industry designed around recurring revenue dependent on sales of the launch of newer models. Skullcandy, in essence, will eat into its own revenue stream, the size of which Fortiér declined to reveal. There is also the risk that the company ships out devices with extra parts that may or may not get used.

But the “land and expand” strategy is smart, says Urvashi Bhatnagar, author of “The Sustainability Scorecard: How to Implement and Profit from Unexpected Solutions.” Rather than continually “dating” customers with new products, Skullcandy is engaging consumers over a longer lifespan, allowing them to acquire a greater share of the consumer’s wallet. “Skullcandy is saving money in acquiring new customers,” she says.

On the upside, Skullcandy won’t have the added cost and time of designing, building, shipping, and marketing new products. And sustainable products are in high demand: As many as two-thirds of consumers say they want a business to take a stand on issues close to their hearts, according to a 2020 survey by Accenture. And another report by KPMG suggests that 90 percent of customers are willing to pay more for ethical retailers, 50 percent factor environmental and social practices into whether they make a purchase, and nearly 75 percent say they’ll leave a brand if they feel it puts profit over people. This is especially true for consumer electronics, in which consumer demand will continue to play a large role in forcing electronics firms to become more sustainable, Bhatnagar says. 

Skullcandy’s own internal research found that about half of its customers go and buy new products because theirs weren’t working properly or didn’t have the longevity it once had. The other half bought new because they wanted more advanced audio. “A lot of times, people put those devices in a drawer, forget about them, and eventually throw them away,” Fortiér says, “but they’re perfectly good products and have a lot of life left in them.”


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