February 21, 2018

The internet is awesome!

I know that the online world is no longer new but I recently had an experience which reminded me of how *cool* some of the things you can do online are.

I should point out that my relationship with online ‘stuff’ is incredibly functionally driven. I have been an early and committed adopter of some internet possibilities – for example I started banking online twenty years ago, I have been regularly ordering all my groceries online for 12 years and now probably make over three-quarters of my other purchases online too. However, I haven’t been a major social media user (my life is too boring to describe to others) and still do very little on my phone (I just really prefer a proper keyboard and bigger screen).

So what are my internet ‘wow’ moments?

Well, the most recent one was when I finally decided to do something about getting rid of the two rabbit hutches that have been littering our garden unnecessarily for several months. The hutches are not in good condition and so not appropriate for selling on eBay. I just wanted to get rid of them but wasn’t sure they would fit in the boot of my rather small car to take to the tip. So after a quick search on Google, I found Freelywheely, which seemed much more friendly and easy to use than Freecyle, and within 15 minutes of the hutches being posted on their site, I was amazed to find I had requesters. By the end of the day, I had eight interested people, ready to drive almost an hour to pick up these rather battered hutches! And now they are gone, which is amazing. But perhaps I was just lucky and rabbit hutches are actually the most sought after freecycle item!

Rabbit hutch

Whilst I am at it, here are two other internet ‘wows’.

Second on my list is Airbnb, which I first starting using four years ago and now have clocked up 11 trips. I just really like the fact we can rent out something for the number of days we want and not stick to the old limited arrangement of a week and Saturday to Saturday or equivalent.

My third item is not so much an internet business but picks up on the transparency that the internet allows. I am someone who gets frustrated with waiting for things and I also like to know as much as possible about how long things might take. So the opportunity to track – in absurd detail – where your packages are is brilliant as far as I am concerned.

Delivery details

However, it does set expectations rather high. I have recently ordered items off Amazon which I think are being shipped directly from China, rather than coming from a reseller based in the UK. These items have what now seems like remarkably long delivery times of four weeks. In addition, once they are dispatched, there is no further information about the item until it appears in your letter box, more often than not several months late, by which time I have already complained and been reimbursed for said item! I’m waiting for everything to be RFID tagged so I track its global journey. That would definitely be awesome.

December 18, 2015

Insight through fiction

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 10:06 pm
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My preference for ‘story books’ over ‘fact books’, regardless of whether the latter are history, science or business, has always been strong. The value of making this choice has been vindicated by studies which have shown that those who read fiction are better at empathising.

Building on this idea, I was struck by the notion that reading a novel could act as a form of secondary research to help understand a consumer context. I happen to have just finished “Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw and feel my hypothesis can be illustrated with this particular novel, whilst also highlighting some interesting limitations.

This book is a recent publication (from 2013) and tells the tale of five migrant workers who come to make their fortunes in Shanghai. Reading the book provides a more engaging version of the insights I have been developing over the past 12 months of working on various Chinese consumer projects. For these projects, my research has been more traditional: analysis of consumer surveys, reading market reports, checking out online media etc.

“Five Star Billionaire” helps me to better understand concepts I had already grasped. Through the characters narrating their different stories, the novel shows how Shanghai is melting pot of individuals who have come from near and far to make it big in the big city.

However, the book does not touch on some significant issues relating to migrant status. Though the idea individuals may not wish to reveal where they really come from is an important part of the book, the difference in status between true Shanghai residents, who have more access to welfare and other social support, compared to those who are either illegal migrants from abroad or rural migrants, was not touched upon. Reform of the hukou system to address these issues is under way but many feel this needs to be sped up.

Another aspect to modern China that was present in the novel, but not explored for all its implications, is the rise of the economic power of women. Two out of the five characters are female and both reflect how women can progress rapidly in this dynamic society. Phoebe goes from being an illegal factory worker to the manager of a high end spa thanks to her determination and commitment to making the most of the opportunities around her. Yinghui is a successful business woman with a whole chain of enterprises to her credit. The phenomenon of ground-breaking women is true in reality. Half the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese.

However, interestingly, the book does not go on to explore the impact of modern urban lifestyles and great careers on social dynamics and societal structures. Women take longer to find a spouse, settle down and start a family; or else struggle to bring up their children in the city with them. Describing the lives of those ‘left-behind’ children who are kept in the rural areas to be brought up by close and not so close (often illiterate) relatives could be the stuff of a deeply engrossing but probably also deeply tragic story.

However, where reading “Five Star Billionaire” really came into its own was for developing a more nuanced understanding of personal progression. People have to start at the bottom of the pile.

“Here are some of the jobs her friends took in the year they left home. Trainee waiter. Assistant fake-watch stall-holder. Karaoke hostess. Assembly-line worker in a semi-conductor factory. Bar girl. Shampoo girl. Water-cooler delivery man. Seafood restaurant cleaner. “

The ambition and drive needed to succeed and fulfil one’s aspirations is well articulated

“That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women: wear the biggest possible sunglasses you can find, carry the largest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with magnificent confidence.”

Whilst consumer surveys show that people are optimistic about their future and statistics reveal that wages and income are increasing, what doesn’t come across from these source of insight is that getting there is not always a straight path upwards. People slip and fall: one character was a successful pop star who suffered a breakdown and had to start over again; another was conned and lost all their savings; another decided they felt more comfortable going back to their old life in their village.

Reading fiction makes it clear that real life is more complicated than market intelligence would suggest. It doesn’t have all the answers – as discussed above – important aspects can be omitted – but it does help with the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.


April 5, 2015

Consumption of “Consumed”

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 8:38 pm
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I am in the throes of an identity crisis. Having just read Harry Wallop’s “Consumed“, I am pretty sure I should be classified as a Wood Burning Stover (well, I am partial to The Guardian and Radio 4), but I really don’t drink any kind of coffee, let alone know how to use a mocha pot; I also think that farmers’ markets are a rip off and have never been to Daunt bookshop. So perhaps I am not a WBS…

Why this angst? Well, this questioning of ‘where do I fit in’ is the first response one has when reading “Consumed”. In it, Wallop sets out his thesis that the traditional determinants of class (ownership of land, title, educational background) have been superseded by consumer choice. Goodbye aristocrats, upper class, middle class, working class etc, and hello to these new groups (listed below in terms of buying power and status):

  • Portland Privateers: the nouveaux riche, generally foreign
  • Rockabillies: public school, Tatler-reading, of red trousers fame
  • Wood Burning Stovers: close to my heart
  • Middletons: lower middle class done good
  • Sun Skittlers: readers of the aforementioned paper, content in their status
  • Asda Mums: striving to do better for their family
  • Hyphen Leighs: blingy and brand-obsessed

As befits a text written by a journalist, it’s all very entertaining and most readable, in particular given the honesty with which Wallop describes his own background (very much at the top end – this is someone who received Christmas presents from earls, countesses and viscounts). And there are many interesting little nuggets he draws up, such as the story behind the development of the first M&S ready meal (chicken Kiev), as well as the unexpected similarities between the top and low end. This includes disdain for culture and education, as well as tendency to produce large broods.

Given that we are all meant to be middle class now, it is perhaps somewhat ironic/paradoxical that the area where the book fell short was in terms of thinking about the middle. The Portland Privateers, the Rockabillies and the WBS clearly don’t represent a large group – no figures are given but I am sure they are in the top 5-10% income wise; and then there are the three groups at the lower end, but just one for the middle. Why don’t we hear about them – or there is nothing to say because no one actually wants to be there?

If these groups are about lifestyles, then perhaps it has to be at the extreme to capture our imagination. In marketing more generally, this reflects what we are seeing: namely the death of the middle. The struggles of Tesco and the success of Aldi and Waitrose demonstrate this well.

This is very much a British book: about an old British obsession (class) and a new one (consumption). I do wonder whether the equivalent could be written in other markets where choice and affluence have recently appeared on the scene and are changing the dynamics of identity and social status. I wonder what Wood Burners Stovers might be in China. Actually, does Boden even exist out there? There are Boden factories – not quite the same!

Boden in China

January 3, 2015

What change in a decade?

Filed under: Consumer Trends — by xrematon @ 7:59 pm
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Though I now live a life of dull suburban parochialism, there was a time when I went off to experience the exotic. Ten years ago, I worked in Mumbai for close to 12 months. I haven’t been back since, but had the opportunity to catch up with the country when my flatmate came to stay.

It turns out that all those little cool phenomena we get so excited about over here in the UK are not our sole preserve, but can be found in India. Pop-up stores:check . Micro brewery:check. Everyone getting onto Facebook:check.

However, it turns out there are other less welcome developments, which put me more in mind of comparisons to China than sophisticated Western markets. Food security is a major issue. Not only has food price inflation been very high over the past decade, but you can’t even be sure that the food you have paid for is safe. Food adulteration often hits the headlines.

Sadly, though, India has not also been able to benefit from ‘China prices’ in the way that we UK consumers have. My flatmate purchased a large stash of cheap shoes from various fast fashion retailers such as H&M and Primark, observing that these were probably cheaper than anything she could get of a comparable quality in India.

Indians buying cheap in London

Now, I remember that I also hoarded shoes when I was in India, in particular those very dainty decorated slippers. It seems the tables have turned.

Taking a less frivolous perspective, ecommerce is an area which is very much part of the everyday for a consumer in the UK, but still quite niche in India. Of all Indian online users, just 14% currently purchase online, whilst in the UK,  72% of all adults bought goods or services online in 2013. It will be interesting to see what change another ten years brings in this area.

When in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to experience first hand the awesome power and appeal of Bollywood. Though stars come and go, I was reassured to hear that Big B (Amitabh Bachchan) is still ‘a god’ (as my friend put it). Finally, I had found something where the passage of a decade had not brought change.



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