Market Research

9 04 2009

the-apprentice-home-gymWatching the candidates of The Apprentice talk about themselves misleads one into feeling that not only are they the best, but that they are the best of the best of the best when it comes to running a business and that Sir Alan Sugar should feel lucky that they are willing to work for him. Yet, when it comes to doing a task, they forget the most basic of business concepts.

As seems to be the norm these days, the task involved designing a portable piece of fitness equipment for, surprise surprise, the cash strapped consumer. It was clear from the beginning that the whole task was about the product. It is no surprise then that team Empire, which came up with a Gym-in-a-box idea failed to sell even one unit to two of the three retailers they pitched to. The candidates failed to realise that the perfect product isn’t one that tickles their own fancy, or one which their family would like to buy, but one which addresses the needs of the consumer, hence filling a possible gap in the market.

Both teams failed to conduct even basic market research to help them develop their product. Team Empire should have realised that creativity wasn’t their strongest bit and rather than sit around the table bouncing useless ideas of each other, they should have sent two people to the local gym to talk to the members there about the kinds of products they would like to buy and what price they were willing to pay for it. Another team of around two people could have scoured the internet looking at the products that their competitors were selling at that price level. After all, the task was about designing a product for consumers who were finding the gym membership too expensive and were looking for low cost alternatives. Who better to ask about the product than those who are going to buy it in the end.

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Their lack of research was also evident in their pricing strategy. It felt as if they had just closed their eyes and picked the figure of £29.99 randomly for their product. At that price, there are numerous alternatives in the market which are certainly better looking if not better value for money. Even the promotional material, including the pictures, looked like something that came out of a secondary school student’s Media Studies project.

Although team Ingnite failed to do any market research either, they still won the task and were offered a deal of exclusivity by John Lewis. One of the reasons why their product succeeded was perhaps because it was simple. Their opponents product was a case of “Jack of all Trades, Master of None”, like a new mobile phone which offers to make you a cup of tea and take your dog for a walk. Ignite’s product was also more pleasing to look at and truly portable.

Two days to come up with a concept, build a prototype and pitch a product is indeed a tall order and both the teams did that with a lot of patience and commitment. Was firing Majid the right decision? Its not for us to decide. After all, this isn’t a talent show, its a long job interview and Sir Alan should keep those whom he feels would be right for his organisation.

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Ryanair

28 02 2009

ryanairRyanair, it seems, is very good at attracting negative publicity every time it comes up with a cost-cutting measure to “decrease the air fare for all its customers”. Its latest one is a plan to charge its passengers £1 for each time they want to use the in-flight toilet.

It doesn’t look as if it really makes commercial sense for Ryanair though. After all, it doesn’t give free drinks on board its flights, passengers are expected to pay for them. That means that consumption of liquids is decreased in the first place, which means less number of people would be using the toilets anyways. Or as Rochelle Turner from Which?Holiday pointed out, passengers may end up buying less over-priced drinks on board because they will then be charged to relieve themselves of it. This would make the move counter-productive.

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I am sure it would cost a considerable sum of money to install a coin slot machine in each of its toilets on each of its flights. How many £1 paying people would it take for them to cover that cost? And if the whole idea is to lower the air fare, how much would it lower it? Its not as if the maintenance cost of the toilets depends on the number of times it is used. The toilets would cost the same if they were used ten times or just twice. The only variable cost, if Ryanair is really counting its pennies, would be stuff like the toilet paper and soap. So why not just save their passengers the hassle and the negative publicity and offer them for free, like what all airlines do currently?

Ryanair’s spokesman was quick to reassure that they had no immediate plan to implement this, but felt that their move was justified since passengers were already used to paying for toilets at bus and train stations. Well, toilets at bus and train stations are used by more people than a toilet on a plane. And in addition to generating enough revenue for maintenance, another reason why passengers are charged at stations is to discourage misuse of the facilities.

Last week Ryanair announced that by the end of this year, it would be replacing the check-in counters at the airports with manned baggage drop-in area. All customers instead would be expected to check-in online. According to Ryanair, about 75% of its customers are checking-in online currently. In that case, it does make commercial sense to get rid of check-in counters since only 25% of the passengers are using it. The cost saved on staff could genuinely help reduce the fares.

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Ryanair is by now used to being in the news for all the wrong reasons. The most recent one being its staff engaging in an unpleasant exchange with a blogger who thought he had found a bug on Ryanair’s website. Rather than apologize to the blogger, Ryanair instead said that they had no time for “idiot bloggers”. Idiot or not, that is not the best way for an organisation to talk to its stakeholders. Of course, this all wont result in passengers suddenly switching Ryanair for another airline. Far from it. In these though times, more people would be attracted to the cheap price and not the customer service. Still, those within Ryanair that come up with the cost cutting measures should spend some time now pondering over their public relations.

“Spend a pound to spend a penny” said Michael O’Leary yesterday. If they don’t learn where to draw the line for the cost cutting, it may end up being “Penny wise and Pound fool” for Ryanair.

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Throwaway Fashion

21 02 2009

primarkThe Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a “Sustainable Clothing Action Plan” co-inciding with the London Fashion Week to highlight the increasing problem of “fast fashion”. Apparently, UK consumers buy around two tonnes of clothes every year, and throw away a massive 1.2 million tonnes of them every year.

Rapidly changing fashion trends means that many consumers have to keep on buying new clothes to keep their wardrobe up-to-date and to compete with their friends and peers. This means that new clothes are worn only a few times and as trends change, are then consigned to the bin.

Of the two million tonnes of clothing bought every year, only 300,000 are recycled. If the majority of the clothes are worn only a couple of times, surely more of them can be recycled. Due to the current economic crisis, donations to charities has dropped. Consumers are cutting back on their spending. If more clothes that are in a good condition are donated to the charity shops, they can then sell them on to consumers looking for a bargain which results in a win-win situation. The charity shops get their revenue, consumers can bag a bargain and there are less clothes ending up in the landfill site.

One of the reasons why consumers can afford to keep on buying new clothes and then throw them away is partly due to ready availability of cheap fashionable clothes on the high street. However, many fail to see the real story behind the cheap price tag. An investigation by BBC’s Panorama last year revealed how Primark’s suppliers used factories with unfair standards and also child labour to provide the consumers on the high street with cheap fashionable clothing.

Jane Milne, who is the business environment director of the British Retail Consortium, said that retailers should be “applauded, not criticised, for providing customers with affordable clothing, particularly during these tough economic times”. Sure, if the low prices are due to a better, more efficient production technique. But not if someone less unfortunate than us halfway across the world is subsidising the cost for us by being exploited and made to work in unfair conditions.

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High Street Blues

23 12 2008

BRITAIN-BUSINESS-RETAIL-SALESThe trading that occurs in the run up to Christmas is very crucial to retailers even in the “normal” years. It allows them to make up for the losses they might have incurred over the year and helps them prepare financially for the coming year. 2008 has been, by any standards, anything but a normal year. Huge banks have become small banks, some have been swallowed up by bigger banks, some have merged with other banks while some have disappeared altogether.

Little surprise then that the past few weeks have been really tense for the retailers. The number of shoppers visiting the shops have decreased. As a result, retailers have been forced to cut their prices to attract shoppers. According to Experian, the number of shoppers during the weekend, the last weekend before Christmas, was down by 8.7% as compared to last year. However, the number of shoppers yesterday were up 13.6% as compared to the same Monday last year.

It’s a bit unfair to compare the two corresponding Mondays because last year the Monday was Christmas Eve. The kind of shoppers who go shopping on Christmas Eve are generally those looking for food items or ingredients for their Christmas dinner, last minute shoppers or those looking for last minute bargains.

Even though the number of shoppers increased, it still remains to be seen how much revenue that translates into. The main reason why more consumers went out to shop perhaps has a lot to do with a last minute heavy discounts by retailers in desperate attempt to attract shoppers. According to the accountants Ernst & Young, the average discounts were 40%, up from 38% last year. It means that even though people had more shopping bags in their hands, the retailers wouldn’t have made a lot of money from that.

Although the high street is seeing a decline in the number of shoppers, according to Hitwise, the number of people visiting the websites of high street retailers has increased. Between Dec 18 and Dec 21, traffic to online retailers(including internet-only and high street) increased by 2.2% on average as compared to last year. Websites of high street retailers saw their traffic increase by 2.7% on Saturday and 5.9% on Sunday as compared to last year.

When it comes to prices, mostly the online retailers clearly have an advantage over their high street rivals. But their biggest drawback is that the items have to ordered before a certain date to ensure that they are delivered in time for Christmas. On the other hand, the websites of high retailers allow the shoppers to book their products online and pick them up instore. It may not be cheaper than the internet-only retailers, but it certainly is more convenient. One of the put-offs of shopping on the high street before Christmas is clearly having to navigate through crowded streets and aisles holding your shopping bags. It is also very hard to compare prices across different retailers and browse the items leisurely.

The rise in the number of shoppers will definately be of some relief to retailers. But it will by no means make up for the dismal sales and revenues they have generated over the past few weeks. Woolworths and MFI have gone bankrupt and Whittard of Chelsea is said to be on the brink of administration. And it is clear that more will have the same fate in the new year, what remains to be seen is who they will be.

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Sales rise amidst the credit crunch

19 12 2008
Oxford Street, London

Oxford Street, London

According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the volume of sales between September and November rose by 0.5% as compared to the three months before it. This may not sound good, but compared to all the doom and gloom and the difficulty of obtaining credit, it does sound good. Also, the value of weekly sales in November were 2.9% higher than in November last year.

However, the high street retailers beg to differ with the figures. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that the figures released by the ONS were optimistic and painted a “rosy picture” of the current difficulties. According to BRC’s own findings, the sales value actually fell by 0.4%. Experian reported that the footfall (the amount of traffic generated by shoppers visiting the stores) in stores for the first three days of the week had decreased by 11.5% compared to last year.

It seems hard to believe that the increase in the volume in sales could have lead to a increase in the value of sales. After all, the increase in the volume of sales is largely due to a wave of heavy discounting by the high street retailers, especially after Woolworths slashed its prices to get rid of its stock. It is likely that the spectacular and well-publicised offers by retailers would have made some reluctant consumers go out and spend. It is also equally likely that many who generally would have waited for Boxing Day sales have instead done their shopping before Christmas since they feel that the discounts offer good value for money. After all, there is a limit to the amount of discounts that the retailers can offer before it starts eroding their profits. So many consumers may feel that the discounts are as good as they are going to get. If this is true, what would happen is that the average amount of sales during the Christmas period hasn’t really increased, but the shopping has been concentrated to a few weeks before Christmas.

The reason for this difference in figures, according to Reuters, is that the figures of “the ONS figures capture internet shopping more fully”. According to the ONS, the value of online sales was £220 million in November and it accounted for 3.8% of the total retail revenues. According to Experian, its company Hitwise which is an online competitive intelligence service, found that the websites of high street retailers had 22% more visits than its internet-only rivals. This could explain why the sales have increased even though the number of shoppers visiting the stores seem to have decreased.

Many shoppers percieve the prices of online retailers to be cheaper than their high street counterparts. And this has been shown to be true in most cases. After all, they do not have to worry about expensive overhead costs like rent and sales staff. However, many shops on the high street nowadays allow their customers to haggle and bag bargains, and this is not available to online shoppers.

It would be interesting to see the figures of  the overall retail sales before and after Christmas since that would allow us to see the whole picture.
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Inflation? Worry about Deflation instead.

16 12 2008
John Lewis , Oxford St., London

John Lewis , Oxford St., London

It was announced today that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell by 0.4% from 4.5% in October to 4.1% in November. The CPI is the official measure of inflation used by the Government. The biggest factor for this fall is being attributed to the fall in crude oil prices. The average price of petrol was 95.2p. On the other hand, prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and non-alcoholic beverages is said to have risen compared to last year.

Although the drop is good news, the rate of inflation is still twice the official target of 2%. So, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the Government explaining why the rate of inflation had not hit the target. The governor of the Bank of England is required to write a letter to the Government whenever the rate of inflation is either 1% above or below the target and explain the possible action the BoE might take to solve it. However, Mervyn King feels that the next time he has to write a letter to the Government, it may not be about the reasons for inflation, but deflation instead.

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What are Inflation and Deflation?

Inflation is regarded to be a bad thing since it means a rise in prices, which is a bad thing for shoppers. Then, deflation must be a good thing, right? In the short term, yes it is. In the long term though, its a dreadful thing. To understand why a drop in prices is such a bad thing, one has to understand the meaning of the terms “inflation” and “deflation” and its causes. Inflation is the general increase in prices or, it is the decrease in the purchasing power of money. There are two possible causes; either the cost of production has increased, like the cost of raw materials or labour, or demand is out stripping supply. Take for example a rise in price of a NintendoWii games console. This may be due to a rise in the cost of materials and parts and workers who produce it. Or it could be that the number of units available is less than the number of people wanting to buy it, so the price goes up. Around Christmas, it is likely for the latter to be true. It wouldn’t be unusual around this time to find a NintendoWii on eBay at twice its retail price.

Deflation is the persistent decrease in prices. This happens when supply outstrips demand which could happen due to a surge in productivity. Or, like in the current climate, consumers rein in their spending which means that shops have to cut prices to entice customers to spend. If this happens a couple of times, it creates an anticipation of further cuts in the future. So, although consumers may have the purchasing power, they postpone certain purchases since they would be cheaper in the future. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy where consumers postpone their spending thinking that there would be price cuts, and sure enough, shops cut the prices to persuade shoppers to loosen their purse strings. Good news for shoppers, bad news for businesses. Businesses experience cash flow problems and their staff would have to accept a pay cut or even lose their jobs. So, debt becomes expensive because one owes the same amount of money, but has less income to meet it. Signs of deflation can already be seen on the high-street. Retailers are offering massive discounts, the likes of which are usually seen after Christmas, because they are desperate to clear their stock. And the consumers know this and know that further discounts will follow eventually.

It will be interesting to see how Mervyn King and the Government will go about coaxing the shoppers to spend their money.

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Cool to be Frugal

12 12 2008

piggy-bankAccording to Andy Bond, the Chief Executive of ASDA, its now becoming cool to be frugal and not so cool to be frivolous and wasteful. He feels that consumer’s shopping habits are changing and a new generation of shoppers who are thrifty are emerging as the credit crunch begins to bite even further.

So what does this really mean? It means that consumers will now focus more on products that offer them value for money and will aim to eliminate waste. Value for money doesn’t really mean something that is priced less or discounted. It is actually something that offers satisfaction and quality for its price. Consumers will increasingly try to differentiate their “needs” from their “wants” and think carefully if they really need something or do they just want it. For example, ASDA noted that consumers are beginning to shift from buying ready meals to buying ingredients and cooking at home. People are also beginning to mend or fix items rather than getting rid of them and buying new ones. Cobblers, for example, have seen their business increase since consumers are coming in to get their shoes mended rather than splashing out on a new pair. A quick search on Google Trends showed that visits to the comparison site moneysupermarket.com and myvouchercodes.co.uk which lists voucher codes across a variety of stores had more than doubled.

What’s really interesting is the 40% increase in the number of people who are ignoring best-before dates and consuming the product rather than throwing it in the bin once it is past its sell by date. Perhaps the increase has also something to do with the numerous reports on saving money on television featuring people who regularly consume food, as long as it looks fit, well past the best before date. Consumers are also freezing leftover food rather than wasting it and sales of bottled water and smoothies has also been said to have decreased since many are opting to fill tap water and eat fresh fruit instead.

It is important then that retailers spot this trend and adjust their business models accordingly in order to survive the downturn. Thrifty consumers would focus on long term value and would be willing to spend a little bit extra on an item that is likely to last longer than buy something cheaper in price which would also be cheaper in quality and hence not last as long. Rather than reducing prices on cheap Christmas stocking fillers that perhaps wont even last till next Christmas, retailers should instead focus on reducing prices on items that actually are of some use to the consumers. Also, thrifty consumers are less likely to buy items on impulse which retailers greatly depend on. So, businesses should make sure that they are really operating on a low cost model which aims to eliminate waste as that would be the only way that they would be able to offer low prices and good service at the same time.

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