Recently in Business and industry Category

Another Page turns over

February 4, 2012 12:28 AM | Comments (0)

Soon after blogging about Border’s closure in Singapore, we were hit with news that another popular bookstore, Page One, was exiting the Singapore market. Another crying shame, even more because Page One was a homegrown company that seemed to have found its own niche with its design-oriented collection of books and related products.

I visited Page One on Thursday morning to use up book vouchers before it closed down, and also because there was a 50% storewide discount. What I liked was that it really was 50% - not like other stores that advertise as such to lure you in, only for you to discover that the discounts are only for selected ranges. OK, except maybe for the music CDs which were 30% off. But some books were going for 60% off or more so that averaged things out.

Another thing I’d give credit for is the professionalism of the staff. Even though they knew the bookstore would be closing, they made sure that things were in order. Contrary to what I had half feared, it had not turned into a huge jumble sale, with books piled up in illogical fashion. Staff were working hard to pack related books together and making sure the queue to the cashiers didn’t block common passageways.

I’ve liked Page One’s selection of books, which would arguably be comparable to that of Kinokuniya’s - the last big regional bookstore of note. My favourite category remains business and management, followed by design, and thus I found myself in the former section, staring at rows of empty shelves, wondering if I would find what I was looking for. Not quite, but I found other titles that were good enough to bring insights to my work.

The children’s section, a slightly older colleague informed me later, was sparse (I have not progressed to that stage of my life yet). There were still many comprehensive design books remaining, and I would encourage the more arty types to dive in now.

All I can say is, what’s becoming of our bookstore culture? Two big stores catering to the middle to upper-middle class markets simply could not pay the rent. ‘Economy’ and student-friendly stores like Popular will still survive due to their low price points and bulk demand. But over the years I have seen the presence of local stores catering to middle-class markets, like Times and MPH, whittled away. Happily, niche bookstores seem to be springing up nicely - but again, that caters to a relatively select group and not the mainstream population.

And is paying the rent all that’s important to a shopping centre? Think of the intrinsic value that a good, big bookstore can bring. It draws in customers who may then patronise other shops and dine at your mall. It’s a great meeting point. In the long run, it widens people’s minds and grows intellectual capital.

My message to the uber-capitalists who look more at balance sheets than balanced tenant mixes: You could divide that huge, vacant space into lots of little kiosks which could fetch a higher rental yield per square foot, but you can never take away the magic of a good bookshop - or any other good anchor tenant, for that matter.

A Life without Borders

September 27, 2011 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

Borders, as everyone should know by now, has closed its chapter in Singapore.

Many of us took for granted that it would always be there, and it was said that this branch was more profitable than the stores in the US. What happened? I have a few theories:

1) Too many “Read-only” users

Borders’ closure was heavily covered in the media and I can’t recall exactly where I saw this, but what a little boy said when interviewed, summed it all up. He said he would miss reading books at Borders.

If you only want to sit around and read books, go to a library. And if your fingers have already indented every page in a magazine, just buy it and stop blocking the aisle so that other customers can get to the titles they want.

You see, the US model of allowing customers to browse books while sipping coffee, which Borders attempted to export, doesn’t quite work in Singapore. The US has a tipping culture, more active volunteerism, and people feel that they should give back to a cause or an institution. Over here, the mentality among the majority is still very much ‘take all you can’, photocopy all your textbooks and only pay the minimum, if you really need your own copy.

This is why some local bookstores go to the other extreme and wrap up all their books - which make me feel like not buying any of them, either, unless I already know the contents of the book and it’s selling at a good price.

2) Lack of focus

Other factors were more within Borders’ control, such as the selection of non-book items, which was said to have diluted the focus on its core. I found the stationery items suitable as gifts for others, but not worth buying for myself on a regular basis.

Similarly, I am a music lover and an avid supporter of copyright but I hardly purchased any CDs from Borders because they were simply more expensive than other stores. It was ‘neither here nor there’ for me. If I wanted variety, I would go to HMV; if I wanted a more upmarket selection and personalised service, I would go to That CD Shop. At Borders, I could sample some albums but not all of them, and I was pretty much left to my own devices if I wanted to explore a new genre.

3) More affordable alternatives

The Amazon mobile app was also a huge dissuader of purchases at Borders, on my part. Scanning the bar codes of books, I would look at their marked-up Singapore prices and decide not to buy most of them. The discounts at Amazon were so great that even with shipping costs factored in, I would save money. Offline, local bookstores like Popular would sell the same business titles but at a much cheaper price, and for me, the choice was clear again. I would not buy at Borders. Not unless someone gave me a gift card, or I desperately needed the book (which was seldom the case).

Yet the Straits Times cited industry sources who felt it was Borders’ price cuts which did them in. I still feel there was a big markup. Obviously something along the value chain wasn’t quite working. Meanwhile, e-readers like the Kindle, Nook and even the iPad have become popular as substitutes to physical books, and they are here to stay.

Perhaps Borders’ high prices and low margins were caused by expensive rent, which is to be expected if you are situated along Orchard Road. In fact, many things in Singapore are expensive largely because of the high rentals (a discussion on which can warrant a thesis on its own) and the fact that many desirable objects are not made in Singapore, but imported from distant lands. Stores have to make a profit too, so these high prices are passed onto the Singaporean consumer.

4) No more oomph in the service

Last year, a senior executive wrote in the papers about how he enquired about books on two different Presidents of the United States, but the young Borders assistants did not know who they were. When he expressed his surprise, their response was that it was not taught in school. This may have arisen from a rigid adherence to learn only what comes out in exams, and a lack of curiosity about anything outside of one’s immediate concern.

If this is any indication of what the future of our workforce will be like, then we in Singapore (and not just Borders) have something to worry about.

And if paid human labour isn’t adding much value to the customer experience of a physical store, I may as well turn back to Amazon’s intuitive interface, which at least tells me what other titles I may be interested in, and makes me want to buy more.

On a similar note, there’s a reason why customers in the US make appointments to see a Genius in the Apple Store, and why they continue to buy from Apple. There’s quality assurance in there, together with personalised service. But Apple’s margins, as an innovator and not just a retailer, are surely fatter than a bookseller’s.

5) It’s the industry, stupid

Let’s face it: The physical book retailing industry isn’t particularly creative. Local bookstores like Times and MPH have long been marginalised, downsizing their own flagship stores over the years and selling their wares at relatively low local prices. The only worthy big players left, in my opinion, are Kinokuniya and Page One, which have a more discerning selection of titles, and, from my experience so far, more knowledgeable service staff.

Local online stores such as Opentrolley may also have whittled away at the customer base. Popular Bookstore will remain a behemoth in the low-price and textbook market, with its staple audience of students and other mainstream local customers, and it has cleverly diversified its portfolio through its middle-class Harris and higher-end Prologue stores, while passing on the benefits of membership throughout all 3 segments of its customer base.

Interestingly, boutique stores like Books Actually may be on their way up, as they differentiate themselves through niche selections and clearly focus on a very different audience from the mass market. I particularly like how it supports local authors.

I believe we must support retailers that dare to do something different. Otherwise, what we will have left are stores that only stock mainstream products. It can be a slippery slope as more business decide to play safe, and plunge deeper into the red ocean.

What I say is entirely my own opinion, through my own experiences as a customer; I do not have perfect knowledge of what actually happened behind the scenes to Borders or other retailers. But this surely has to be a wake-up call, not just for the book retail industry but any other institution that has failed to adapt to change.

Meeting the BBC

April 22, 2011 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

Last week, I was invited, as part of a select group of bloggers, to dinner with the BBC’s Economics and Business editor, Jeremy Hillman.

Jeremy and I happen to come from the same law school, and he just completed his MBA. So we had plenty to talk about! I also met his boss, Francesca Unsworth. They’re both from the BBC headquarters, not the local office, but what struck me was how friendly and unassuming they were.

Interacting with representatives from the BBC made me look back at how I’ve grown up with this institution. As a child, my mother would awaken me to the sound of BBC radio. When I moved to Bristol, I didn’t have a television set but I continued listening to radio, particularly for the news, Parliamentary sessions and any interesting developments in music that I didn’t get to hear back in Singapore.

When I did go over to a friend’s place with a TV set, I would split my sides watching BBC programmes like Goodness Gracious Me!

Then the Internet sprung up. In the mid 2000s, I became addicted to BBC’s Sportdaq (now closed), earning wads of cash as I bought shares in the hottest sports celebrities. Now, thanks to the situation that has given cause for consternation to football fans in Singapore, I rely mainly on the BBC for belated football news. I did opine that I was unable to watch some football videos, since I wasn’t in the right territory ;-)

Now, I will be keeping a closer eye on their Asia Business section, knowing that it is helmed by a capable fellow alumnus!

I also told Jeremy that my impression of the BBC was that it is seen as fair and independent. Judging from how other major news agencies have increasingly been bought over and consolidated, with vested commercial interests, an institution that provides an impartial opinion becomes all the more critical.

Ask yourself these questions

July 20, 2010 1:37 AM | Comments (0)

These are the thoughts that have been running through my head for the past couple of years. I’ve finally put them down.

Think of a project or cause at work which you’re publicising or trying to sell to customers. Now, ask yourself:

If you weren’t assigned to handle this portfolio;

If your KPIs weren’t tied to the success of this project, or meeting certain numbers;

If the said project or cause had a social media presence (like Facebook or Twitter) and you could choose to follow or add them - or not at all;

And if you decided not to show your support in any way, you wouldn’t be penalised or seen as unsupportive by colleagues;

Would you still do it?

The answer will reveal a lot about the interestingness, relevance and potential of an initiative. And a little about yourself.


March 21, 2009 5:15 PM | Comments (0)

After hearing about another misquoting incident in the local media I thought I should share a similar incident which also happened recently, to a classmate of mine.

A few weeks ago I reported that one of my classmates made it to the quarter finals of L’Oreal’s EStrat, a global marketing simulation contest. I scanned the article and congratulated him on his Facebook wall.

INSEAD student Sameer Mathur, interviewed on L'Oreal marketing contest

The part where he’s mentioned and quoted, is:

Mr S— M—, an Indian international and a semifinalist of EStrat, said that the competition gives him the chance to experience a real-life marketing challenge.

“It will be a great asset to add to my resume,” said the student at Insead, a post-graduate business school.

He thanked me for the info and added:

But I am surprised to see the comments in the news paper, I never told them what they have written.

They called me and this is what I told them “The idea of stepping into the shoes of a General Manager, having to manage a portfolio of beauty brands and facing marketing situations and challenges was an extremely appealing idea. We know that joining this competition is one of the best ways to glimpse what makes the world’s foremost beauty company tick and get hands-on experience in the business.”

I can understand if a quote has been slightly rephrased, or some words have been removed or re-arranged… but this seems to be very different from his original statement. Good that he kept a record in writing, so we can have a side-by-side comparison of the original statement and what was published in the end.

It could have been lost in translation, if his quote was given to the PR department or PR agency and then passed to the journalist. But we thought it’s unlikely that PR reps of a global company would warp the original statement so much. There’s no benefit to them changing it. The article was, however, one in a series on job searches, thus the rephrased quote fit better with the theme.

This is the second time a classmate of mine has been misquoted in the press. The first time, I had the impression that an incoming classmate sounded a little naive. Later she told me that these words were suggested to her so that it would fit better with the theme of the article; it wasn’t what she really wanted to say.

Perhaps ‘misquote’ in this first case isn’t the best word but I’m seeing a pattern - a need for quotes which help the article to flow well. Of course, not everyone you interview may say what you want, and if time’s short, why not rephrase it? However, news reporting should be non-fiction. If you want to change a statement drastically, I’d think you should contact the interviewee to discuss this, especially if you’re publishing their name.

I am fortunate that all the journalists who have interviewed me have been very professional - they check back with me before modifying my quotes, they are familiar with the topic at hand and ask good questions. Also, to be fair to journalists (having worked in a newsroom before) I’ve seen how some reports can get modified out of their control, literally from black to white. I don’t intend to point fingers at particular people because this seems to be happening too often, which means it’s not a ‘specific person’ problem but possibly an underlying problem with the system - incentives, procedures, hierarchy… There are a lot of other factors we may not know about - that’s what I’ve been learning in business school.

Later I’ll write a separate blog post to share my own experiences, and maybe we can all have a constructive discussion on what we can do to improve the situation.

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