Saturday, November 19, 2011

Consumer Urges

Ever wonder how you go to the grocery store with a list and come back with lots of unplanned purchases and a much larger bill? This really applies to any sort of shopping - clothing, electronics, toiletries, and souvenirs.

When my husband moved into my lovely DC share in Dupont Circle we talked about food shopping and budgets. He knew that grocery shopping ranked lowest on my list of things that I don't like doing but need to do in order not to starve. Yes, for me grocery shopping ranks below cleaning the bathroom. My husband had a brilliant idea, developing the grocery store map! Yes, it may seem funny at first, but hell it works. He scoped out my favorite grocery store, Trader Joe's - ah I miss it so - and created a map of the store based on the things that we usually need and buy. He spent a few hours compiling the map, but it made shopping a lot less excruciating and expensive. Each time we would go to TJ's we would create our shopping list on this map - putting fruit and veggie, hummus, and meat in the corresponding spots on the map. I mean, sure you still buy things impulsively, but mapping out your grocery list created big savings in time, stress, and financial management.

A whole science exists on how things are placed in your local grocery store. Store owners tend to place most expensive items at eye level, while less profit generating products at customers' feet and at tops of shelves. Store owners tend to group complementary products together as customers will buy more products - you know how salsa and chips always end up conveniently located next to each other? You know when you come into the store after work and you encounter that divine smell of fresh baked bread - yes, it makes you hungry and more likely to buy more food. Ever notice how staple goods like milk, cereal, bread and yogurt are at the back of the store - right, that's to make you walk through entire aisle's worth of stuff that you really don't need to get to the essentials. If you are a fan of Trader Joe's you will notice the kiddie sized shopping carts and the wonderful scavenger hunt offered for kids -  they entice pint size consumerism! My favorite is the selection of a variety of trashy and not so trashy magazines with gum and candy next to the checkout clerk, standing in line longer encourages a greater number of poor buying decisions. I mentioned a few strategies used in placing items in a supermarket, but there are obviously many more ideas on how to get consumers to spend more time and money in shops.

There are a few instances where I observed a number of really interesting business models of store managers/owners maximizing our instincts to shop. First, I have a friend from undergrad which loves and raves about this wonderful supermarket which she and her husband discovered in upstate New York. They live in the city, so driving to the supermarket is already a sunk cost. Once there, as a consumer, you will want to maximize your time and buy everything in one place. This supermarket had a snakelike layout. My friend raves about the fact that the whole store is made up of one winding aisle, thus relieving the anxious consumer of the stress of running between different specialty aisles. Brilliant! Consumer walks through and sees all the offerings of the store; not completing their trek through the store will mean that they will never get out. From the store owner's perspective, by forcing all customers to look at every item they have on offer will encourage a greater number of impulse buys, thus maximizing his/her return on investment. I don't feel its great for the individual consumers, but from a marketing standpoint, this idea is pure gold, ahem...literally.

Second, in Chennai, I have had to also stop and appreciate marketing brilliance of a retail business idea. Meet Anokhi, my happy place. This two story compound appeals to four shopping tendencies among young upper middle class women; clothing, home textiles (nesting), jewelry, and coffee/dessert. The Anokhi compound houses a clothing and home textiles store on the ground floor and a jewelry/tchotchke/cosmetics and coffee shop on the second floor. They have been expanding the ground floor for another retail venture, which I feel will just enhance the draw of the shopping compound. A deceptively simple idea shines in its brilliance. I mean think about it, you want to meet a girlfriend for dessert and coffee. Inevitably, one of you will be running late. Sure, there are newspapers at the coffee shop, but who will peruse the news if you can peruse the latest offerings in beautiful prints and organic cotton? Gotcha! The more late your girlfriend runs, the more likely you will buy something.

Alternatively, you are American and don't want to make your friend wait, so you arrive early. The clothing and textiles store is on the ground floor, thus you have to pass it on the way to the coffee shop, since you are early, why not stop and browse right? Lastly, on the way to the coffee shop you have to pass the tchotchke, jewelry and cosmetics shop on the second floor - who can have constant iron will not to want to spoil oneself just this once, right? I take my hat off to the designers of Anokhi, they definitely get what drives our consumer urges.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My Frenemy: the Auto(rickshaw)

Oxford dictionary defines frenemy as "a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry." Meet my ubiquitous frenemy - the auto and its fearless driver. You will find my frenemy prominently displayed above the text.

Things between Chennai auto drivers and I, are complicated. We maintain a symbiotic relationship - I use their driving services to get to places in lieu of safe public transport and the auto drivers try to skin as many rupees off me as possible. I am not saying Chennai auto drivers only try to skim as much as possible off my humble person: no, auto drivers tend to maintain democratic standards - they attempt to fleece everyone equally.  In the Lonely Planet's India country guide - Chennai auto drivers are affectionately described as sharks.

To be fair to these distinguished professionals - auto fares in Chennai are currently artificially low. The government has not allowed auto drivers to raise basic fares for many years, resulting in auto drivers negotiating fares in lieu of using their meters. Furthermore, recently petrol prices began to steadily increase as a result of the Indian government's removal of petrol subsidies, further reducing the auto drivers' profit margin. These circumstances lead to a unique challenge as a consumer of auto services - one must learn accurate fares for various destinations as quickly as possible. Failure to do so results in grossly overpaying and acquiring the reputation of a consumer that grossly overpays for auto services.

Over time my frenemy has developed an interesting business model of calculating fares. Each driver bases fares on answers to the following questions:

1. Does the potential passenger look like they come from Chennai? In my case, the driver assumes I am a tourist - the biggest prize to fleece. I do not blend in - making the case that I know fares and my way around this city - is particularly difficult.
2. Is he or she in a hurry? Showing stress, impatience, and fear will raise the fare accordingly.
3. Is it raining? Alternatively, is the potential passenger sweating profusely after spending a few minutes in the blazing sun? Fares fluctuate depending on the strength of the rain or heat/sun.
4. Does the passenger speak Tamil? Sadly, my Tamil skills melted into the haze, the only exception -  I am can still give directions and bargain in Tamil.
5. Are there other autos around? Fares fluctuate according to the number of other auto drivers hanging around. However, if other drivers decide to help their buddy negotiate, the passenger loses ground quickly.
6. Is it after 10 PM? Fares at night arbitrarily rise. If there are no other auto drivers around, your bargaining power does not exist.
7. Is the passenger a regular customer? A passenger that engages an auto driver regularly, contributes to the auto driver's income regularly, thus creating a disincentive to fleece more than acceptable.
8. Does the passenger have change? Lack of change will result in very expensive auto rides as, inevitably, no auto driver is willing to part with his change - most claim not to have any change even as early in the morning as 7:15 AM.

I generally like the auto guys that hang out across the street. We agreed on prices to my yoga place and work. The drivers at the auto stand down the block from our house will usually give us really crappy deals, thus I stay away from that auto stand. I usually return from work during rush hour with many autos passing my office-building and tend to negotiate with moderate success. To avoid very expensive auto rides, I've began hoarding change, which makes my wallet really full - even though I am not carrying much cash in terms of absolute value. I've generally failed at negotiating rides that take place less regularly even if I need to go pretty close to my house. Every new route, even if the auto driver I am negotiating with knows me and takes me somewhere on a regular basis, turns into an epic battle of the wills. Since I am usually in a hurry and running late, I lose.

I've recently noticed that I have a much less sunny personality when negotiating fares, but a girl must do what a girl must do, to get from point A to point B.

In the great words of Ostap Bender of The Golden Calf by Ilf and Petrov:

"Автомобиль не роскошь, а средство передвижения" = "The auto is not a luxury but a means of transportation"

Since we are still waiting for our car - rumor has it we will get it soon - I live to fight...I mean negotiate, another day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In the Land of Yoga: This White Girl Sweats (Profusely)

As some friends observed to me recently, I have been rather stingy on the posts. I apologize, life got hectic and sadly blogging fell by the wayside. I am trying to make it up, hence the flurry of posts. Currently, I am in a reflective mood - possibly because we are working out the details of a trip to Kerala aka G-d's Country coming up with two wonderful friends serving in the Gulf. In 2 weeks, when we see them, it will be about a year since our eyes welled up seeing them off to their respective destination. Our friends, posted in the Gulf miss greenery and us, of course - so they are super excited to explore post-monsoon Kerala. This will also be our first venture into G-d's Country. Additionally, my parents arrive in just 6 short weeks and I am in charge of planning our extended foray into the North of the country. My boss is not amused at the moment - I am taking more vacation days than the company allows - but who are we if we are not surrounded by the love and warmth of family - sad, lost souls.

Right, this white girl discovered Ashtanga Yoga. Following in the footsteps of a few foreign service spouses that joined this, for now lets call it "studio," I discovered a wonderful fitness routine. The Orion Health Centre is my happy place, the place where everyone knows my name - in four short months, mainly because the instructors admonish me on forgetting the sequence of my routine - my peaceful place, my balance restoring place, and the only place where I have been able to shed my New York OCD frame of mind. I love going to  Orion and am so grateful that a spouse that recently departed India for an onwards assignment discovered this wonderful space.

The Orion Health Centre does not stray far from the usual business structure - one can get their dental checkup, get an ultrasound and cardiogram, get their blood-work done, and finally get their yoga routine at the very top floor of the complex. This place is not your yoga studio in the Western sense - organized classes with instructors calling out each move, while monitoring how the students move - Ashtanga Yoga at Orion is a place where people go regularly, not so regularly, drop in and out, and people are comfortable sharing recent aches and pains and health issues with the three instructors. You find very few ex-pats at Orion. What you find is a sense of chosen family. Although, I remember VERY few things from Hebrew school, I remember this proverb "G-d chooses your family, but to make up for your lack of choice in that respect G-d lets you choose your friends" - please don't quote me, but this is the gist. I feel this way about Orion - the three people running this place create an atmosphere of comfort, acceptance, and family. I don't know how to explain it exactly, but I tell you whatever they are doing works!

Since I am an economist, I also look at pricing. I've dabbled in yoga in the US, but the price tag of this type of routine is high. In DC a 16 class card costs your $200 USD per month. In NYC you will pay $460 for a 30 day class card - if you go 5 times a week this covers 6 weeks. Now that I started going 5-6 times a week for the month I pay a mere 3000 INR ($ 60 USD) - this buys be 20-24 classes a month. Hot yoga - all the craze in the US - since there is no AC - no extra charge. For 60 USD you get access to three wonderful yoga instructors, who watch over you like hawks or if you want to be less dramatic private teachers. For example, I sweat profusely - someone told me it takes about a year to get used to a different climate - at first this made the instructors nervous - so they would make me lie down and nap for 10-20 minute increments - just to make sure that I don't collapse and hurt myself.I still sweat profusely, but the yoga instructors got used to my dripping form, which does not serve as a precursor to passing out.

Benefits? The 12 unattractive pounds that I put on working comparatively long and sedentary hours in DC as a consultant are now history! I feel more energetic and focused at work - I go at about 7:15 AM every workday - and I feel stronger and less out of breath walking around Chennai. I look more toned and am happier.

P.S. My husband voluntarily - don't let him fool you into thinking otherwise - joined me for yoga on Saturday mornings. I observed a serious temperature difference between coming at 7:15 and 9:00 AM.

Samantha needs no yoga for balance

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Working in the local economy - not impossible and rewarding

So here I am, on Saturday following in my mother's footsteps - I am using amazing Trader Joe's Brownie Truffle Baking Mix to bake. I am not sure TJ's will appreciate this, but my mom made some substitutions. A few years ago my mother one of her moments to brilliance and replaced butter with Disaronno which resulted in out of this world fluffy, light and delicious - sadly not kid friendly - brownies. Thanks mom! Unfortunately Disaronno is unavailable in our commissary I had to substitute with Baileys and am experimenting with adding little pieces of pineapple for a little zing. While mixing the brownies I found myself musing about where I am and what it all means.

While my browser is open to about 20 different Indian microfinance articles - the subject of my next past - I want to step back and think about my life. When my husband decided to join the foreign service, I was rather apprehensive. We were getting a great life - my husband his dream job and we both would get a chance to explore the world in ways that many people cannot even fathom. Great! So here is the hitch, my own job prospects and earning potential would plummet as we crossed the border. You think unemployment in the US is bad - as far as I remember from my spousal orientation session out of all spouses and partners that want to work, about 45% actually succeed in securing jobs. However, I make up a tiny positive part of that statistic, because I am part of the tiny minority that works in the local economy. When asked about local employment, most people sigh and say that finding a job is impossible and working in the local economy turns out to be more difficult lower paid than its worth.

I am here to present the opposite case. Working in the local economy has its tradeoffs and is not for everybody. Personally, I feel I traded pay and vacation for my dream job. In the local economy you don't get both local and US holidays. Your pay, will likely not much lower than you are used to. I mean hell, I think I make less than a pimply teenager flipping burgers in DC. However, in my opinion, if you are willing to look at working in the local economy the payoffs, are tremendous. You can find your dream job, you can reinvent yourself professionally and your education and skills if you are outside of Western Europe - lets get real how many diplomats get to serve in Western Europe - are in high demand!

When I worked as a consultant in DC, I met with my former employer's India expert. She condescendingly informed me that my job prospects were severely limited. According to her, the best I can do for myself in India; teach English and write press releases for a company with business interests in the West. I was devastated, but when I got over the ego blow, I thought logically. I have a MA in international economics from a top tier US graduate school. English is one of two of India's languages of business, surely more opportunities exist in addition to teaching English? I worked really hard. I got out of my shell and networked like a crazy person. I spoke to anyone willing to listen and think about job options in India. I learned about the local job market. I learned about bilateral employment agreements - especially the one between India and the US. I bugged the local mission about work permit procedures. I went on informational interviews.

Finally I hit my professional jackpot - I was connected with a SAIS alum at a DC economic consulting firm and he passed on my resume to the firm's office in Chennai. The alum and one of the senior staffers from the India office interviewed me in DC and offered me a job - as an economist! This all happened before my arrival, so I advise; fulfilling your professional dreams takes time so its never too early to start. While the spouse trains in DC, the capital of networking - talk to people, think about your options, contact your mission's community liaison officer and local US trade representative. I love that I get to get out of the community to do something both challenging and rewarding. I am growing professionally and am satisfied with my choice.

With that said, I could not have done it without a few wonderful people. First of all my loving, supportive and patient husband - he was there cheering me on even when I felt completely insecure.  My wonderful co-worker from my DC consultancy - who is now getting his MIPP at the Kennedy School at Harvard - who connected me with a SAIS alum at my current job. The SAIS alum that made time for me and passed on my resume to the firm's Chennai office. The US Department of Trade officer and his spouse who both pointed me in the right direction, provided me with local economy information, salary levels and negotiation options, and took me step by step through an Indian employment contract, and supported me in my endeavors - even though they knew me via email. I could not have done this without kind and supportive people that I met in my journey to Chennai.

My point - don't give up your dreams and ambitions and settle. Look at your choices and frankly weigh each option's pros and cons. Don't let people tell you that you are not good enough and finding what you want is impossible. You have choices as a diplomatic spouse and choices outside of the mission might be more interesting and rewarding than you expect.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

India in photos - Bangalore September 2011

I accompanied my husband to Bangalore - he went for work - I went to network and explore the city. Ahh, the first place in India where I felt a - gasp - chill, for the first time in 4 months. Here are some pictures:
Beautiful university campus
If you are a male politician and you want to get elected - you kind of need a mustache...
State Assembly building

patriotic steps
a bit disconcerting - and we could not figure out where he was pointing
...just in case you really needed to...spit
Virgin...keeping it classy
Bull temple
Bangles and prayers
looking at this photo - it somehow felt wrong
Mr. Idlee - healthy and delicious - competition at its best

India in photos - Hyderabad August 2011

In August we flew to Hyderabad for the weekend and we absolutely loved it! Hyderabad is gorgeous, the food is amazing and it was so much fun to ramble around for a few days. Here are some of my pictures:
Golconda Fort - gate
we made some friends
Tombs of the Nizam kings
an old hospital
the Charminar - so beautiful
view from the Charminar
Makka Mosque
Makka Mosque up close
State Supreme Court
Tombs of family close to the Nizam rulers - check out your Planet guidebook - this complex is really hard to find, but really worth the search.

State Assembly building
Buddha statue after the rain
Hindu temple complex
view from our hotel room -  The Park