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April 2009

Tidying up

I finally got round to reviewing my list of Hong Kong blogs, and I've pruned a few that have either disappeared or not been updated for several months.  I also re-instated one old favourite that went missing but which seems to be back, back, back.


One country, two SIM cards

Saturday's SCMP had a short news story quoting Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen as saying that he would like "to see no more roaming charges when people travel between Hong Kong and Guangdong."  Well, wouldn't we all?  However, it's probably not going to happen:

An industry source reacted strongly to Mr Tang's suggestion, saying: "Telecom is a competitive market. The government should not intervene in how the private sector does its business; it will set a dangerous precedent.

"Roaming involves costs: that is why there are roaming charges. Let the market set the prices."

I think the reporter may have slightly mis-heard, because what the spokesman actually said was "roaming involves high profits and we want to keep hold of them for as long as we can".   Costs?  What costs?

In Europe mobile phone companies are being forced to reduce roaming charges on the basis that the European Union is supposed to be a single market, and to that end they have already abolished border controls between most of the member countries (excluding the UK).  Meanwhile, although Hong Kong is part of China we still have a border crossing (well, two actually) - and different phone companies.  

The thing with roaming is that it's easy enough to avoid paying the excessive charges, but it's a bit fiddly (two phones, or one phone which takes two SIM cards, helps here), and if you don't expect everyone to remember two numbers you need to subscribe to a separate service to re-direct calls (which is cheaper than roaming but more expensive than local calls).  Or there is at least one mobile phone company offering a dual SIM card, and I'm sure there are other solutions I've never heard about.

So basically the only people paying roaming charges are those who either don't know the alternatives or can't be bothered with them.  And presumably there are enough of them to make it a profitable business for phone companies on both sides of the border.   


AFC Wimbledon

Surely one of the stories of this football season must be the amazing ascent of AFC Wimbledon.

The club was founded less than 7 years ago by fans of Wimbledon FC when their team became MK Dons and moved to faraway Milton Keynes.  They started out in the 9th tier of English football, and have now won promotion four times in seven years.  Yesterday they won the Blue Square South title and next season they will play in the Blue Square Premier (the Conference), which is the highest level outside the Football League.  Based on what has happened so far, it seems likely that they will be in the Football League before very long.

Of course Wimbledon FC were famous for making their way from non-league to the First Division in the space of just 11 years, and perhaps even more amazingly for staying in the top flight for 13 seasons - in spite of having to play their home matches at Selhurst Park and sell most of their best players in order to survive.  Eventually the owners decided that the only way to survive was to move to a new location and build a new stadium - and the FA allowed them to do that  - much to the disgust of the fans. 

Ironically, AFC Wimbledon don't play in the Borough of Merton either, but they do at least own their ground, which is shared with Kingstonian (whose ground it used to be).   


Budget? Well, not really

I found this article in The Guardian about Air Asia X, another allegedly budget long-haul airline: 'This is budget travel. We demand to suffer'

Ryan, a 33-year-old electrician standing behind me in the queue, is moving to Melbourne with his girlfriend to start a new life. "I tried to book as soon as I heard about the £99 deal last November," he says. Sadly he missed out (only about a fifth of travellers, says AirAsia X, will travel for the rock-bottom fare) and had to settle for a - still rather impressive - £171 one-way fare [London to Kuala Lumpur). A tall chap, Ryan admits he is concerned about the legroom.

Well, excuse me, but £342 for a return flight between London and Asia is not that special.  Virgin and other airlines have been offering return flights from Hong Kong to London for HK$2,000 (yes, I know that's not the price you actually pay, but I'm guessing that the fare quoted for Air Asia X doesn't include taxes and surcharges either).  So what was it like on this so-called budget airline?

Finally we board, and I'm in for a shock. The legroom is not just OK, it feels rather generous. There are eight seats across the cabin, with two aisles running between the pairs of window seats and a central island of four. Even though the seats are reportedly 15.8in wide, rather than the standard 16in, and the pitch between the rows of seats (the distance between one point on a seat and the identical point on the seat in front) is 30in compared with the usual 32, it doesn't feel a problem. And yes, contrary to rumour, the seats even recline. Quite a bit.

Well, yes, that's only slightly less than Virgin and BA, who offer you a 31"  pitch (Cathay offer 32"), and of course it's rather more than on short-haul budget airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair. 

What really amused me about the story was the correction they published a few days later:

AirAsia X is not the first budget long-haul airline to fly from Britain to Asia. Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, which went into liquidation in April 2008, beat them to it when it launched flights between London and Hong Kong in October 2006.

Well, except that Oasis clearly wasn't a budget airline (32" seat pitch in economy, free food and drinks, free films, etc., etc.), as I may have mentioned once or twice.  At least Air Asia behaves a bit like a budget airline (charging for food, drinks and entertainment; flying from Stanstead), but it really ought to be obvious that the true budget airline model can't be used on long-haul flights.


Spot the difference

imageBBC Sport RSS feed:  League to discuss two-tier plan

Chairmen will discuss a plan put forward by Bolton's Phil Gartside to have a two division Premier League including Celtic and Rangers.

click on the link and it takes you to this page:

imageLeague dismiss two-tier proposals

Celtic and Rangers could play Old Firm matches in the English league

Plans to increase the Premier League to two divisions including Celtic and Rangers will not be formally discussed by English club chairmen on Thursday.

A proposal for two divisions of 18 teams had been reported, but the BBC has learned the issue will not be on the agenda.

Bolton chairman Phil Gartside put the scheme together and was set to present it to his Premier League counterparts.

Continue reading "Spot the difference" »


Everyday High Prices

Today's Sunday Morning Post has a large photograph of a supermarket shelf, to illustrate the fact that all the price labels are yellow.  Yes, really.

Short history lesson.  Until a couple of years ago, ParknShop (for it is them) used to have mainly white labels, reserving yellow for special prices.  Except that "special" would include bogus discounts and trivial reductions (was $83.70, now $83.60), and so was almost meaningless.

Then they introduced "Everyday Low Prices" and changed all their price labels to yellow regardless of whether the price was "special" or normal.  This was presumably intended to bamboozle the more dim-witted shopper who had been brain-washed into believing that yellow labels denoted special prices.  The SCMP story (Supermarkets blur the line in 'promotions') seems to suggest that it may have worked: 

When approached yesterday, shoppers said they had noticed more yellow tags, but did not realise the old labels had disappeared. Isabella Tsun, shopping in a ParknShop store, looked sceptical when told the white price labels had been removed.

"Are there really no more white tags?" she asked.  Ms Tsun and her friend said they were always on the lookout for yellow labels as a sign of special offers.

Another shopper, Mani Lam, wanted the white labels back and said the Consumer Council should push the supermarkets to reuse the traditional labels. "Normal prices should be labelled in white," she said.

A third customer, Magdalene Leung, said she did not realise products with the "every day low price" slogan were not necessarily cheaper.  Ms Leung said she used to peep behind the yellow tags to see what was on the white ones so she could "check if there is truly a difference between the two".

They're tricking you!  The yellow labels never meant much, and now they mean nothing. 

A Wellcome spokeswoman said they could not pinpoint exactly when the labels were replaced, but the reason was that coloured ones were more eye-catching, and it was more environmentally friendly to use just one type.

How can it possibly be more environmentally friendly to print price labels on yellow paper rather than white?  The Post seems to have missed the point with their sub-heading:

Price comparisons made difficult as white tags quietly give way to yellow ones

The whole point here is that supermarkets in Hong Kong are not bound by any consumer protection laws (such as apply in the UK and Australia), and so they take full advantage of this by increasing and decreasing prices to create the impression of price reductions.  Changing the colour of the label is a trivial matter compared to their practice of increasing prices and claiming they have reduced them.  

I think it's time for some more different coloured labels.  Maybe green for 'higher price Friday' or blue for 'temporary price hike' or purple for 'the same price as Wellcome'.  


Football Sanity Index

I often find myself watching EPL games not really knowing which team I want to win.  So recently I have taken to supporting (strictly on a match-by-match basis) whoever scores higher on the Football Sanity Index.  There are many factors involved, but the main ones are the recent history of hiring and firing managers, transfer policy, and generally how well the club is run.

Did someone mention Manchester City?  First they were Thaksin Shinawatra's plaything, and Sven-Göran Eriksson was sacked apparently because they had been too successful in the first half of the season. Now with their super rich new owners they are rushing around trying to buy up the most expensive players in the world, so far with gratifying lack of success. 

It appears that Robinho was surprised as anyone to find himself at Manchester City rather than Chelsea, and his performances seem to suggest that he is not entirely happy with the way things turned out.  Then there was the ridiculous way that Gary Cook and his colleagues behaved in waving wads of cash at one of the oldest and grandest teams in world football and their petulant behaviour when their bid for Kaka was rebuffed by AC Milan.  Mark Hughes will be glad to get out at the end of the season, and of course Sven is now available to return as manager after being sacked by Mexico.  Go on, you know it makes sense.

Last Sunday, Manchester City lost to Fulham, who have been one of the success stories of the season under Roy Hodgson, a highly experienced British manager, and in spite of having a dodgy foreign owner they score very highly on the FSI and it's good to see them doing well.

Last Sunday's other game was between Aston Villa and Everton, with two more experienced British managers in charge.  Everton get a good FSI score, but Villa have out-spent almost every other club in the EPL and again failed to qualify for the Champions League.  Does that remind anyone of Leeds United?  In the Peter Risdale years they spent very freely but it all went wrong and they found themselves in administration and down in League One (aka the 3rd Division).  They will soon be joined there by Charlton, who made the mistake of hitching their wagons to the Iain Dowie Travelling Circus and then sending it on its way again only a few weeks later. 

After equally brief spells at Coventry and QPR, Mr Dowie is now working his magic at Newcastle alongside Alan Shearer.  I've already expressed my bewilderment at this appointment, and in a season when Roy Keane quit and Tony Adams was sacked as Portsmouth manager, why do clubs imagine that inexperienced managers are the answer? 

At least Paul Ince had some experience as a manager before taking over at Blackburn, but was a grand total of two years in League Two (the 4th Division) really enough?   Almost certainly not.  Was it realistic to expect that he could make the transition from Macclesfield and MK Dons to the Premier League so quickly?  Would any other organization take on an inexperienced person and then sack them a few months later?  Almost certainly not. 

Middlesbrough appointed Gareth Southgate as their manager 3 years ago although he had no experience - but at least they have stuck with him, so they now score rather higher on the FSI than Blackburn or Newcastle.  

Or Portsmouth, who should surely have understood that a recovering alcoholic who had failed at a lower league club might not be the perfect choice as manager.  They have recovered somewhat under Paul Hart, who started out in management more than 20 years ago (at Chesterfield) and enjoyed some success at Nottingham Forest a few years ago.  Who'd have guessed that someone with 20 years experience would be more effective as a manager? 


Expensive bargains

Supermarkets in Hong Kong are constantly trying to trick their customers with bogus discounts.  It's not exactly news, but yesterday's Consumer Council report provides confirmation of something that most people in Hong Kong must have noticed.

I think we're all used to those ridiculous yellow labels in ParknShop that advertise so-called "discounts" that bear no relation to reality, but what is striking is how brazen they are about this - one example given in the report is that both Wellcome and ParknShop increased the price of San Miguel from HK$5.90 to HK$6.50 and then immediately had a special offer at HK$12.30 for 2 (yes, that's right, a 4% increase ).  Then when the promotion ended, the price changed to HK$6.10. 

They do this all the time, presumably hoping that customers will forget how much they paid last week, and of course in the UK it would be illegal (retailers have to be able to prove that the item was previously sold at the higher price, and not just for one day).

Even more bizzarely, supermarkets apparently charge more on Fridays (Chain store 'bargains' in fact dearer - subscription required):

Some 207 items in ParknShop - or 71.9 per cent - were most expensive on Fridays, while 158 items in Wellcome - or 54.9 per cent - cost the most on the day. The finding was based on the average price of the same item on the 21 Fridays in the survey period.

Most items were cheapest on Thursdays - 52.4 per cent of them  in ParknShop and 47.6 per cent in Wellcome.

The real problem here is lack of competition. Carrefour struggled to find sites, and key suppliers refused to do business with them because their prices were too low.  Without any competition laws, the power of the big two supermarket chains is preserved and oligopoly lives to fight another day.  That seems to have been enough to scare off Wal-Mart and Tesco.

The general rule in Hong Kong is that your local shopping centre(s) will only have a ParknShop or a Wellcome (or both, though given the way they 'compete' with each by charging the same prices, that hardly makes any difference). Yes, there are a few CRC supermarkets (mainly clustered in a few areas), but they seem to be uninspiring copies of Wellcome. 

If you're lucky you may also have some local shops or a wet market, or there's City Super, who don't even bother pretending their prices are low.  But no competition for Wellcome and ParknShop in the mass market, unfortunately.


Megabox? No thanks!

Well, I visited the computer fair in Mega Box (Unfair competition) and what a horrendous experience that was.

They claim to run a shuttle bus from Kowloon Bay MTR station, but it actually leaves from the far-end of the Telford Plaza mall, and of course there was a long queue, so it probably would have been quicker to walk (if only I had known where I was going).

The computer fair turned out to be scattered across numerous levels of the mall.  Basically they have taken whatever bits of open space they have and crammed as many stalls as possible into each one.  On the ground floor there was barely space between the stalls for people to stand and look, and so anyone wanting to get through had to push past.  On the higher levels it was a bit less crowded, but hardly a pleasant experience.

Maybe there were some bargains somewhere, but I certainly didn't find anything I wanted to buy.

On top of that, the computer fair seemed to be causing chaos in the area, with taxis and buses being relocated to stop some distance away from the mall. 

I don't think I'll be going back to Mega Box anytime soon - it's not easily accessible by public transport or easy to get around: it has nineteen floors, and they don't seem to have enough lifts for the size of the building.  Yes, there are some fast escalators (direct from L1 - L5 for example) so maybe if you know where you want to go then you can get there, but I don't think I can be bothered with it. 


Unfair competition

Today's SCMP reports that computer retailers don't like competition:

Computer shops protest at cut-price festivals

Computer retailers switched off the lights at their shops yesterday to voice their anger against cut-price computer festivals they say are ruining their business.

Up to 300 shops at seven malls, including Golden Computer Centre, Golden Computer Arcade, Wan Chai Computer Centre and Mong Kok Computer Centre, switched off their lights for 15 minutes. The focus of their anger was festivals, such as one that has been running at the Mega Box mall in Kowloon Bay since last Thursday, where thousands of buyers look for bargains.

They switched their lights off for 15 minutes?  Well, that'll be sure to do the trick.

Jacky Cheung, who owns eight computer shops in Sham Shui Po, said he suffered a loss of more than HK$1 million every time a festival was held. "Each of my shops makes HK$200,000 less during the month when the festival takes place" he said.  "The computer mall had fewer visitors in the four weeks before the festival and six weeks after it."

Suppliers offered discounts to computer festival participants, further dragging down the price, he said, adding that his business had dropped 70 per cent since its best days in 1997.

The Computer Industry Alliance, which organised the lights-off action, called for a reduction in the number of festivals to save the industry.

The Mega Box festival, launched for the first time this year, was held without the consent of industry players, Lui Kin-chung, a spokesman for the alliance, said. Shop owners who did not have enough staff to join the festivals faced unfair competition.

Right.  So we have someone who owns eight computer shops in one small area complaining about "unfair competition."  I remember visiting the computer mall in Windsor House many years ago to find that about half the shops on one level had suddenly shut down, and from reading the legal notices it was clear that they were all owned by one company.  So let's see if I understand this: 'fair competition' is having multiple shops with different names who can all charge similar prices, and 'unfair competition' is an event that is run "without the consent of industry players."