Sunday, February 1, 2009

The consumer experience

Shopping is perhaps the most universal trait I’ve seen between the US, London, and Asia. Here in Hong Kong opportunities to shop are everywhere. It seems that every MTR (subway) stop is foremost a portal to another mall and secondly a way to get somewhere. Almost every stop I’ve been to in Hong Kong unloads into a multi story mall (often 8-12 floors). With deals, deals, deals galore.

Shopping here is similar to the US. Right now Chinese New Year is the occasion being used to sell goods. Every mall has huge displays, musicians, and tons of festivities all aimed at conveying that festive holiday mood. Compared to Christmas, the only difference is instead of Santa in his red suit there is a golden ox on display. Advertising seems fairly similar. Walking around Central (downtown) you are greeted by multi story displays of celebrities promoting goods (I’ve seen a few George Clooney displays) and most of the major international brands have large show rooms (Ferragamo, Coach, Nike, Diesel, etc…)

Getting off the beaten path you find some differences. There are huge open air markets selling fake goods in HK. It’s not as dirt cheap (as say Vietnam) but there plenty of places to get knock of goods for cheap. Some of the girls in my program have been trying to work up the courage to visit some of the back alley “showrooms” where the best fakes supposedly are, but so far everyone has kept to the markets. Also there are a lot more tailors in HK than the states. I’m guessing the availability of cheap labor helps. In fact currently I’m waiting on my first custom shirt to be made at a place owned by an Indian gentleman who has been in HK for 51 years – if it’s good I have a few other things I need made.

I’m sure there are difference in the marketing themes used, but I probably haven’t examined enough local HK adds to be able to compare; however, either way I’m confident in saying that people in HK are as drawn to shopping as people in the states, if not more so.

Editor’s note: this article was written for a series on the international student’s experience for Duke University.

Day 20 – London to Hong Kong

Goodbye Europe, Hello Asia. Today I am traveling to HK. After my horrible winter traveling experience out of NYC during the holidays (I’m convinced that JFK/LGA are two of the worst airports in the world. Not only are they highly inefficient, old, and dirty but the staff are surely, mean, and abrasive) I was delighted w/ European travel yet again (the first time going in and out of St. Pancras train station in London) by London’s Heathrow Terminal 5. Now, I’ve heard horror stories about Heathrow, but at least terminal five (the international terminal) was amazing. I have never seen so many ticket kiosks ( I would guess well over 50) with an equal number of attendants to check bags. It was breath taking. Then, in the terminal there were numerous customer service desks staffed by 6-8 people (a far cry from the usual one person, if you are lucky in the US). My only quip with Heathrow is no free internet. Otherwise it was great. 

I had a nice and uneventful week to close out my European experience. The weather warmed up a bit and I managed to get in a run every day along the Thames. By the end I was starting to feel comfortable in London, as someone described to me at a party: “London is like Connecticut, it makes sense.” And in the end I could agree. The only real difference is the driving on the wrong side of the roads, the bars closing MUCH earlier (the pubs close around 9pm, and even bars don’t make it much past 11pm), and the total lack of sunlight (London makes Chicago look sunny since it sits in it’s own little kink in the time zones making it so that it is dusk around 3:00 and dark by 4:00pm.)

On the day of my departure Gordon Brown announced an additional £200B stimulus package to buy up toxic assets and help stimulate the economy. Additionally, two more banks were taken over by the government. In terms of business London looks a bit drearier now that the holidays are over. Regent and Oxford Street are empty but the huge sale signs remain. They have taken down all of the Christmas decorations and the whole area feels like a ghost town. There were still plenty of folks in the Pubs, but I doubt any crises could empty those out in London. I think London is pretty much in the same spot we are in the states: They are trying everything they can think of : £200B stimulus, (because the initial £37B stimulus didn’t do anything)  bank takeovers, (they are purchasing and additional 30 or so percent of the royal bank of Scotland to own over 70% of it outright) and historically low interest rates (currently below 2%) – but nothing seems to be having a huge effect (the FTSE is still unmoved).

On the day before Obama’s inauguration the situation here feels very similar to the one I left. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

Day 7 – 1/7/2009 – London/Paris

Today I am riding the Eurostar rail from London to Paris. Despite my apprehension, based in recent travel woes, it was actually very easy and painless. We took the tube to St. Pancras International, collected our tickets, showed our passports, waited around, and boarded. Best of all, the terminal had free wifi! (This and the one at Leon, a neighborhood café in Bankside, were the only free hotspots I found in a week). The train itself is fast and at just a 3 hour or so trip it’s a very quick and easy way to get between the cities. Although not cheap, it is reasonable – around $150 r/t for off peak travel, but I think that’s about the fare one way on Amtrak from DC to NYC, so I’m happy.

In my previous entry I wrote that the financial crisis wasn’t hitting London; however, after a week there it would seem that my first impression was incorrect. What I was witnessing on Oxford Street (a.k.a. “high street,” what American’s would call “main street”) was shoppers getting in on post Christmas and Liquidation sales. It seemed that most Londoners held out on shopping until after the holiday – in fact sales for the last week of December were up over 17% from a year prior, but that hardly compensated for a terrible overall holiday season. The shopper’s instincts paid off, every store on high street was having a sale of some kind and the unfortunate companies – Zaavi, Woolsworth, and the President’s Club were having liquidation sales of 50%-75% off. At Zaavi, a CD/DVD chain the lines were out the door as people waited to buy £2.99 (~$4.50) In addition Pubs had large signs for cheap meals (soups/stews for £4.00 ($6.50) and cheap pints (one chain started offering a £1.00 ($1.50) pint, much to the chagrin of local alcohol watchdog groups). Unfortunately for me, a poor grad student, the sales still didn’t make things cheap enough – although, Thomas Pink almost got me to break out the credit card to but a round of shirts for only £40 ($60) a piece.

But the week in London was a good one. Kate and I probably averaged 8 or so miles a day of walking (one day we did 12 miles) and managed to get a few runs in along the Thames. We only went to two museums: The Tate Modern (egh, it was ok) and the British Museum (very cool) but we managed to cover most of the city by foot to get a very good feel for it. I’m still trying to find a pub that broadcasts Duke games (Gotta find somewhere to watch Duke v Georgetown) but so far the only place I found is a BBQ place (lovely) called Bodean’s that doesn’t serve beer and is about as brightly lit as a McDonald’s.

What has surprised me most about London, is the effect of being confronted with the numerous reminders of Britain’s imperial past. Walking to Buckingham Palace I past various pillars depicting the names of lands occupied by Britain: Afrika, Nepal. Etc… And upon taking in all of the opulence of the gates, fountains, and palaces it hit me: all of this was built on conquest and spoils. True the ornate granite and gold of the fountains were gorgeous, but they were only there because of the excess of the Victorian Pillaging. This sense of unease was compounded at the British Museum where London keeps all of the remnants of statues, tombs, and riches it collected from conquering the Egyptians, Asyrians, and Greeks. It was unsettling seeing the statues of the Egyptian kings, their tombs and sarcophaguses, and the statues of the gods buried with them all on display for people to see how curious the Egyptian people were 3000 years ago. I’m probably being a bit oversensitive, Britain’s imperial past is a source of great pride for the country and the relics are reminders of a past era - I just found it odd to be looking at statues taken from the Parthenon in London of all places. Oh well, I’m not going to make to Greece or Egypt on this trip so it saves me some time.

A couple more random London observations: 1.) They LOVE chains. Every block has: 2-3 Starbucks, a Café Nero, a CRUSSH juice bar, a Pret a Managere café/sandwich shop, a WagaMama Asian Confusion place, a Pizza Express, and a placed called “Eat.” (direct enough?). I guess the chains fill the void of “things to eat that aren’t pub food,” a solution that has yet to find it’s way to Ireland… 1.b) Starbucks are EVERYWHERE. This shocked me, I thought there would be some either a cool London chain or a bunch of local shops, but in reality it’s just Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks 2.) London can’t get the moving on the left/right thing right. Cars go on the left side of the street (fine) but there is no rhyme or reason to how people walk on the sidewalks. This could be because of all of the foreigners (I’ve been told real Londoners walk on the left) but the city doesn’t help by directing foot traffic to the Right in the tube tunnels and having no consistent order for the escalators. All in all, it’s maddening.

Next up: Paris. I just popped out of the Chunnel and was greeted with the snowy hills of France. Here’s hoping all my training dealing with Socialists in Vancouver paid off, let’s see how the economic slow down is effecting the Frogs.

Random business musings – I think warranties are going to make a comeback. In times like this I think people will feel comforted knowing their washing machines will be insured for life. Consumers won’t be comfortable viewing goods as disposable when everything is so expensive.

Day 1 – 1/1/2009 – London

The worldwide recession doesn’t seem to be affecting London much. We could barely even make it through Piccadilly and Oxford Street because of the throngs of people flowing in and out of the clothing, CD, and trinket shops. High end shops, low end shops they were all bustling we people carrying three to four shopping bags from various store. I did hear a number of different languages being spoken, so maybe it was just the tourists coming in to shop – but one would think even that would die down.

Walking around London shows me where much of the inspiration for DC. The buildings aren’t very tall and it looks very stately. I was surprised though at the trash – there were cigarette cartons, fast food wrappers, and plastic bottles everywhere, pretty shocking indeed.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thoughts about going abroad before I leave …

I’m sitting in the international terminal at JFK trying to catch up on a few last emails, Facebook posts, and calls before I head off to London. Since leaving Durham after finals I have been to New York City, Vancouver, and Connecticut and am already feeling a bit travel worn, but I know that it’s just the beginning as I head across the Atlantic to travel through London and Paris for three weeks before going Hong Kong.

I believe this trip is going to be well suited to experience the full extent of the current financial crisis. I started in the Research Triangle where cheap mortgages led to heavy development over the past 5 years – many developments which now aren’t selling or are in foreclosure. Then, in the tri-state area I heard many a “sad” story about unemployed bankers and hedge fund managers who had dealt in the securities used to fuel those mortgages, and exacerbate the problem. While in Canada I noticed how much stronger the dollar was as compared to even 6 months ago when oil prices (Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the United States) were at record highs. Now I start the next part of my journey, heading to London to see how Europe’s major financial center is coping. I’m curious to compare their attitudes to those in the tri-state area and see what they think about the US’s role in their current financial troubles.

London will be a good precursor for my visit to Hong Kong, Asia’s financial center. How will they all compare? What will be the same? What will be different? Hong Kong will also serve as my gateway to mainland China. There I will be able to compare the manufacturing in Gouzhong to the textile plants and light manufacturing of North Carolina.

Obviously there is a lot to see and do, but first I need to get to London and find a pub to watch the fireworks from!