Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #4 : No more coins

We truly live in a world of extremes. One hand millions are made or lost in a nano second thanks to commodities, foreign exchange or equity trading done by a banker over a supercomputer. One the other hand one still need to be tied down to heavy bits of nickel/brass/copper alloys to be able to pay for a service or a product. Take a quick look at an average wallet or purse, there is a large compartment that is still dedicated to carrying coins. Coins? … The most ancient form of physical monetary exchange, still being dragged around and used in 2011.

When most of the money today exists in bits & bytes in our bank accounts, its astonishing how often these round bits of metal stop you in your tracks. Think of how many times you have stood in front of a parking meter, fumbling for that exact and almost always elusive combination of coins that will satisfy the metallic beast with an insatiable appetite of coins. Or at a kiosk trying to pay for that bar of chocolate where the amount is magic number which is too small to be paid by a credit card, but large enough to exhaust all the coins in your wallet but still leave you 5 cents short, and in effect without that bar of chocolate. This magic number which one is almost invariably short in exact change, is also called the Higgs Boson number (cousin of the elusive particle by the same name that scientists are lusting after).

The most infuriating experience being, when you land in a foreign country and receive a handful of coins back as change after you pay for coffee or a small item. Serendipity will invariably ensure that every possible denomination of coins is represented in that handful. Each one will be a different shape and the number written in a different illegible font hidden among flowery designs. And if this happens to be a coin from an arabic country, you might as well forget trying to decipher the value of that coin – as happened to me in the recent trip to Turkey. There is no way of knowing if that handful is enough to pay for your taxi ride or half a cup of turkish tea from a roadside vendor.

No sane person today can offer a credible explanation as to why coins are still needed. Everything can be paid for electronically, virtually or if you were to ask some Indian politicians – in mind.

The super efficient swiss realized the uselessness of coins long back and introduced a Cash card, which you can load up from an ATM and use it as a replacement of coins for small payments. But in their perennial quest for perfection, they forgot to ask the retailers if they would be willing to accept payment via these cash cards. So now most people carry a cash card in their pocket, which they cannot use for payments. The banks have now realized this foll and are moving away from this Cash chip/card. But as irony would have it, they forgot to inform their customers … thus the cycle continues and coins continue to thrive.

I predict that within the next 15 – 20 years, coins will be eradicated as a form of monetary payment. People wallets will be thinner and lighter, with no ugly bulges from the back of suit trousers and jeans, thanks to wallets loaded with coins. They will purely be of novelty value for collectors, means of historical education aids for kids or for political memorial purposes. I for that matter am willing to go a step further and propose bio-metric recognition like retina or fingerprint scans as the only means of payment, thus eliminating the need for even carrying credit cards and banknotes completely. This will effectively eliminate many of frauds but perhaps will inspire new schemes of identity or body snatchers. But as they say vice always follows virtue.

Abraham lincoln on a memorial coin - clearly not pleased with my idea and looking the other way. Image from wikipedia

Harrods and Walmart on a push cart

If you know India a bit or have been there sometime, you probably have seen many sights that you could call ‘unique’. Now having been born and brought up in Delhi and it has to take a lot for me to be surprised by something. But the following did.

Harrods and Walmart on a push cart

The above crossed my path while taking a breather on a mission to do the customary wedding shopping of  jewellery and sweets on my recent trip to India,  as i landed up in a part of Delhi that most of you may not even know exist. Absolutely back of the beyond but arguably some of the best mithai (sweets) that you can get in Delhi. Since i am interested in the consumption and not in the act of preparation or buying, i decided to wait next to my car while the rest of the companions pushed and jostled to reach a small mithai shop , where our order was being freshly prepared and packed (that’s India for you).

While waiting and watching the incredible late afternoon hustle of this trading street, the above caught my eye.  The sheer irony of encountering this, while on the way to one of the most exclusive addresses in Delhi for jewellery shopping, was striking. This 2 square mtr wide push cart that makes its way around this street had a collection that rivals the best that Harrods or Walmart can offer, and some stuff they can’t!  Intrigued by the collection, i inched closer trying my best to stay conspicuous, but without fail, as i attracted almost as much attention from this cart’s customers as it wares.

During a space of 15 minutes, the proud owner sold a Burbirry belt (for 75 cents, to a resolute lady who bargained as if there is no tomorrow), a pair of Doir Sunglasses (Dior or Doir is perhaps better known on that street compared to Burbirry/Burberry, so with the added brand premium the cost was 1.50 dollars) , several notepads whose buyers were probably more interested in the pictures on them than what will be scribbled inside, fixed a new buckle on someone’s belt, sold 2 ear muffs to hapless folks braving the freezing temperatures of 15 degrees, some knick-knacks to kids etc. etc….

What’s astonishing is not the prices, or the amount of imitation and wrongly spelled designer brands on offer but how perfectly the owner has captured the pulse of his market. He knows perfectly what will sell, which ‘brands’ are the most sought after, how much stock to carry, which customers will actually buy and which are just hanging around, who is a hard bargainer and whom he can profit from, optimal shelf space utilization, display design – the list is endless. All this without a million dollar customer research, inventory and supply management, customer service training budget.

I bow to your ingenuity ‘O great retailer with the rickety push cart. Philip Kotler should have taken you as the prime case study while writing his seminal book on marketing. The world acknowledges India as the next economic superpower and wants a slice of the Indian consumer pie. But Harrods & Walmart,  don’t even think of setting up shop in India, because this guy will beat you hands down and twice over on a Sunday.