Choices: lose out to Walmart and Amazon or adopt partnerships with tech companies to stay alive

The many corner stores around the world may be facing a choice about how to survive in the coming years:

Photo by Idriss Meliani on Pexels.com

One risk is that the infusion of tech money winds up making these independent businesses look and feel a lot more like chains. “The more you become digital, the more connected you are to the internet,” Lehr said. “The more connected you are to global trends, the more pressure you feel to do certain things.” The Indian start-up Jumbotail allows shopkeepers the opportunity to open one of the company’s branded J24 convenience stores, and S. Karthik Venkateswaran, Jumbotail’s co-founder and CEO, told me he envisions a world where consumers pass four different J24 stores throughout the course of their day. “Ubiquity is extremely important to us,” he said, but added that owners can still customize many aspects of their operations. “Every single store is different.”

But the other possibility is that by partnering with tech companies, these mom-and-pop shops might avoid the fate of getting squashed by giants like Walmart and Amazon, which can afford to sell the same goods at lower prices. To a certain degree, that’s already happened in the U.S., where Americans have been lured away from small businesses by the conveniences of Amazon Prime. “We would love to have Morocco and developing countries have a different fate,” Belkhayat said.

In the global South, millions of these beloved stores could one day end up part of a new digital economy that looks distinctly different from that of the West. Instead of transitioning to big-box retailers, communities will continue relying on the same shops they have for generations, but they’ll have evolved into futuristic outposts that double as tiny warehouses, banks, and grocery-delivery hubs. At least for now, the global tech industry has landed on the oldest trick in the book: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

This choice – either partner with the big retailers or with the tech, finance, and other industries – is an interesting one. It certainly speaks to globalization in multiple ways. In terms of goods, these corner stores sell numerous important items and can provide key hubs for goods or services within a community. As those on the global scene look for ways to invest and make money, the corner store might be a goldmine. And the reach of products and finance and tech around the globe speaks to the numerous connections between people, organizations, businesses, and more. Then, each individual store might have the opportunity to stand out within its particular setting and because of the proprietor even as it slots into a global system.

I would also be interested to hear more about corner stores as local community institutions. In a private society like the United States, there are limited public spaces and shops are not always local or inviting. While a store involves private business transactions, it may also be a regular place for people to interact or utilize important services. If it provides local banking functions, this might involve might private individuals and communal activity.

Is Visa a network more than a credit card?

Visa has a new campaign where they say they are a network. Here is what it looks like on their front page yesterday:

What is a social network? Here is how one sociology source talks about social network analysis:

Social network analysis is a way of conceptualizing, describing, and modeling society as sets of people or groups linked to one another by specific relationships, whether these relationships are as tangible as exchange networks or as intangible as perceptions of each other.

Visa argues that they connect people. Because people can use Visa at a wide range of stores, restaurants, and other settings, this brings people together. Imagine all of these organizations as different nodes in a network and Visa provides the connecting link. Without Visa, they would not connect.

Yet, is the social network sustained by Visa or used by Visa? Now that the network exists, Visa claims they are the network but similar things could be said for Mastercard or paper money. Without Visa, would many of these actors still connect, perhaps through other economic means?

It would be interesting to know whether and/or this economic network facilitates other kinds of network interactions. Does Visa use lead to new social networks? Is this not just about economic exchange but also exchange of information, experiences, and culture? This gets at larger processes, like globalization, that depend on familiar economic means across places.

The end of global evangelists?

The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.

Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:

  1. The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
  2. The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
  3. A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
  4. A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
  5. The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
  6. The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.

This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.

The Olympics increasingly studied by academics

Nature reports an increase in published works about the Olympics. Here are two aspects of this increase related to urban life:

Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012. Beijing had imposed special restrictions on air pollutants, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to do relatively controlled experiments, says David Rich, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Rochester in New York. The London 2012 Olympics inspired topics ranging from urban development and sprawl to security and surveillance.

Graph: Papers per games. Beijing 2008 inspired the most papers, followed by London 2012.

The Olympics are an “urban change-maker”, says sociologist Jacqueline Kennelly at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. They have led to expensive infrastructure projects and placed huge demands on public transport. And those that have contended with world wars, protests, boycotts and terrorist attacks have generated substantial literature…

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality. The fifth most highly cited paper analysed levels of enthusiasm about the 2000 Olympics among different resident groups in the host city, Sydney. It is the most highly cited Olympics paper in the social sciences.

The paper that has generated the most citations focuses on the Atlanta 1996 Games, and is followed closely by one about Beijing 2008. Both articles explore how policies such as increased provision of public transportation can improve air quality.

There could be a variety of reasons for an uptick in research:

  1. Seeing the Olympics as unique opportunities to observe certain phenomena in a time-limited setting. They are a sort of natural experiment where one could study effects of phenomena before, during, and after the events. Or, one of the articles mentioned looked at athlete-coach relationships and the Olympics would provide the option of examining this in a number of sports at once.
  2. The increased globalization of the Olympics, both in geographic location (new cities such as Beijing and Rio) and global media coverage. Additionally, the Olympics can be viewed as an effort to bring the world together.
  3. Perhaps sport is a more acceptable research topic (whether the purpose is to study the athletes or the spectacle).
  4. There are more academics in general who are looking for things to study. Hence, more studies of the Olympics.

Facebook wants global guidelines but has local standards

A recent addition to Facebook’s standards in Spain highlights a larger issue for the company: how to have consistent guidelines around the world while remaining respectful or relevant in local contexts.

For Facebook and other platforms like it, incidents such as the bullfighting kerfuffle betray a larger, existential difficulty: How can you possibly impose a single moral framework on a vast and varying patchwork of global communities?

If you ask Facebook this question, the social-media behemoth will deny doing any such thing. Facebook says its community standards are inert, universal, agnostic to place and time. The site doesn’t advance any worldview, it claims, besides the non-controversial opinion that people should “connect” online…

Facebook has modified its standards several times in response to pressure from advocacy groups – although the site has deliberately obscured those edits, and the process by which Facebook determines its guidelines remains stubbornly obtuse. On top of that, at least some of the low-level contract workers who enforce Facebook’s rules are embedded in the region – or at least the time zone – whose content they moderate. The social network staffs its moderation team in 24 languages, 24 hours a day…

And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework – one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.

I like the shift in this discussion from free speech issues (mentioned later in the article) to issues of a particular moral framework that corporations have and promote. Some might argue that simply by being a corporation there is a very clear framework: Facebook needs to make money. How exactly can the company claim to be truly about connection when there is an overriding concern? On the other hand, various companies across industries have had to wrestle with this issue: when a company expands into additional culture, how do they balance the existing moral framework with new frameworks? Customers are at stake but so are basic concerns of dealing with people on their own terms and respecting other approaches to the world.

But, with a global capitalistic system where Facebook play a prominent role (in terms of rapid growth, connecting people, and market value), can it truly be “neutral”? Like many other behemoth companies (think McDonald’s or Walmart), it will certainly encounter its share of dissenters in the years to come.

Japan has its own shapes for some traffic signs but perhaps not for long

Japanese officials are considering changing the shape of their traffic signs to better match the design of signs elsewhere in the world:

Japan is considering a revamp of its stop signs to suit easily confused tourists, The Japan Times reported recently. Japan’s current signs are fun and different, but they’re also red triangles that look suspiciously like the yield signs in the U.S. and other nations…

The stop-sign makeover would not come cheap. The government estimates the bill for replacing every sign in Japan with a more “global” design would total 25 billion yen, or $214 million.

The triangular stop signs are one of the last vestiges of unique Japanese signage. In 2013, Tokyo began to switch from signs using “romaji”—English transliterations of Japanese words—to signs with straight-up English translations. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan announced earlier this month that it would change the symbols on foreign maps to reflect representations used throughout the globe: an envelope for a post office, a stick figure in a bed for hotel, and a peaked white box with a cross in the middle for a hospital, among others.

Japan has historically gone against convention when it comes to signage. It’s not among the 64 countries party to the United Nations 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which lays out global rules on, well, traffic signs. According to the guidelines, a “stop” sign is either circular, “with a white or yellow ground and a red border,” or octagonal, “with a red ground bearing the word ‘STOP’ in white in English or in the language of the State concerned.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but I am still fascinated: there are international conventions on road signs? Given the importance of driving around the world, this makes sense but it seems to be an odd signal of globalization: the exchange of goods and information is aided by the infrastructure of common road signs.

The only thing that might make this story even more fascinating would be some data on the consequences of having different road signs in Japan. How many accidents has this caused? Have their been prominent cases where tourists misinterpreted the signs?

Guatemalan McMansions built with remittances

There may be McMansions built in Guatemala with remittance funds but they require a lot of resources:

The paradoxical strength of Guatemalan migrants’ transnational dreams is nowhere more evident than in the clash between these McMansions — often decorated in red, white and blue — and below-subsistence everyday life in largely indigenous areas like Cabricán…

The remittances they send have increased nearly sevenfold since 2001, according to the International Organization for Migration. The money is projected to reach a record $5.9 billion this year, according to the Banco de Guatemala – over 10 percent of the country’s GDP…

Worse, many experts argue that big houses — unattainable with quetzales, the Guatemalan currency — are risky investments for remittance dollars, too, especially since most migrants already used what little assets they have — land and their existing homes — as collateral for the large loans necessary to pay smugglers’ fees.

A home like the one built from the money sent by the Rojas children’s in San Antonio costs around 500,000 quetzales ($64,000) to build there.

Critics of McMansions might note that such homes in Guatemala reflect the illusory nature of all McMansions: lots of space and an impressive facade but difficult to sustain in the long run with what they cost to build and maintain (and how that money might be better spent elsewhere) and their dubious quality. The Guatemalan McMansions illustrate the downsides of globalization where cultural tastes and spending habits (big homes, lots of features) may cross borders but not all the potential consumers are able to realistically purchase the goods they see.

At the same time, given the cheaper costs for such homes in Guatemala, how long before we see HGTV featuring American retirees looking at McMansion neighborhoods in Guatemala as they try to escape higher costs in the US but still want the private home of the American Dream?

Expanding beyond making furniture for McMansions

Ashley Furniture has its sights on global markets as it moves past McMansion furniture:

His son, Todd Wanek, the company’s chief executive, says simply: “We want to grow in the 7% to 10% range every single year”—or more than twice the rate of U.S. furniture-industry sales growth in recent years.

Those ambitions are taking the Waneks outside their comfort zone of making furniture styled for American McMansions. Ashley is now trying to sell furniture in Asia, where it is making a much bigger bet than its U.S.-based rivals.

For example, a local partner of Ethan Allen has opened 75 retail outlets in China to showcase upscale products. Ashley is aiming for 1,000 stores in Asia in 10 years, up from its current total of 35. The company also is opening stores in the Middle East and Central America, among other places, partly to reduce its reliance on any one market.

No other U.S. furniture maker has tried to expand internationally on the scale planned by Ashley, and it hasn’t been easy. On a recent Sunday, only a couple dozen customers were browsing at Ashley’s 35,000-square-foot store on four levels in Shanghai’s Zhong Shan Park neighborhood.

Two thoughts:

1. This hints at the larger economic impact of McMansions. While people may focus on the real estate and development aspects (land, constructing homes), there are numerous other goods associated with McMansions from certain kinds of vehicles (the ubiquitous SUVs) to furniture to fill all of those rooms. If real estate has slowed down in the United States in recent years, then such companies will need to change their strategies.

2. This also highlights globalization in one particular industry. Ashley first had to figure out in the 1980s how to compete against global manufacturers and now is looking to capitalize on growing markets elsewhere (even as the American market shows its limits). But, it isn’t just about selling furniture; such furniture requires higher incomes, more middle-class tastes in other countries, and homes where this furniture will fit right in. In other words, this furniture is just a part of exporting the American middle-class dream where one can walk among rows and rows of furniture and easily plunk down some money (or access credit) or update one’s home furnishings.

Academics summing up the evils of suburbia

In looking at the new book Global Suburbs: Urban Sprawl from the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by the opening statement by the series editor, sociologist Sharon Zukin. Here is her opening (page ix):

In Global Suburbs: From the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro, Lawrence Herzog exposes the dystopian underside of the suburban American dream. A house of one’s own, on a little plot of land, is no longer a place of domestic comfort, spiritual renewal, and communion with the green space and clear air of nature. Instead, the mass suburban habitat that Americans pioneered features oversized McMansions stuffed with giant TVs and electronic gadgets, to which their owners commute in gas-guzzling SUVs, enduring stressful journeys on traffic-clogged roads, leaving neither space nor time for pleasure.

This human habitat, Herzog warns, is neither a happy nor a healthy place. It is, instead, a treadmill of over-consumption that burdens our bodies, our spirits, and the natural environment. Obesity, anxiety, toxic air: how can we think this is a good life?

Most important, the suburban dream that Herzog describes now spreads throughout North and South America…Every metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere bears a tragic cost: Overbuilding reduces the water supply, destroys the trees and insects on which all life depends, and creates an eco-disaster.

Naming these issues can be important as many suburban residents don’t consider the implications of consumption, their impact on the surrounding ecology (particularly if the rest of the world consumed at similar levels), and whether such a suburban life truly offers the be-all-end-all of existence. Yet, this description tends toward the over-the-top suburban critique that has been leveled for decades. Here we have another citing of McMansions and SUVs together – key symbols of excessive consumption – even though many suburbanites have neither. How anxious and stressed are these suburbanites – if the milieu is so toxic, why did they keep moving there for decades? (They are either dupes tricked by someone or have misplaced priorities.) Was there once a golden age of suburbs that wasn’t about over-consumption and truly was about “domestic comfort, spiritual renewal, and communion with the green space and clear air of nature”? (There is evidence of this but it tended to be limited to the wealthy, provided limited opportunities for women, and also had a view of a certain kind of nature.)

On to the rest of the book…

Supermarket chains suffering in wealthy countries

Supermarkets in numerous wealthy countries are having a hard time competing with the wide range of choices offered to consumers:

As they scramble to maintain market share, the big four British grocers can take comfort from the fact that at least they are not alone. The global supermarket industry has its share of epic competitive scraps, too. In Europe alone, the discounters that have wrought havoc for Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s have an even more powerful grip on the industry. While Aldi and Lidl control around 8% of the UK market, according to figures from market research group Kantar the share controlled by discounters in France is 10% and in Germany – home of Aldi and Lidl – it is 37%. In the UK, two-thirds of the market is controlled by four players; this is the same as in Germany, while in France 56% of the market is controlled by the top four and in Spain just under 50%. A look at these markets, plus some of the biggest outside Europe, shows that every territory poses challenges for big grocers…

As in the UK, discounters and supermarkets in Germany are faced with shoppers who are less and less willing to drive out of town for their weekly shop, and more likely to do small, frequent trips in urban areas. In recent years, the trend has led to a revival in big cities like Hamburg and Berlin of the traditional Tante Emma Läden or corner shops, which have been able to be much more flexible in reacting to trends or food scandals than their bigger rivals…

Between the discount stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets there is a constant battle going on to woo the increasingly cash-strapped consumer. “Supermarkets are really the only sector [in Italy] where competition has worked out,” said Liliana Cantone of Italian consumer association Altroconsumo. “The players are doing their best to offer lower prices, and consumers can really benefit from this.”…

The market is far from impenetrable, however. Walmart, the only “everyday low pricing” operator in Japan, has forced domestic rivals to keep their prices low where it operates stores. Costco, with 20 stores nationwide, has proved a success, offering prices comparable to those found in the US. Tesco’s foray into Japan was frustrated, in part, by consumer idiosyncrasies.

Sounds like some contradictory forces at work. On one hand, increased globalization means food can travel all over the world. It might seem that such a global market would be controlled by some major players in the grocery industry who could use their size to their advantage. Yet, that same globalization allows other players to get into the game and gives consumers more low-priced options, usually something seen as a good in free-market economies. Throw in debates about subsidizing food production, getting healthy food to places that need it, and genetically modified food and you have a retail sector that is experiencing a lot of flux.

Just one quick thought: I’ve been in supermarkets in England, France, and Japan and they all seem more similar to each other than to the American version. Even not looking at Walmart or other big box stores with groceries, the American supermarket is an amazing size with tremendous variety. In contrast, stores in the other countries are smaller, something that may be cultural as well as economic due to higher rent and land prices.