Monthly Archives: November 2008

Shanghai #2 November 2008

There was nothing across the river 15 years ago
There was nothing across the river 15 years ago

One of the first things you notice on the drive in from Shanghai’s international airport is the number of VW and Ford motor cars on the road and very few other brands. VW’s are locally made and servicing & repairs are easier as parts are available – a valuable facility given the negligible use of indicators or concern for other motorists (or indeed passengers as far as taxi’s were concerned). “The Chinese manoeuvre, signal and then mirror” my local contact tells me. As a result nearly all the local taxi’s are VW and despite the economic downturn there are a lot of them with a typical fare costing less that a decent Latte in London.

In the papers Tuesday morning the two major stories were the US bail out of Citibank to the tune of $25b and the Chinese government’s rescue of the bean producers. The price has dropped so far that local farmers may stop planting which could lead to shortages down the line. Ironically, US bean growers stand to gain as imports will have to rise – an unsatisfactory outcome which at least everyone agrees on. The difference in the measures taken illustrates perfectly the wide variation in issues caused by the economic downturn although building work doesn’t seem to have abated. The entire city looks like one big building site and the pace of change is phenomenal. I was told that 15 years ago there were no buildings on the other side of the river. Now it is home to some of the most breathtaking skyscrapers in the world.

I am in Shanghai on business representing one of our customers in the mobile, or should I say ‘cell’ phone sector. Is the UK the only region to continue refer to these devices as mobile rather than cell? We seem never to have got it right and I remember getting my first ‘car-phone’ back in early 90’s! Maybe one day we will finally catch up.

The research is interesting on a number of levels and not least because our client has asked us to test a prototype device that uses a different input mechanism. Radical design and risk taking are seldom seen in the mobile arena and since the launch of the iphone everyone seems to have become a follower. A radical departure this may not be but at east it is challenging current thinking which can only be a good thing.

Of great interest was the market and perception differences between what in the west we are told about the Asian market, and what is in fact the reality. Connectivity for calls and text messaging was a big issue. 3G is an aspiration for most of the people I heard talking – who ranged from people working in Financial services to Teachers. The service delivery was a constant feature of the conversation and clearly there are issues with local providers. Although I experienced excellent connectivity via my Blackberry for email and picture messaging it seemed that none of the research participants had the capability or if they did, they didn’t use it.

Where Shanghai and London are similar is in the impact the economic slowdown is having on the sector. I heard plenty of stories of budget cuts, projects being delayed and a general concern over the medium term future. However, out to dinner at one of the nicer Chinese restaurants on Monday night I noticed there were more Westerners dining than Asians. Economic slowdown there may be, but Shanghai still offers plenty of opportunity and it isn’t just the local businesses that are making the most of it.

My visit to Shanghai #1

This is a short post because I am writing it on my blackberry. The reason is that the Chinese authorities appear to block wordpress access over the internet but do not via mobile internet. The same is true of twitter and various other websites I use regularly at home but cannot access here.
Ironically, the reason for my visit is to observe some mobile (cell) phone user groups. None of the participants so far use mobile Internet although all bar one would like to. There use is mainly texting with aspirations to watch TV on the bus and subway.
I wonder if mobile internet could offer freedom from the government restrictions placed on accessing certain content? My colleague described the control as being over “one big pipe” that comes in to China. If the same control does not exist over mobile the next 10 years could see a cultural revolution of a different kind.

The usability of use-by-dates

Recently, Tesco changed the packaging of their Coleslaw. Not exactly front page news and I suspect their motivation was driven by a desire to reduce the amount of packaging they use – or was it cost saving, I can’t decide. The outcome either way is that I can now no longer tell when my coleslaw goes beyond the use-by or best-before date.

The reason? Tesco used to provide a plastic clip-on resealable lid over the thin cellophane film that sealed the coleslaw from the outside world and on the lid was printed the use-by date. They have removed this lid and printed the use-by date on the thin film. The problem is that the film disintegrates when you try and remove it and so you end up throwing it away (thank goodness for clingfilm), together with any clues toward the use-by date of the aforementioned coleslaw. The experience is a specific problem with ‘wet’ products like coleslaw but it has made me wonder about other products and the way the use-by dates are presented.

Here is another example. Can anyone tell me what the use-by date on this label actually means?

Is the consumer meant to understand this?
Is the consumer really meant to understand this?

For those unable to read the label it says “Best Before End L8210(D)1”.

Well, that’s crystal clear. I thought perhaps it means 8th of Feb 2010 but I have another wrapper with the code L8095DE1 and before you ask I haven’t owned this product since 1995!

So we have one example where the packaging is the problem and the other that simply defies explanation. To me the coleslaw example is a problem with context of use. The same ‘print on cellophane’ technique is used for labelling the best before date on Tesco bacon. It isn’t a problem here because the cellophane is slightly thicker and in any case, if it falls in to the bacon it doesn’t make a mess. Thin strands of cellophane dipping in coleslaw is a problem.

These are not problems that are going to take either Cadbury’s or Tesco’s to the wall in the immediate future but I wonder how much administrative overhead has gone in to dealing with complaints and providing free replacement product? There could even be direct losses from people who switch product (Twirl) or stop buying altogether (Coleslaw).

Clearly there has been no customer research in either case and probably because there was no business case or compelling reasion to do so. But as a colleague recently told me: “when the going gets tough, the tough get measuring” and identifying avoidable costs in a business and then applying solutions is what next year will be all about.

I look forward to the return of the hard plastic lid on my coleslaw and to eating my Twirl safe in the knowledge that it has not gone off. However, I am not sure when this will be.

Salary details published online

Glassdoor.com is the brain-child of Robert Hohman (ex President Hotwire), Rich Barton (founder of Expedia) and Tim Besse (also ex Expedia). The website launched in late August following beta trials and inception earlier in the year. The idea emerged in the summer of 2007 after the founders wondered what would happen if someone left an entire company employee survey on a printer and it got posted to the web. The initial idea expanded and the website now offers three things – for free!

The first is that it provides detailed company reviews that encourage employees to highlight the pros and cons of working for a firm with advice for senior management. Perhaps the dichotomy between criticising the company you work for with the potential to damage your own market value vs. the desire to ‘offload’ keeps the feedback honest. Whatever the motivation I didn’t read many ‘hotheaded’ reviews and I really like this idea as it has the potential to provide a canny employer with a no holds barred, finger on the pulse insight in to what employees really think about the company management and strategy at a grass routes level. If not the actual strategy then at least the employees perception of what the strategy is which is perhaps more important feedback.

The second is Employee ratings on workplace factors and leadership. The website asks employees to rate their employee against a range of criteria such as work life balance, benefits and more. They are also requested to provide a CEO approval rating which is shown as a score.

Finally, and perhaps the ‘killer’ piece of the website is that it provides real time salary information by company and by title. So I can see for example, that a Senior Consultant at Deloitte has an average salary of $95,723 and a Senior Manager a salary of £162,140. Quite useful to both employee and employer.

The fact that all the information comes from real employees is the crucial point of differentiation for the website. It is free to use and all the information is ‘anonymised’ so there is no fear of your employer finding out if you say something less than complimentary about them.  It is pure genius and surely it won’t be long before it is integrated with job listing sites to give an extra dimension to a recruitment decision.

The use of a “Wisdom of the crowd” approach in business is becoming increasingly documented – I reviewed Gary Hamel’s book ‘The future of Management’ recently and the theme is used as the basis for his ideas. Perhaps the Glassdoor provides a legitimate opportunity for crowd insight toward a companies strategy. I suspect however it will be a while before employers actually use it as they will no doubt dismiss it as only a report on the extremes.

New website for guitar studies

My seven year old son is learning to play the guitar at school and so when I read about the launch of “academy of guitar studies” I thought I’d take a look. I have been playing guitar on and off myself for about 25 years and this year decided to learn lead guitar, having been primarily a chord monkey so far. The press release suggested this website would be a resource for anyone learning or playing the guitar and so I thought it would be useful to both of us.

One of the most useful resources for learning to play guitar is YouTube. I know a number of people who log in to view video lessons that show how to play different riffs and chord sequences and providing you can either read music or use tabs then you can get pretty much everything you need with a bit of diligent searching. The problem is that you have to wade through a lot of irrelevant stuff to find the good. I have also used About.com:guitar which provides a wide range of resources and through this website you can access a range of additional websites that provide video guitar lessons, product information, and much more.

So back to the grandly named “academy of guitar studies”. The site is a dissapointment as it is essentially an online shop dedicated to books about learning to play the guitar. The homepage doesn’t communicate what the website proposition is at all other than through the misleading tagline “your one stop shop for guitar education and accessories”. Clearly it isn’t.

It is handy to have all the books in one place and the menu structure has some interesting categories in it that assist you with finding music for special occassions or different types of music, but there is no search function. Also, you have to sign up to see a newsletter rather than get a look at why you might want to sign up (I didn’t). The price check I did against Amazon came out on par so if you are a regular Amazon customer I can’t see any reason why this website might make you order from it. Search yes; order no.

So not a one stop shop unless all you need is a new book and you are having trouble finding something specific.