Postcard #2 from Tokyo

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Greetings from Tokyo.

It’s been close to a year since I’ve been back to Tokyo. Last time when I visited, my two key takeaways were: (1) Shrinking portions = price inflation and; (2) Watch out CX, competition from budget airlines are for real (see previous postcard here).

For this second postcard, I’m going to split it into two sections.

  1. Musings on Shake Shack, Blue Bottle and Square
  2. Finds – Ramen and Sneakers

Shake Shack, Blue Bottle and Square

For this trip, the key images that have stuck in my head are the following:

The top two images are from Shake Shack, the bottom two are from Blue Bottle.

What do they have in common? Yes, the burgers are delicious and the coffee is good but that is not it.

What I’ve been wondering was why are all these cool brands choosing Japan as their initial expansion point in Asia?

Don’t they know that Japan has an ageing population and has been mired in a 2.5 decade funk since the bursting of its real estate bubble in 1989? What about the language issue and doesn’t Japan follow civil law instead of common law?

So, this got me thinking.

What is the addressable market?

Population – Japan has a population of 126mn, roughly 38% the size of the US. By comparison, China has a population of 1,379mn. If we were to compare cities, Tokyo and Osaka have populations of 13mn and 8mn versus Hong Kong’s 7mn and Shanghai’s 24mn.

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How well off are they? Japan has a GDP per capita of US$42,700. This is 28% lower than the US’s HK$59,500 per capita GDP. At the city level, Hong Kong has a GDP per capita of US$61,000 versus Tokyo’s US$44,000.

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While Hong Kong has a very high per capita GDP, it also has a very big wealth gap. Hong Kong’s has a gini coefficient of 53.7 versus Japan’s 37.9 and the US’s 45. So while Hong Kong’s per capita GDP is very high, it might also be very skewed towards a small group of the population.

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The right age group? The millennial appeals seems unlikely to be what drew the cool brands to Japan. Japan’s median age of 47 is one of the highest in the world. The US and China have median ages of 38 and 37 years respectively. But incidentally, Hong Kong is not that far behind as its median age of 44 is only three years younger than Japan.

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If we look at age structure, Japan has a very skinny middle. Those between 15-54 only make up 47.1% of its population. By comparison, this age group accounts for 52.8% of the USA, 55.1% of Hong Kong and 61.3% of China.

While it’s possible that they see a hidden market in some cool grandma’s sipping coffee and having a burger, there must be some other explanation beyond demographics.

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It’s real estate

Hong Kong and Tokyo are both gateway cities with affluent population. So, why do all the cool brands go to Japan before they come to Hong Kong? (Note: the first Shake Shack in Hong Kong will open later this year and Shanghai will get theirs in 2019. Tokyo opened in 2015 and Seoul in 2016).

I think one reason is REAL ESTATE and rental costs. In Hong Kong, the leasing market is tilted much more in favour of the landlord. In Japan, much greater protection is given to the tenant. As Hong Kong leases are typically marked-to-market every three years, even if you have found the right addressable market, your outsized profits will probably go to the landlord upon lease renewal.

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As you can see above, Tokyo retail rents are quite stable.

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On the other hand, Hong Kong’s retail rents are incredibly volatile. Imagine yourself as a country manager who is responsible for pulling the trigger on expansion. If you signed a bunch of leases at the end of 2013, you would have subsequently seen market rents drop by 40-50%. How would you justify that to head office? What about if you signed your leases in 2011? Then the question is why didn’t you expand more and lock in cheaper rents. At this juncture, with prime rents having returned to 2010 levels, the career risk of making a bad real estate decision is greatly reduced.

I can only hope that Burger King is as wise as Shake Shack. This way, I won’t have to go to Bangkok for my Whopper fix.

Finds – Ramen, Tsukemen and Casual sneakers

Like my trip to Bangkok, the weak US dollar has made everything more expensive. Normally, I’m a creature of habit but for this trip we actually tried some new restaurants so I can’t really gauge if the portions of Kobe beef have continued to shrink.

So with the USD now at around JPY105, what are the good deals? Here are my three finds for this trip.

Ramen – The Yuzu Shio Ramen at Afuri probably takes the crown for the best deal of the trip. At JPY980, this is cheaper than a bowl of Ramen at Ippudo in Hong Kong (HK$88-92).

Tsukemen – This is a cold dipping noodle. Unlike cold soba which is dipped in a clear soya sauce, the dipping sauce for Tsukemen is very thick. This costs JPY1,000 and with a choice of a large noodle portion, I ate it at 11am and was still full at 5pm.

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Casual sneakers – I used to always buy a pair of running shoes when I visited Tokyo. However, with the stronger exchange rate (as well as potentially a price hike), a pair of Kayano 24 now costs around JPY16,500. Although this is still 12% cheaper than in Hong Kong, I have trouble justifying paying US$160 for a pair of running shoes that will last me 6-9 months.

On the other hand, I was drawn to the casual sneakers. With a larger selection, a wider availability of sizes as well as many limited offerings to choose from, this may become one of my regular visits.

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Postcards from Bangkok

Sawasdee-Krap! Greetings from Bangkok.

 

It’s been a while since we’ve been back in Bangkok. We used to make annual pilgrimage to the capital of Thailand. We were always drawn by the great food and the cheap massages. But for various reasons, we have not been back for nearly seven years.

So what’s changed?

The food is still fantastic and generally good value for money. The foot massages were super good and only costs about 25% of what you would expect to pay in Hong Kong.

(1) Imported goods were very expensive

While local food and services still offered very good value, the same cannot be said for goods, especially imported products.

I’m not much of a shopper but for some of the items that I was comparing, they were more expensive in Bangkok than in Hong Kong. For instance:

  • Starbucks Grande Black Coffee – THB 120 or HK$30. This is the same as Hong Kong.
  • Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 5.37.45 PMBridgestone Golf Balls – Even with a buy two get one free offer, each box of 12 balls works out to about HK$225, $25 more than what one box costs in Hong Kong.
  • Hatchimal Surprise – This costs THB3,995 (or HK$999) at the Toys R Us in Bangkok, some 66% more than the HK$599.50 retail price at the Toys R Us in Hong Kong.

At first I thought this must be due to currency effect and how weak the USD has been. True enough, the USD has weakened from previously commanding THB36 to USD to currently THB31.3 but compared to 2011 when we last visited Bangkok, the currency is just about the same.

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So, chalk one up to goods just being more expensive.

(2) Technology boosting transparency

Another key change since 2011 is the advent of the smart phone and apps. In addition to great food, Bangkok is also known for its traffic jams. Most travel sites would tell you that although there are plenty of metered taxi’s around, you should be prepared to bargain as taxi drivers often try to negotiate a flat rate on account of the traffic.

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Traffic, traffic and more traffic

For us, we were subjected to this flat fare once. On our way to dinner, we hailed a taxi and as expected the driver said “Bad traffic, I take you there for a flat rate of THB200.” We said “Too expensive, meter please.”. He said traffic very bad, how about THB150. Translating this back in my head, THB is about HK$37.50. Not wanting to waste time haggling and potentially having to flag down another cab, we said fine.

While traffic is usually bad in Bangkok, this time there was none. After 10 minutes, we got to our destination. After sitting down and ordering food, we opened up our Uber App. Sure enough, the Uber fare would have been only about THB80, so we paid nearly double for our trip. On our way back to the hotel, we expected to have to negotiate again but to our surprise, the taxi just stuck to the metered fare. I guess, with the popularity of the ride hailing apps and the increased transparency around fares, the days of negotiated fares should gradually become a thing of the past.

(3) Floating market – Still confusing and not very transparent

Another instance where we had to negotiate the fare was our trip to the floating market. Despite the proliferation of information on the internet, we got quite a bit of conflicting information. At first, we had wanted to go to the Amphara Floating Market but we were told by our concierge that the Amphara market was only open at night on the weekends. Instead, he suggested we go to the Damnoen Saduak Floating market which is open daily from 6-11am. Taking his advice, we hired a taxi for the day and headed out.

After about an hour, we arrived at something which looked like a rest stop. Here we were offered three private long boats, one for THB2,000 (1 hour), THB3,000 (1.5 hr) and THB4,000 (2 hrs). Ahead of the trip, we had read many reviews. There were the horror stories of tourists being asked to pay Euro 50 per person to go on the boat but there were also locals who say that the boats should costs about THB1,000. We asked the operator about the THB1,000 boats but of course he said the prices are now all mandated by the government and all boats costs the same and there are no THB1,000 boats.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this idea. Once we went into the floating market, I think we did see these THB1,000 boats at the main market. But here, the trade-off is the lines. As you can see from the picture below, the pier was crazy packed.

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Look at all the people queuing at the pier

So, I guess, the extra 100% premium (THB2,000 Vs. THB1000) was to bypass the lines.

(4) Rebate – How to differentiate

Despite being a tourist trap, the floating market was still a fun trip. We tried to steer clear of the souvenirs and focused on food. We tried Mango Sticky Rice (THB100), Tom Yum Soup (THB350), boat noodles (forgot how much) and a plate of Thai Fried Rice (THB140).

What was interesting was the rebate system. When we ordered our Fried Rice and Tom Yum Soup, the cook gave our boat driver a big bottle of water. When we bought our beer and soda, our boat captain got some taro cakes.

I guess with competition among the various stall owners and little means to differentiate their offering, it comes down to rebates. But instead of monetary compensation, the rebate is in the form of goods/barter. At the end of our holiday, the consensus was that the plate of fried rice from the floating market was the tastiest dish from the whole trip.

(5) Billboards and Bubbles

Last but not least are the billboards. Whenever I travel in China, I like to pay attention to the billboards. Sometimes, the billboards are dominated by property projects, other times the latest cars. Sometimes they would be promoting the latest app or dot-com. I have a theory that the billboards show you where the latest bubbles/fads are.

This time, on our way home, the billboards along the airport highway were dominated by property posters. Some of the billboards were advertising the latest high-rise condos, some were for townhouse communities.

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Given the prevalence of Property Billboards, I was seeing Bubbles everywhere. But, when I looked at the data, the evidence is mixed.

According to the House Price Index from the Bank of Thailand, Thai condominium prices have gone up 81% since December 2008. Townhouse and single-detached house prices have gone up less, only rising 45% and 34% respectively. Arguably, the faster rise for condominium prices likely reflect their city-centre exposure in Bangkok while Townhouse and single-detached houses were probably more reflective of price trends in the suburbs and countryside.

To put the 81% in context, during the same period, HK has gone up by over 160%, Vancouver +110%, Sydney +106% and London +91%. To call Bangkok property a bubble would be for the pot to call the kettle black. That said, this 81% does look very high if you compare it to Tokyo’s 27% rise and Singapore’s 18% rise over the same period.

One thing that hasn’t changed – The Whopper

While prices in Bangkok may have gone up, there is one part of my routine that will hopefully remain constant. I always try to finish my trip to Bangkok by having a Whopper at Burger King. Although the price has gone up a lot, to me, the taste is still priceless.

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A Whopper (burger only) costs US$8.50 at the airport but to me it is PRICELESS

 

London Calling? Summer Visits up 6%, Spending Up 4%

This past summer, we visited London. One of the impression that we shared from our trip was that it seemed like everyone was there. Our guess was that the cheaper currency was one key reason why London was 2017 hot travel destination.

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Were our impressions correct? Did everyone go to London for holidays this past summer? We’ve had to wait for a while but the statistics are finally in.

The answer is YES and NO.

Summer Visits Up 6% YoY, Spending up 4%

According to the latest monthly inbound tourism data from VisitBritain.org, there were 3.9mn visits to Britain in August 2017. Over the three summer months of June to August, there were 11.5mn tourist visits, up 6% YoY. Tourist spending reached £7.8bn between June and August 2017, up 4% YoY.

Looking at the trailing 12 months data ending August 2017, 39.65mn visited Britain and spent £24.01bn. Tourist visits and spending rose by 8% and 7% over the same period last year and are the highest that they have ever been.

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…but the growth rate is really slowing

While tourist arrivals and spending have continue to set new records, the bad news is that the growth rate is slowing rapidly. Compared to the first four months of 2017, when tourist arrivals had risen 11% YoY and spending had grown 14% YoY, the cumulative growth rate over 8M 2017 has now slowed to 8% and 10% respectively.

For the latest three months data, the rolling visit and spending growth was only 6% and 4%, lower than the Feb-April 2017 growth of 11% and 14% respectively. This suggest that as we come to the one year anniversary of the Brexit vote, the draw of the cheaper currency may be starting to fade.

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Source: Yahoo Finance

On the other hand, business is picking up

Although holiday visitors are still growing the fastest with 8M 2017 growth at 17%, the rate of increase has dropped off by 9pp since 4M 2017’s 26% YoY growth. Similarly, those visiting family and relatives as well as miscellaneous purposes have also slowed by 2pp and 10pp respectively. Notably, the only category that has improved since April are the business travellers. Compared to the -4% YoY decline noted in 4M 2017, the rate of decline has now slowed to -1%, suggesting that business visits are resuming despite the uncertainty with Brexit.chart (36)

…so are visits from North America and Other EU countries

In addition to business visits, the regional breakdown of visitors also show that arrivals from North America and Other EU countries have accelerated over the summer months. Compared to 4M 2017’s 16% YoY growth, North American visitors growth picked up another 2pp to 18% for 8M 2017. This was largely due to very strong visitor growth in May-July as August North American visitors actually dropped by 8% YoY. The biggest swing however was from Other EU countries which went from -5% in 4M 2017 to +7% in 8M 2017.

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Overall, still a good set of numbers just don’t project too far ahead

Overall, despite the slower rate of growth, the summer tourist figures are still very good. For the trailing 12 months ending August 2017, both total visitors (39.65mn) and visitor spending (£24.0bn) are all-time highs. And compared to 2014 and 2015, visitors/spending are up 15%/9% and 10%/9% respectively . That said, with growth rate slowing, just don’t project too far ahead.

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Anyone want to venture a guess what’s the next popular summer vacation spot? My bet is on the US.

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Postcards from Xian

Greetings from Xian. The first time I visited this ancient city was 17 years ago. Coming back this second time, here’s what struck me from this trip (1) red bikes, yellow bikes, green bikes and bikes of all colours, (2) cleaner and more orderly and not just the toilets, (3) coffee vs. fried chicken – chalk up a win for Starbucks, (4) mobile technology is huge but there is a catch, (5) rise of the domestic brands – watch out Apple, (6) best and worst food experience of the trip.

Greetings from Xian, China.

Background on Xian, China

Xian is located in the Shaanxi Province in China. Geographically, it is almost right smack in the middle of China, located around the same latitude as Shanghai and almost directly above Chengdu.

Historically, Xian was the capital of China during many of the early dynasties like the Qin and the Tang Dynasty. Back in the day, it used to be known as Chang’An. Today, Xian has a population of 8.7 million and according to our driver, its key industries are (1) aerospace and defence, (2) higher education and (3) tourism.

To most people, when they think of Xian, they think of the Terracotta Warriors from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin Dynasty.

What’s changed from 17 years ago?

This was my second time visiting Xian. The first time was about 17 years ago. I remember visiting the Terracotta Warriors but other than that the only other memory was the proliferation of internet cafes in the city centre.

Fast forwarding 17 years to 2017, here’s what struck me from this time around.

Red bikes, yellow bikes, green bikes and bikes of all colours

We previously wrote about China’s sharing economy. While we did not see any umbrella sharing schemes in Xian, we did see a ton of shared bicycles. There were green bikes, yellow bikes, orange bikes and silver and red bikes. On the positive side, the bikes were being used. People were scanning the QR code, unlocking bikes, riding them and then leaving them behind once they reached their destination. On the negative side, there is a lot of excess capacity. Competition is very intense and until one or two of these operators out-spend and out-live the others, I struggle to see how they would recoup their capital.

Cleaner and more orderly and not just the toilets

My second key impression was how much cleaner and more orderly Xian has become. In the past, when I visited some of China’s tier 2 cities, the two things that I dread the most were (i) visiting the smelly toilets and (ii) crossing the street. In many emerging markets, although there may be traffic lights, crossing the street is always an adventure. Drivers  never give way to pedestrians. This time, to my surprise, half of the cars actually slowed down when we crossed at the cross walk.

Secondly, the streets were a lot cleaner than I remember. There were many trash and recycle bins around town and they were being used for the most part. That said, there are some major hygiene issues (I’ve saved this for the ending) but China and Xian has come a long way.

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Guess where this was taken

Coffee Vs. Fried Chicken – Chalk up a win for Starbucks

Given our previous post on the fast food industry, we wanted to see how Starbucks and KFC were doing. By our rough count, Starbucks seems outnumbered KFC by a ratio of 5-to-3 in Xian. In total, I think we saw nine or 10 Starbucks and like six KFCs.

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Starbucks in Xian

As a coffee lover, my first thought is that Starbucks is still very under-penetrated. Granted, Xian is not going to be like a typical US city where there are Starbucks around every corner but for a city of 8.7 million to only have a handful of stores clearly shows that there is scope for a higher concentration.

This impression was corroborated by what I saw when I visited the local Starbucks one day around 5pm. The first thing I noticed was that every single table was full. Secondly, the price point for a Grande Black Coffee in Xian (Rmb 22) is only 10% lower than that of Hong Kong (HK$29). Given the difference in overall cost of living, this gap is remarkably small. Overall, I came away feeling more optimistic that China will be the future growth engine of Starbucks.

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Dicos – Local competitor to KFC

Mobile technology is huge in China but there is a catch

Ahead of this trip, we’ve heard and read about how China is evolving into a cashless society where everything can be paid for using your mobile phone. Unlike the West where credit cards dominate, in China, it is all about AliPay and WeChat Pay. We were eager to try this out but there’s a catch. You need to have a local bank account.

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As Hong Kong residents, it is possible to set up an account with AliPay HK or WeChat Pay but that account would only allow us to transact in Hong Kong dollars. Since we could not top up our account in Rmb, we were stuck paying for most things using good old fashion cash. Although this is a problem for foreigners, with 1.3bn consumers, the domestic opportunity is arguably already big enough.

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Delivering one of the many online shopping parcels

Rise of the domestic brands – Watch out Apple

There’s good news and bad news for Apple from our trip. The good news is that despite the early knocks against the iPhone 8, the phone is actually pretty good. Despite only having one lens, the camera was a marked improvement over the dual camera of the iPhone 7-Plus.

The bad news is that China’s domestic consumers don’t seem to care about Apple much. When we asked our guide about the upcoming launch of the iPhone X, his response was  “I’m more looking forward to the Huawei Mate 10”. Around town, we also noted many more ads and store fronts featuring Vivo and Oppo mobile phones.

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Hua Shan – Taken with iPhone 8

Best and worst food experience of the trip

To finish off this post, we share our best and worst food experience from Xian.

One of the best foods that we tried was the Rou Jiaomo (肉夾饃). This is kind of like a Chinese hamburger. It can be filled with either beef, lamb or pork. It was delicious and only costs about Rmb 8. Definitely worth trying.

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Rou Jiamo – Chinese Burger

I’m a big fan of lamb and also a big fan of barbecue. So when you put them together in the form of roast lamb skewers, this combination is hard to beat. It was delicious, juicy and fragrant. It was really enjoyable until….(HEALTH WARNING: You might not want to read on if you have a weak stomach).

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Lamb skewers

I finished it and after walking down a couple of streets, I saw a lady rummaging through the trash and recovering the used sticks.

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Source: Piccsy

Aaargghhh....I guess the cleanliness and orderly part has not reached everyone yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postcards from the car dealer – how the middleman makes money in the internet age

We are selling our seven-seater. With the internet and the various online marketplace, selling your used car should be a cinch, right? While the internet has greatly boosted transparency in the used car market, is there still a role for the middleman? The answer is Yes. From talking with the middleman, I reckon the internet has reduced his margin from 22% to only 4%-10%.

I’m selling my car. We have been debating for some time whether we still needed our seven-seater. That’s the back story but what I really wanted to share about was the selling process. Specifically, how the economics for the middle man has changed as everything now goes online.

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Everything’s online, is there still a role for the middle man?

I am not an expert on cars but even I know that trading in your car to the dealer gets you worst price when you are trying to sell your car.

With the proliferation of online marketplaces, there are now many car trading sites. Positively, these have really increased the transparency of the used car market. Once you key in the make and model year, the search results will give you a pretty good idea how much your car should go for.

In my case, my 7-seater should go for something between HK$198,000 to HK$258,000. Armed with that information, I posted my ad near the top of the range. Our car was well maintained, the mileage was a bit on the high side but I also expected a bit of bargaining.

And so I waited. A few days passed. There were no bites except for one joker who wanted to barter and exchange his RAV4 for my car. Nope.

“Are you a private seller or a car dealer?”

I guessed that my price was too high and lowered the price to the middle of the advertised range. This seems to do the trick. My phone started ringing and people called to get more details. One question that always came up was whether I was a private seller or a car dealer. Most people seemed to be wary of car dealers, fearing that they would mess around with rolling back the mileage or other funny business.

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After much back and forth, a serious buyer emerged. As it turned out, the caller works for a garage and is reaching out on behalf of a prospective buyer. In other words, he was a middle-man. To make a long story short, I brought my car to his garage, he checked it out, done deal.

The Economics of the Middleman

But during the process, he was kind enough to share with me his economics.

Here are the headline numbers.

  • I sold my car to the middleman for HK$218,000 ($10,000 lower than my list price).
  • The prospective buyer is going to pay him HK$250,000.
  • At the headline level, the middleman’s take is HK$32,000 or 12.8%.

However, as they need to redo the leather seats and put on some new tires, this costs of HK$13,200 is part of the HK$250,000 that the prospective buyer is paying for. Taking a 50% haircut on this number, I reckon the middleman’s margin is actually closer to HK$25,400 (HK$32,000 less HK$6,600) or 10.2%.

There’s more. Since the prospective buyer is trading in his 2007 sedan, the middleman is offering him a trade-in value of HK$40,000. According to the middleman, if the prospective buyer did not agree to buy my 7-seater, the price would have been HK$20,000. The middleman expects to sell the 2007 sedan for HK$25,000-35,000.

So, if you factor in middle man’s effective HK$5,000-15,000 loss on the 2007 sedan, the middleman’s real margin would have been reduced from HK$25,400 to something around HK$10,400 to HK$19,400 (a margin of only 4.2% or 7.8%).

At this point, we want to ask a couple of questions:

  • Did I sell my car for too cheap?
  • Why didn’t the prospective buyer approach me directly?

Did I sell my car for too cheap?

On the surface, it would seem that way since the prospective buyer was willing to pay HK$243,400 (HK$250,000 price less HK$6,600 for leather seats/tires). However, in the old days before the internet, the dealers would probably have lifted my car for HK$190,000.

Takeaway #1 – The internet has reduced the middleman’s margin reduced from 22% to 10.4%

So the first takeaway here is that the increased transparency of the internet has reduced the bid-ask spread. Whereas, before the middleman’s margin would have been HK$53,400 (HK$243,400 – HK$190,000), this has now been reduced to HK$25,400 (HK$243,400 – HK$218,000). In margin terms, the online market place has brought down the middleman’s margin from 22% to 10.4%.

Why didn’t the prospective buyer approach me directly?

But why does the middleman still exist? Shouldn’t the online marketplace had connected buyers and sellers directly? If the prospective buyer had approached me directly, we could have split the bid-ask spread and we would both be better off.

I think it has to do with information asymmetry. As the seller, I know that my 7-seater is in perfectly good condition. But from the buyer’s perspective, he cannot tell whether my car is pristine or has suffered serious water damage.

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To guard against being cheated, the buyer needs professional help from someone who he can trust. This is where the middle man comes in. Not only does the middle man help to vet the car’s condition, he also provides the prospective buyer with some recourse. If things go badly, there is a least a store front (in this case a garage) that he can go to protest.

Takeaway #2 – Information asymmetry and recourse sustains the middleman – for now

But what about me, the seller? I suppose if I have more time and more patience to deal with the various callers, I could have waited until the right price came along. However, for the service of matching me up against the buyer, the middleman’s fair wages is now 4-10%.

I suppose it is possible for someone to AirBnB or Uber this type of service but given that most people only change cars every five to seven years, there probably isn’t the volume to scale this business.

As a side note, the middleman also explained why a professional dealer would low ball at HK$190,000. The answer is rent. At the used car exhibition centres, dealers are required to rent at least six spaces and each space costs several thousand dollars.  Given the significant rental costs, it takes the used car dealer three cars to breakeven and he only makes money on the fourth car.

Postcards from the supermarket – Which is more expensive? Buy-side Vs. Sell-side

Greetings from the produce section of your local supermarket. As I was meeting an old friend for lunch today, I came across some novelty melons. When I thought about how much they costs, the question of value came to mind. In this case, I would argue that their value could be totally different if one were to take a sell-side versus a buy-side perspective. Answer key at the bottom of the post, no peaking.

Greetings from the Produce section of your local supermarket.

Yesterday afternoon, my daughter said she was hungry. So, I made her a strawberry jam sandwich. She was still hungry, so I asked her to go to the supermarket next door to buy some fruit. She came back with a melon and said we got the most expensive one.

I freaked out!

Why?

Because I thought she got one of those Japanese musk melon that costs hundreds of dollars. What a relief it was when I found out that it only costs HK$60 (around US$7.50).

The biggest watermelon I have ever seen

That brings us to today. As I was getting ready to meet an old friend for lunch, I passed by a high end supermarket in the centre of town and I saw the biggest watermelon in my life. If you can see the label below, it was called a Japanese Jumbo Watermelon. What was even bigger was the price tag. I won’t reveal it yet, but it costs an arm and a leg.

FullSizeRender 4Given the previous day’s experience, I proceeded to check out the prices of some of the other types of melons.

Here is one of a Korean musk melon.

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Then, some Japanese varieties. Here is a Japan Shizuoka Melon.

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And here is a Japan Heart Shape Melon.

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Which one is most expensive?

This got me thinking…would my kids be able to guess which one is more expensive? If I asked you to rank them from the cheapest to the most expensive, my guess is that 95% of you would get it right. The answer is at the end of this post but try not to jump to the end just yet.

When we think about price, most of us probably approach this question from the “Buy” side perspective (i.e. the consumer perspective).

Buy side Vs. Sell side – Value can be very different

But as I wondered who would fork out such a huge sum for these novelty produce, I started to think about which one is more expensive from seller’s perspective.

I guess there’s probably the odd fellow who shells out thousands of dollars for a heart shaped melon to impress a new girlfriend but in most cases, these fruits probably just sit there. At the end, when they start to spoil and the owner or the staff probably crack the melons open and eat it themselves so it doesn’t go to waste.

So from the seller’s perspective, these novelty melons’ value is really just as a sales gimmick. From a marketing perspective, they help to draw in the crowds but in terms of their actual sales value, in most cases, it is zero (i.e they don’t sell). Conversely, although the regular fruits sells for much cheaper, their higher volume means they offer much greater value to the seller.

So if one had to rank the fruits from cheapest to most expensive, it does really depend on whose perspective you take. Now you can scroll to the bottom to reveal the actual prices of the melons. Did you get it right?

Buy side perspective – From cheapest to most expensive

Sell side perspective – From cheapest to most expensive

 

 

 

 

 

Answer – Actual price of the produce

  • Korean Musk Melon – HK$80 (around US$10)
  • Japan Shizuoka Melon – HK$498 (around US$64)
  • Japan Heart Shaped Melon – HK$1,388 (around US$180)
  • Japan Jumbo Watermelon – HK$2,988 (around US$385)

Postcards from London

Greetings from London! We have just spent two weeks vacationing in London. It seems like everyone had the same idea and chose the UK for their summer holidays. According to stats from VisitBritain, in the first four months of 2017, visitor arrivals are up 11% while spending is up 14%. In addition, in this post, we share some of our new economy impressions on car services, shared accommodation and cord cutting.

Greetings from Sunny London!

For some strange reason, I’ve always been very fortunate with getting great weather whenever I visit London. During this recent trip, it only rained for one out of the 14 days that we were there. And as you can see from the various photos, we are talking about clear blue skies and the need for 50+ SPF sunscreen.

Although I have been to London many times on business before, this was our first family vacation there in like 20 years ago.

In keeping with our Postcard series (e.g. Tokyo and Causeway Bay), here are some takeaways from this trip.

  • (1) Cheaper currency really drawing in the tourists – Tourist arrivals up 11%, spending up 14%
  • (2) New economy experiences – Impressions on Uber, AirBnB and cord cutting

Cheaper currency => Tourist arrivals up 11%, spending up 14%

Chatting with family and friends, it seems like everyone is heading to London this summer. Although we didn’t ask why they were vacationing in London this year, I suspect the cheaper Sterling probably had something to do with the decision.

In order to find some data to back up this gut feel, this was what I found from the VisitBritain website. In the first four months of 2017, the number of visits is up 11% YTD and the total amount of Spending is up 14% YTD to £6.2bn. On a rolling twelve month basis (from May 2016 to Apr 2017), the number of arrivals and the total spend are up 6% and 5%. Both are at the highest levels on record.

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Source: http://www.visitbritain.org

As to be expected, the increase in arrivals was mostly driven by higher tourist arrivals. Those travelling to Britain for holidays were up 26% in 4M 2017  while those visiting friends and relatives were also up 7%. Conversely, given the uncertainty caused by Brexit, the number of business travellers decreased by 4% in 4M 2017.

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Among the various regions, the cheaper currency appears to draw those from the furthest away. Travellers from EU countries only grew 7% in 4M17, North American visitors rose by 16% while those from the Rest of the World was up a whopping 24%.

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Since the visitor data is only released 7 weeks after the end of each month, it would be interesting to see if our impression of strong tourist arrivals is born out for the summer holiday months (June-August).

Implication – UK retailers may surprise on the upside.

New economy experiences – Impressions on Uber, AirBnB and cord cutting

One of the other key notables from this trip is our first time trying AirBnB. Although we had known about AirBnB for some time, in the past, we had always shied away from it for family vacations. I always had this recurrent worry that we would show up with kids in tow only to find accommodation cancelled at the last minute.

Well this time, we gave it a try. To a large extent, this decision was driven by costs. London hotels prices are outrageous. With AirBnB, we were able to cut our hotel bill by 50%.

Are we sold on AirBnB? I’m not sure. While the savings are substantial, every member of our family was very happy when we transited back to the hotel at the end of the first week. We are not talking about a fancy hotel like a Four Seasons but just a solid 4-star hotel. So what did we like and what did we not like about the AirBnB experience?

  • Pros – Savings. Get to see and experience a nice residential neighbourhood. Full working kitchen. Access to washing machine.
  • Cons – You have to really scrutinize the specs. Our assumption that the place will have a TV and A/C was wrong. Cleanliness – it was tidy and neat but it just did not feel as clean as a hotel. We all wished for disposable slippers. The neighbours – As the flat is being used by all sorts of people, we could feel some grumbles directed from our neighbours partly due to the previous occupiers’ behaviour.

Incidentally, during our stay, I read an article that AirBnB is readying a Premium Tier to try to attract higher paying travellers who prefer the amenities guaranteed by fancy hotels (Bloomberg article here). This point definitely resonated with us but I can’t help but wonder what is the right price point for this service. If the savings for this Premium Tier is just 25%, would it be enough to draw higher paying travellers from hotels? I’m not sure.

Ubers, car services and taxis

Relative to AirBnB, I am more sold on Uber. For one, the commitment level is much lower. If one were unfortunate enough to get a bad driver or a bad car, you just have to suffer through the car ride. Rather than being on the hook for thousands of dollars, we’re only talking about tens of dollars.

During our stay, in addition to Ubers, we also rode on taxis and/or booked a car service when possible. From a cost perspective, I was surprised that the cheapest option was actually the car service. Taxi’s were the most expensive option, especially since we usually ran into traffic and what was supposed to be a 15-20 minute ride often took twice the amount of time. Comparing the three, if it costs £20 for the cab ride, the car service would cost £11 while the Uber would be slightly more expensive at about £12. Using another example of a trip to Heathrow, the car service costs £48 whereas a taxi would have cost around £70.

In terms of ease of use, the car service’s app is very similar to that of Uber. You can also track your driver and settle all payments through the app. The only draw back is that it needs a longer lead time (around  20-45 mins) if you want your car. Whereas for Uber, you can usually find a car that is just minutes away.

Implication – If Uber and AirBnB were both to list, I think I would be more positive on Uber than AirBnB.

Cord cutting and unbundling

The last takeaway from our London vacation is “cord-cutting”. Since our AirBnB flat did not come with a television, so for one week, we did away with traditional television. Instead, since the flat had wifi, our family turned to their respective iPhones and iPads for entertainment during those early morning jet-lag hours.

The conclusion is that one really does not need the traditional cable subscription. YouTube and the other streaming service offer more than enough entertainment. Even if one were to be seriously addicted to sports or some premium TV shows, it may be more cost-effective to get a subscription to Netflix or get an NBA/NFL league pass. Rather than spending HK$580/month on a Sports/Entertainment bundle where one only watches 2-3 channels, it makes much more sense to unbundle and pay for what you want.

Implication – Cut cable TV subscription.

To finish this Postcard, I like this quote from our visit to the Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour – “No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”

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