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.

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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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Postcards from Causeway Bay

Many of the best ideas come from daily life. If so, my recent trip to Causeway Bay would suggest that one ought to revisit (1) tourism and consumption play, and (2) Korean and global cosmetics. On a lighter note, fighting through the crowds also entails two of the five love languages. Happy Mother’s Day.

There is a story that famed investor Peter Lynch got some of his best ideas from daily life. Supposedly, what led to his investment in Hanes was his wife’s comments about how good L’eggs pantyhose were. There was probably a lot of subsequent research and due diligence but the initial idea generation was from daily life.

People mountain, people sea

Well, I have just returned from Causeway Bay and wanted to share three photos that I took. As you can see from the crowds below, tourism and consumption appears to have returned full force to Hong Kong.

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So, what are some key takeaways from the above:

  • Check out tourism and consumption plays – I know part of the crowds was due to a special annual event taking place at this department store but you just cannot ignore the size of the crowds.
  • Very high demand for cosmetics – I was only on two floors but from what I gather, the crowds were biggest on the cosmetic counters. The Korean and European brands had the longest queues. This would seem to validate an earlier idea which was despite the geopolitical issues, there should be demand for good products and strong brands.

Two out of the five love languages

On a lighter and non-financial investment related note, Dr. Gary Chapman talks about the Five Love Languages. These are (1) Words of Affirmation, (2) Quality Time, (3) Receiving Gifts, (4) Acts of Service, and (5) Physical Touch.

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Having fought through the crowds to get the one thing that my spouse requested, I think I can check off two of the five love languages and this ought to bring my standing back to the “friend” side of “frenemies”.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Postcards from Tokyo

Greetings from Tokyo. I just got back from my third trip to Tokyo in as many months. Two key takeaways from this trip: (1) Shrinking portions = Inflation? (2) Watch out CX, budget airlines are for real

Greetings from Tokyo.

I just came back from my third trip to Tokyo in as many months. I won’t go into the details on why I was there but just to say that I see tremendous value in Tokyo at the moment.

Two key takeaways from Tokyo

As I reflected on this recent trip, there are two key messages that I wanted to note:

  1. Is inflation starting to creep back in Tokyo? and
  2. Watch out CX, budget airlines are for real.

Continue reading “Postcards from Tokyo”