Thursday, June 20, 2013

Spring festival blues and commercial opportunities

The Chinese new year is a festival of joy, family reunion, fun and celebration. However when 1.3 billion Chinese decide to celebrate and get reunited with their families during the same seven day period, it generates unprecedented competition for limited resources and ensuing hardship. At the same time it generates a commercial bonanza. According to data from the Ministry of Commerce in China, total retail sales during the week long festivities reached 539 billion yuan ($86 billion)- 14.7% more than last year. The commercial opportunities do not just exist for the big retailers and manufacturers, this special time of the year generates some rather niche, ingenious but also sometimes dubious commercial activity.

Take me home

The most intense competition during this period is for transportation to go back home. According to popular estimates in the media, the Chinese will make 3.4 billion trips during the peak 40 day travel period around the Chinese New Year, of which 3.1 billion will be road trips. 220 million are expected to take a train ride during this period. Online ticketing, which started just a few years ago, was expected to make the whole process relatively painless - however it turned out to be a barrier for migrant workers in buying tickets to go back home during the spring festival. According to a survey by the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, more than 90% of the migrant workers preferred taking a train to go back home and almost 80% of them said that they would do so by buying tickets from a ticket office. 70% of them said that they were not familiar with the online ticketing procedure and only 18% had tried using the online ticketing service. A kindly couple who was offering the service for online ticket purchase at a small fee to migrant workers was apprehended with the accusation of touting. 

For those who are internet literate the task of making a booking is no less arduous. The average daily number of hits on the website has topped 120 million during the peak days. Online sales are now responsible for over a third of total tickets, accounting for as many as 6 million tickets a day. The buyers often face interminable waits while the overtaxed computers cope up with the deluge of booking requests. In an exhibition of ingenuity, three internet giants - Qihoo360, Kingsoft and Sogou - designed plug-ins for browsers to automate the task of repeatedly trying to login and buying  train tickets on the overloaded train booking website. Critics opined that the software gives the internet savvy an unfair advantage to secure the much prized tickets.

The road less travelled 

Many consumers are taking the "road less travelled" with one entrepreneur from Hangzhou choosing to take 48 buses to reach his home in Linyi in Shandong. Another enterprising soul undertook the arduous journey back home using 8 train tickets and transfers from Shanghai to his home town in Sichuan. As direct tickets are most difficult to secure, this segmented approach worked well for him and he was able to get home smoothly and relatively quickly. In fact the train enthusiast is offering consultancy to others on identifying circuitous routes back home where ticket purchase is still a possibility.

Meet your future son/daughter-in-law

When the young city workers go home, the parents are solicitous about their quest for marriage partners. Those who have not achieved success in this area, are worried about creating anxiety among their parents and persistent pressure on themselves. Taobao, china's online megastore, which offers everything from the latest iPad to freshly slaughtered chicken, comes to rescue on this count also. For a few thousand yuan, any unattached youth can hire someone who would pretend to be his or her future life partner during the golden week that is spent with the parents. Things do not always go as smoothly and dispassionately as planned, with a genuine spark of affection for the hired companion. 

Happy meals

Those who have already tied the knot and are the sole bearers of the family name and hopes for their parents ( as a result of family planning) need to make the difficult decision of with which set of parents should they have the nianyefan or the New Year's Eve dinner. Restaurants have come to the rescue urging the young from hosting the dinner at their premises, including both set of parents and even grandparents. The service is popular and the good restaurants are often booked months in advance.

Packaging for 'face'

Of course, when you go home you must carry gifts. Migrant workers who have left their children in their home towns and villages in the custody of their elders, have no dearth of what they can buy, and go back home loaded with toys for their children. The elderly are often rewarded with health foods, which will provide them with even more energy and stamina to look after their grandchildren. Marketers often exploit the gifters' need for face and desire to be seen as someone who has done well in the city and has come back with generous and valuable gifts. The often modest gifts are made to look more alluring and grand through excessive packaging. The authorities have taken notice of this and are coming down or deceptive and wasteful use of extravagant packaging.

Sleep well while you travel home

A product named "sleep support" has gained popularity on the internet as a sleep support for sitting upright sleep. The gadget provides head and chest support to the users, while sleeping upright on a train. a netizen suggested that if the instrument can also provide a place for comfortably holding an iPad its value will be considerably enhanced.

Written by Ashok Sethi

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