Business and Commerce

HKTVMall - customer service

A small follow up to my post on HKTVMall. 

Just to say that their customer service really isn’t great.

I ordered something that was supposed to be available within 4-7 working days.  Then just two days later I noticed that they had updated the order with a delivery date - the following day, at a time when no-one would be home.  So I contacted their customer service.

I opened the chat window and entered my question.  And waited.  And waited.  It took about 25 minutes for someone to respond.

Me: I notice you are planning to deliver this item tomorrow.
HKTVMall: The item will be delivered within 4-7 working days
HKTVMall: Monday to Friday
Me: That’s fine, but your website shows that it will be delivered tomorrow and no-one will be home
HKTVMall: Please wait, I'm checking the item.
HKTVMall: The item hasn’t arrived in our warehouse.
Me: So the information on your website is meaningless?
HKTVMall: The item hasn’t arrived in our warehouse.

That might look like a brief conversation, but it actually took 20 minutes (after the 25 minute wait for someone to appear).  To achieve precisely nothing.

Someone must have decided that they were planning to deliver it the next day, but apparently this information isn’t shared with their Customer Services team.

Needless to say, they did try to make the delivery the following day, and no-one was home.

I’ve had other deliveries that have been later than the (4 hour) timeslot, and others that have been several hours early.  And the previous time I tried to contact their Customer Services it took one hour for them to respond, by which time I had given up (but I hadn't closed the chat window, so I know how long it took). 

Quite a lot of work to be done on customer service, then.    


HKTVmall - Amazon for Hong Kong?

In Hong Kong your supermarket “choice” is largely between shops owned by Li Ka-shing (ParknShop, International, Fusion, Taste, and the Great Food Hall) and Jardines (Wellcome, Market Place by Jason, Threesixty and Olivers). 

It’s no surprise that this lack of competition leads to high prices and poor service, so alternative options are always welcome.

HKTVmall is a mini-Amazon, selling products from a wide range of suppliers, including some good quality imported produce at reasonable prices (e.g. frozen grass-fed beef and lamb, frozen wild-caught salmon, fresh cherries from Tasmania, fresh papaya from Hawaii, etc.), vitamins and supplements at much better prices than Watson or Manning (that duopoly again) and some electronic products.

They also provide free delivery if you spend HK$400 (or HK$250 if you’re a “VIP”).  I remember when ParknShop offered free delivery if you spent HK150, but now their minimum is a hefty HK$800 (Wellcome's minimum seems to be $500).  

The HKTVmall website and app are super annoying and although they do try to keep you informed on the status of your orders, the English versions are often confusing and incomplete:

  • “Our delivery team has picked up products in order xxxxx and will arrange delivery soon.”  Except that I had to collect it from their store.
  • “Product arrived at HKTVmall logistics centre, will be delivered soon.”  Not really sure how this one helps me - why not just send me a message when it’s actually ready for collection?

It’s entirely possible that the Chinese versions of these messages make more sense.  For example, Cantodict tells me that 送 can mean “send”, “deliver” or “dispatch”, which might help to explain the confusion.

But any competition for the ParknShop and Wellcome duopoly has got to be a good thing.


This is part of a series (of sorts).  The previous post was Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsburys, M&S in Hong Kong (with updates here)


Happy New Year / Tesco / M&S

Happy New Year and a quick follow-up to last month’s post on Tesco and other British supermarkets.

There do seem to be some bargains amongst the Tesco own brand products in U購select (and Vanguard*), including their basic cheese range (as pointed out by Private Beach in the comments), olive oil, nuts, and salad dressings.  They also have low-sodium salt at a fraction of the price of the branded product in ParknShop.

So it’s certainly worth shopping around.

* U購select and CR Vanguard?  No idea - it seems to be like that confusing fusion, Gourmet and International thing that ParknShop do.  This Wikipedia article claims that around one third of products sold in U購select are from Tesco, which certainly doesn’t apply to all their stores.

Also, confirmation that Marks & Spencer is selling its Hong Kong stores:

The clothing and food chain is selling its stores in Hong Kong and Macau to its longstanding franchise partner in the region, Al-Futtaim, for an undisclosed sum. [The] 27 stores will keep the M&S name under a franchise arrangement, which leaves Dubai-based Al-Futtaim with 72 outlets under the brand across Asia and the Middle East.


Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsburys, M&S in Hong Kong

About 20 years ago, Carrefour tried to expand into Hong Kong and were driven out (in part) because their prices were too low. Since then, no foreign supermarket chain has tried to challenge the ParknShop / Wellcome duopoly.  But at least we have a bit more choice now, including products from UK supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.  

Or there’s CitySuper, which is famous for its dizzyingly expensive Japanese fruit.  OK, well maybe not.

Tesco have a joint venture with China Resources Enterprise (80% owned by CRE, 20% by Tesco) that arose from their disastrous foray into China. As part of that deal (signed in 2014), CRE’s Vanguard supermarkets in Hong Kong started stocking Tesco products.

Now some of the Vanguard stores have been re-branded as Uselect, with prominent displays of Tesco products (from their UK, Poland and Thailand stores) some at good prices.

Apparently it’s also 20 years since ParknShop started selling Waitrose products, and now a limited range is available in most of their stores.  They also sell products from Casino (another French supermarket).

Oh, and earlier this year, Wellcome / Jasons Market added a range of Sainsbury's products

Those low prices that got Carrefour into trouble?  No-one is making that mistake again.  Many products are sold at a significant premium (e.g. 3x UK price for cheese), but there are some bargains, so it’s worth shopping around (if you have the time).  Even CitySuper can sometimes be cheaper than ParknShop.

Marks & Spencer has been in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years, primarily selling clothing, but with a small food selection (tinned, dried and also frozen products in a few stores). 

They opened their first standalone food store here in 2010 (in Wan Chai) with a selection of fresh food (as the Daily Telegraph reported, er, four years later).  Since then they have opened a few more of these standalone stores, and also added a range of fresh food in several of their bigger shops.

M&S announced one year ago that they would get rid of all their overseas stores, with the exception of Ireland, the Czech Republic (or is that Czechia?) and Hong Kong.  And, yes, they have done this before, with Hong Kong surviving but with a cull of expat managers. 

Then it emerged that they plan to transfer the Hong Kong business to the company that currently operates 46 M&S stores in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates


Expensive

Buy an iPhone, iPad, or iPod in Hong Kong and you will pay no more than the US price - so they are cheaper here because Hong Kong has no sales tax.  But try to buy a Nexus 7 and you will pay 20% more, because they are all “parallel imports”. 

English books are usually around 25% more than the US price (they usually convert at HK$10 = U$1).  Hence the popularity of sites such as Book Depository or Fishpond (though the latter is very confusing, as they have their own made up list prices).  Or you can buy your books in Thailand (reasonable prices) or India (very reasonable prices).

There’s also the nonsense of Amazon charging an extra US$2.00 for sending (some) Kindle titles to customers in countries where they don’t operate.  Yes, that’s a charge for sending files over the Internet.  

Echinacea-ForteAlternative medicines are typically 100% more in Hong Kong.  For example, Blackmores Echinacea Forte is sold in Watsons in Hong Kong for around HK$150 whereas in Thailand it is around 600 baht.  The catch is that in Hong Kong the pack only contains 30, whereas in Thailand you get 60.  So the unit cost is double.

I found another product in Mannings, and went online to check the UK price.  Again, it was almost exactly half the Hong Kong price.  So I tried to order it online from the manufacturers.  They don’t allow you to order from Hong Kong, but instead they direct you to the retailers here who stock their products.

Fortunately there are other companies (such as ChemistDirect) that will ship the same products to Hong Kong, and in many cases the discounts offset the delivery charge, so you are paying the UK retail price with “free” delivery.

Which is about half the price you would pay in Hong Kong.


LinkedIn endorsed for being annoying

LinkedIn is the “professional” equivalent of Facebook, and - up until recently - rather less annoying.  Yes, there are some people who try to use it to promote their company’s services, and, no, I really don’t need to know about tiny changes to my contacts’ CVs, but I can ignore most of that.

It also offers some small amusement value.  Do people ever add more skills to their profile except when they are looking for a new job? 

But now it appears that LinkedIn are determined to test their users’ patience.  They have a shiny new feature that allows people to endorse each other for the skills they are claiming on their profiles.  In the last few weeks I have been endorsed for several skills that I don’t have, by people who know next to nothing about my real-life experience.  I’ve also been endorsed for expertise I did once have, but which is no longer relevant, again sometimes by people who are not qualified to judge.

Recommendations are a different matter, because you actually have to write some words (and describe your working relationship with the person you are recommending).  However, it’s not unusual for two people to recommend each other, which makes them meaningless.

But endorsing someone is as easy as clicking a button, and it is almost impossible to verify whether it has any value. So why would any potential employer take any notice?   John Naughton has a theory about this:

LinkedIn endorsements turn you into the product

John Naughton | The Observer |  Sunday 30 December 2012

Recently, baffling emails from LinkedIn began to trickle into my inbox informing me that so-and-so had "endorsed" me. What it meant, apparently, is that so-and-so had affirmed that I do indeed possess the skills that my profile claims I have. Not having asked anyone for such endorsement, I was initially perplexed.

Then the trickle turned into a steady stream. It seemed that everyone on my contact list had, somehow, been badgered into confirming that my online CV wasn't fraudulent. I began to feel like some kind of electronic mendicant, trespassing on the goodwill of friends and colleagues alike. Finally, I became really irritated by the presumption of a service that, in an idiotic attempt to drum up activity, had been annoying people into effectively giving me a reference that I do not need.

It turns out that I'm not the only person to be annoyed by LinkedIn's gambit. As my colleague Dr Quentin Stafford-Fraser acidly observed in a lovely blog post: "Frankly, I wouldn't, in the first place, link to anyone I thought was likely to lie on their CV. I'm old-fashioned enough to remember the days when a LinkedIn connection was meant to imply some sort of endorsement in itself."

Interestingly, it turns out that one can "endorse" people for skills that they never knew they had. "I never listed any on my LinkedIn page," writes Stafford-Fraser, "until some kind friend said I was awfully good at 'architecture', which I assume they meant in the sense of 'computer systems architecture', but, who knows, perhaps they had seen my old garden shed modifications? Hoping for some interesting job offers from that one."

In a neat postmodern joke, Stafford-Fraser then added "LinkedIn endorsing" to his list of skills and was gratified to find that several contacts had generously endorsed his skills in that field. "So maybe," he mused, "by way of bringing a little festive cheer, I should be endorsing their LinkedIn-endorsing-endorsing?"

Touche! What obviously lies behind LinkedIn's fatuous wheeze is an attempt to drum up page visits to its site. Each endorsement email is clearly designed to trigger a site visit by the gratified recipient, where he or she is invited to add the unsolicited endorsements to their profile. In the end, therefore, LinkedIn merely confirms once again the first law ofinternet services: if they're free, then you are the product. So here's a new year resolution for all netizens: try paying for online services and rediscover the liberation of being the customer who is always right.


The crazy world of Kindle e-books

The price of Kindle books continues to baffle.  There are plenty of bargains, but an equal number of titles that seem hugely over-priced.

If you want to know when the prices do drop, then eReaderIQ is a useful service.  You enter the Amazon ASIN code and either a target price or a price drop and they will send you an email notification.

What I find baffling is that so many of the titles on my list have gone up in price, often quite significantly:

image

Both of Emma Kennedy’s books have fallen in price but haven’t yet reached the rather arbitrary price target I set.

After watching “The Iron Lady” on a plane, I snapped up “The Downing Street Years” for a very reasonable $3.59 (plus $2 surcharge) but baulked at paying $4.49 for the companion volume. It then more than doubled in price and has now reached the giddy heights of $12.99, so I guess I’m going to have to wait for that pleasure.

I’m fairly sure that I don’t need to read Hank Paulson’s self-serving account of the financial crisis, but if it gets cheap enough I suppose I will be tempted.  No sign of that happening, though.

I purchased the second volume of Chris Evans’s autobiography and enjoyed so it, so I put the first volume on price watch, but it has increased since then.  As has Frank Skinner’s autobiography. 

Peter Hennessy’s “Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties” did drop $2.00 (to $7.99) but the current price is a rather off-putting $15.39.  Strangely, the companion volume about the immediate post-war period increased by $2 at the same time as the first price drop, only to return to $9.99 about a month later.

I have also purchased several titles in paperback because they are cheaper that way – such as Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies ($15.90 on Kindle) and Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography (a scarcely believable $21.99).


How to drive your best employees away

Interesting article in Vanity Fair about Microsoft’s problems. 

What I hadn’t previously realized was that they use the stupid “stack ranking” system. Maybe it worked well at GE in Jack Welch’s days -  it’s possible that firing 10% of employees every year was a smart strategy for them - but whoever thought that was the answer for Microsoft was definitely asking the wrong question.  

It worked real well for Enron as well. 

Microsoft’s Lost Decade

[..] At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door.

Outcomes from the process were never predictable. Employees in certain divisions were given what were known as M.B.O.’s—management business objectives—which were essentially the expectations for what they would accomplish in a particular year. But even achieving every M.B.O. was no guarantee of receiving a high ranking, since some other employee could exceed the assigned performance. As a result, Microsoft employees not only tried to do a good job but also worked hard to make sure their colleagues did not.

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.”

Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.

“The six-month reviews forced a lot of bad decision-making,” one software designer said. “People planned their days and their years around the review, rather than around products. You really had to focus on the six-month performance, rather than on doing what was right for the company.”

There was some room for bending the numbers a bit. Each team would be within a larger Microsoft group. The supervisors of the teams could have slightly more of their employees in the higher ranks so long as the full group met the required percentages. So, every six months, all of the supervisors in a single group met for a few days of horse trading.

On the first day, the supervisors—as many as 30—gather in a single conference room. Blinds are drawn; doors are closed. A grid containing possible rankings is put up—sometimes on a whiteboard, sometimes on a poster board tacked to the wall—and everyone breaks out Post-it notes. Names of team members are scribbled on the notes, then each manager takes a turn placing the slips of paper into the grid boxes. Usually, though, the numbers don’t work on the first go-round. That’s when the haggling begins.

“There are some pretty impassioned debates and the Post-it notes end up being shuffled around for days so that we can meet the bell curve,” said one Microsoft manager who has participated in a number of the sessions. “It doesn’t always work out well. I myself have had to give rankings to people that they didn’t deserve because of this forced curve.”

The best way to guarantee a higher ranking, executives said, is to keep in mind the realities of those behind-the-scenes debates—every employee has to impress not only his or her boss but bosses from other teams as well. And that means schmoozing and brown-nosing as many supervisors as possible.

“I was told in almost every review that the political game was always important for my career development,” said Brian Cody, a former Microsoft engineer. “It was always much more on ‘Let’s work on the political game’ than on improving my actual performance.”

Like other employees I interviewed, Cody said that the reality of the corporate culture slowed everything down. “It got to the point where I was second-guessing everything I was doing,” he said. “Whenever I had a question for some other team, instead of going to the developer who had the answer, I would first touch base with that developer’s manager, so that he knew what I was working on. That was the only way to be visible to other managers, which you needed for the review.”

I asked Cody whether his review was ever based on the quality of his work. He paused for a very long time. “It was always much less about how I could become a better engineer and much more about my need to improve my visibility among other managers.”

In the end, the stack-ranking system crippled the ability to innovate at Microsoft, executives said. “I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software,” said Bill Hill, the former manager. “But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”


Big events = bad

It amazes me that cities are still so keen to stage events such as the Olympics.  Far from increasing the number of visitors it actually drives them away.  Hotels put up their prices and most people assume that flights will be either unavailable or very expensive, so they go somewhere else.  Locally we had this nonsense for the handover – hotels started out offering rooms at ridiculous prices, then cut prices and finally found out that they couldn’t fill their rooms whatever they did. 

Here’s a warning about the likely effect on London of the Olympics in 2012. 

'Toxic' Olympics effect may hit UK visitor numbers, warns tourist body

The trade body representing tour operators has warned that expectations of a boost in tourism from the London Olympics may not be met, after unveiling research that suggested previous games had a "toxic" effect on visitor numbers. The European Tour Operators Association, which held a seminar on the subject today, released research that showed previous hosts had invariably overestimated the number of foreign visitors and the duration of their stay.

The Sydney games in 2000 anticipated 132,000 visitors and received 97,000 for the games period, while Athens hoped for 105,000 per night in 2004 and received fewer than 14,000. In 2008, Beijing anticipated more than 400,000 foreign guests and received 235,000 for the whole month of August.

The average number of hotel beds occupied in Beijing during the Olympics was 39% down on the previous year, the ETOA report showed. It said that while the Beijing Games may have been a "triumph of planning and showmanship", for the tourism industry they were a "toxic event that crushed normal demand, both business and leisure". The report said that while tourism chiefs and organisers had recognised that the Olympics would create some displacement, with visitors arriving for the games replacing those put off by the fact it was taking place, they still tended to talk in terms of a large overall boost.

Will people ever learn?


AIA staff celebrate

When Prudential’s ill-fated attempt to buy AIA was first announced, the SCMP was very slow getting on to the story.  Today (Thursday) they even seem to have more coverage than the FT (or at least its Asian edition), so I think I wasted HK$28 on the pink 'un.  This is one of the SCMP’s three stories:

AIA staff celebrate Prudential deal collapse

Enoch Yiu
Jun 03, 2010

The champagne corks were popping at American International Assurance offices in Hong Kong yesterday after the collapse of the deal with British insurer Prudential.

AIA staff and agents feel more secure in their jobs and are hoping parent American International Group will revive the listing of the company in Hong Kong in the third or fourth quarter. Insiders at both AIG and AIA said a separate listing of AIA would give them a better chance of keeping their jobs and receiving share options.

"I am a shareholder of Prudential and was prepared to vote against the deal," said one AIA staff member. "This is the time to celebrate and we plan to have a drink as our lives can get back to normal now."

The staff member, who did not want to be named, said many AIA staff and agents had felt uncertain since Prudential's offer in March of US$35.5 billion to take over AIA. Their main concerns were job security and change of management style.

"AIA and Prudential have many differences in their history, background and management style," the staff member said. "If the merger had proceeded, many staff and agents might have faced lay-offs."

Prudential would lay off agents from AIA?  What would be the point of that?  Isn’t it the sales force that they wanted to acquire?

Another person familiar with AIG and AIA said the management and agents have never been happy with the idea of the merger with Prudential. "Management feared a merger would lead to the loss of their jobs while the agents worried about a change of house rules and sales practices," the person said. "For senior management and some agents, many of them hoped the listing of AIA would give them share options."

Well, yes, that seems closer to the truth.

Continue reading "AIA staff celebrate" »