The last couple of days I have been walking around Evanston town which is some 20 KMs from the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The famous Northwestern University is located in Evanston, and one of my family members graduated from the University just yesterday. It gave me an opportunity to spend some serious time around town, see the university, and talk to a number of strangers who were visiting for the graduation commencement ceremony of their wards.
Evanston (which I was visiting for the second time) is a pleasant small and tranquil town, the serenity of which is only broken by student crowds which dominates the Evanston scene at every corner. I would, however, hasten to add that the crowds were subtly tuned with no outward interference to the normal affairs of the society in general. I guess this is mostly due to the exclusive nature of the university, which is private and rather quiet on its own, though it has several world-class departments and famous faculty. Its Kellogg business school is world renowned, and I was thoroughly impressed with its LEED 5 certified state-of-the-art new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. Apparently, this new building which was inaugurated formally only 3 months ago seems to have drawn attention from potential MBA candidates! Almost every other building on the NW campus seems to portray an old-world charm, I was sure many buildings are in fact more than 100 years old. The way modernity merges with that old-world campus can only be discerned when one walks around the campus and witnesses the intermingling of technology in an unobtrusive manner.
The commencement ceremony was held at the Ryan Field football stadium on the campus in a professional, well-organized manner. It was a 2.5 hour function, and graduated 996 graduates of management from the Kellogg school – that was a huge crowd of students, and it was heartening to see the truly global nature of the school with students from many, many countries receiving their degrees. It clearly demonstrated that the U.S. still remains as the education and intellectual capital of the world, and still attracts the best and the brightest from around the world. Hopefully, this trend will continue to the mutual benefit of the global student community and the universities, and continues to produce huge benefit for the American economy. I am sure President Trump has already realized this fact, and that can only be good for the U.S.
Evanston has several interesting restaurants. I tried out the Tapas Barcelona Spanish restaurant, which was pretty good. All portions were a bit small but the paella portion was of good size. The Chianti wine selection was good, though they had mostly Spanish wines. I am in the process of checking out couple of other restaurants.
Lake Michigan is beautiful, and today I took many pictures of it from the first floor of the new Kellogg building as well as from the lake’s shore. It is almost like a sea with waterline disappearing over the horizon, huge and calm, with its enormity only broken by the occasional speed boats and water scooters. It gives a sense of calm to the visitors and the walkers along its long coast line.
One of the things that I like generally in the U.S. is walking into an enormous Wal-Mart or supermarket like Trader’s Joe or Whole Foods, and start shopping for things that I love to eat – like fruits and nuts for example, and pick up excellent wines on the cheap (compared to Singapore). Walking along the long aisles, and reading the labels could take up well over an hour, before I end up collecting the stuff that I would like to buy. It gives pleasure that I could buy a lot more for the same amount of money!
I noticed that the roads were broken in many parts of Evanston, and apparently this is the case in most towns. Infrastructure needs to be fixed and it is no wonder that the President is pushing for a spend of USD 1 Trillion, America needs it as most of its infrastructure is at least 5 to 6 decades old. Even the airports are dated, with modern facilities lacking in many of them.
All in all, I had a great time in Evanston and Northwestern University. I liked what I saw, and came to know a lot more than I did. That’s good news!
Enjoy your weekend folks!
16th June 2017
This looks like another mundane post, and it probably is one.
After a very, very long time, I decided to do two things today (Saturday).
The first one was to leave the car at home, and take a bus. The second one was to accompany my family for shopping in Orchard Road, after a rather long time. For starters, I do not personally shop for my clothes in Orchard Road malls. For information on where I do shop, wait for another blog post!
Taking a bus in Singapore is always a pleasant experience – and I am doing that after some 20 months or so. The buses are clean and well maintained, with very effective air conditioning and prompt stop arrivals. I was a bit worried whether my Transit Link card (the magnetic card used in Singapore for public transport) will work after such a long time and if there was enough balance in it. It worked and it had some balance, so I breathed a sigh of relief though I had a back up card.
The advantage of having a small population dissolves quickly when one is on public transport or when one visits heavily crowded shopping places like Orchard Road. Today was no exception. Orchard Road was very crowded, and there were people everywhere – especially when I tried to cross traffic lights, the junctions were overcrowded. At any pedestrian crossing, there were some 100 folks waiting to cross. The pavements on Orchard Road are wide, and you can imagine if these pavements are crowded. It appeared to me that the whole of Singapore was intent on Orchard Shopping during the Great Singapore Sale which is currently in progress. The number of cars on the road was unbelievably high. I saw that the car drivers were violating traffic rules, but then their assessment of the change in traffic lights was probably skewed. I would prefer if they make all of Orchard Road car-free during the weekends. Then we can walk anywhere on the road and enjoy complete freedom and also have icecream stalls lining up the road!
Now comes the actual shopping experience. We shopped at Robinsons Heeren on Orchard Road, and Metro in Paragon. Both are good places to shop, though I felt that Robinsons was overpriced even after the hefty discounts. They seem to be inflating the prices and then taking off big discounts, which then appeared to me as “overpriced”. For example, how can a bermuda short be originally priced at SGD 59 and then offered at SGD 33 (which, in my opinion almost twice the price in Kuala Lumpur for example, and 50% more than what one can get in the U.S.). How is this a grand sale? Other examples can easily be cited, but after walking around the 4th Floor of the Robinsons Heeren (Mens Section), I came to the easy conclusion that I can afford only two things in reasonable price range – vests and socks!
Of course, my family went around buying stuff they liked. I realized that my price data switch was always switched on, and was not compatible with the expectations of youngsters. So, I did not comment on purchases made by the family, though I made mild protests on the prices of T-shirts.
We all took a break and went for lunch at the renowned P.S. Cafe located on Level 3 of Paragon Shopping Centre. The food was great, though again overpriced. But then the ambience was excellent. We had to wait for some 20 minutes but it was worth the wait for some very good western food.
My son and I wandered into the newly opened Apple Store located just next to the Heeren building. It was a fabulous sight and experience. All products of Apple and its partners were on display (including drones, speakers, various accessories, etc.,). Looks like a huge investment by Apple but then it could be justified given the impact of the Apple brand in Singapore. Few people were buying anything, but it is still early days I guess.
Overall, the shopping experience on Orchard Road (though limited to couple of places in one small stretch of the road) was very good and I enjoyed it. It has been a while since I did that, and though I did not purchase anything substantive it was good to mingle around and watch folks make their choices. Robinsons had a big walk-in crowd at any time, and it is a trusted brand of Singapore for a long time though I disagree with their pricing strategies. They have to make a big profit to be sustainable given the real estate prices in Singapore and that too, in the most prestigeous Orchard Road, which remains as one of the most reputed shopping areas in the entire world.
On the way back home, we took a Grab taxi which worked out rather cheap (in fact cheaper than the bus) as we got a SGD 5 discount due to the Fifth Anniversary of Grab.
Good shopping and Good public transport experience,
10th June 2017
Well, for a change, let me take my mind off weightier topics and move towards what could be a rather mundane affair.
What could be more ordinary than shopping for a pair of shoes?
I did not realize that it could be rather tough to select a pair of hiking shoes. It may be easy in the U.S. to identify a brand based on feedback from friends or reviews from other users, and then drive down towards an outlet mall and pick up the shoes. Probably at a price which is not too different from the online price, but surely at a good discount from the mall prices.
How about Singapore? It is not that easy, based on my own experience.
First, let me come to the identification of personal needs. Since I am kind of hiking almost every weekend in one of the nature parks around the city-state, I felt that my regular walking shoes need to be replaced with a waterproof, tough-looking pair of shoes with strong grip, as it rains in Singapore often and the ground can be wet with slippery leaves lying all over. Further, the gravel on the hiking path is always a bit dangerous, with my own experience of slipping down in wet conditions, and able to upset my balance even in dry conditions. These set of needs is not very different from those of the average hiker in Singapore. Nothing special, and nothing out of the ordinary, though I use special feet inserts in my shoes for better cushioning and balance.
Then came the determination of the brands of hiking shoes based on an internet search of the best ones with user reviews to go by in the selection process. It was not easy to make the list, and so I also consulted with couple of colleagues in the office who are known to be walkers or hikers. I got a couple of brands that way. At the end of this process, I had four brands listed out for me to go and try out:
First, I tried the famous mecca of hiking shoe shoppers in Singapore – the Queenstown Shopping Centre, which resembles (in a minor way) the Sim Lim Tower which is famous for electronics. I went around a few floors, and visited some 8 shops or so. There is a lot to be learnt from the sales techniques (both positive and abnoxiously negative) of the salesmen in shoe shopping stores. In one shop which had almost all the brands (though small in size), I was looking around and then asked for Vasque shoes (I knew it was at the upper end of the price range). The salesman looked at me for a second, and asked me what is my budget. I told him that I would like to get a good pair of waterproof hiking shoes at SGD 150 maximum (INR 6,800, or USD 110 approximately). He smiled and said that Vasque will not suit my budget, neither will Columbia or Salomon. He suggested that I stick with Merrell since it is a mid-range brand with prices some 30% lower than these other brands. He waved me off, quickly determining that I was not going to buy anything, and then moved on to the next customer. He did not offer the Merrell shoes (which he had on display) and convince me to buy one of the same – I was inclined to do so. When I walked out of that store, I told my wife that this was the way shops lose business from a potential customer, who had an urgent need to be fulfilled and the shop did have a suitable range of products, but the salesman put me off. And, we were shopping for two pairs – one for me and another for my wife!
In another shop, which had a similar selection (except for Vasque), I had a positive experience. The salesman attended to my needs, by asking relevant questions and did not focus on my budget or specific brand prices. He pulled out couple of Merrell shoes on display and showed the same to me. He answered my queries patiently. He even offered to bring my size from another shop as he did not have my size available. I liked the guy, and was seriously contemplating concluding the purchase with that salesman. However, I did not as I decided that my evaluation of shoes so far did not prepare me adequately for a “technical” conversation on the characteristics of the shoes which mapped appropriately to my own personal needs.
So, I went back and did more study. I decided to go for Merrell shoes with Vibram sole and Gore-tex waterproof seal, and ankle protection. I also liked one particular pattern of the sole which I felt will provide solid grasp while hiking, and decided to get it.
Someone told me that Mustafa Shopping Centre has Merrell brand and so I went, but did not get my choice or my size. Though I should admit that their prices were some 10% cheaper than those offered at the Queenstown Shopping Centre.
Today, I went to Vivo City and looked up a number of stores. Finally, I chanced upon Royal Sporting House show room which had an exclusive Merrell show case (no other shoe store seems to be having a similar one, though World Of Sports had some limited Merrell choices). Both my wife and I bought Merrell shoes and the shopping experience was very pleasant. There was total focus from two salesmen on meeting our needs, and they were prepared to bring out a series of shoes of various sizes to fit our feet. They were patient and courteous. Further, there was a 25% discount if you bought two pairs, so it turned out to be a good deal with net prices being lower than that of Queenstown Shopping Centre and even Mustafa. And, I was within my stated budget per pair!
We are gong to try these new pairs of Merrell hiking shoes at the Upper Seletar Reservoir tomorrow (which is a Sunday), and I will share my experience of using these shoes in hiking conditions.
Overall, my buying experience proved that it might be better to purchase these kind of shoes and hiking or sports accessories in the U.S., not just because of lower prices (which will be the case), but also because of the quick access anywhere (Merrell is an American brand) and the variety of brands available at one go. In smaller countries, the experiences are limited.
Enjoy your walking, running and hiking.
1st April 2017
I wanted to send this one out before I returned from Dubai, however here it is – a dispatch on the cost dynamics of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
There is no income or sales tax in Dubai – there is just no taxation of any kind. So that would be a big incentive for most people as a draw to go and work in Dubai. Sure, it is a nice, and I would say a great feeling when you pay no taxes at all to the government. There are very few places in the world which provide such a strong incentive.
However, the picture is not so simple. Almost all items that one needs to consume are expensive, and even more expensive when compared to Singapore. I think this is true even when a comparison is made with Hong Kong prices of consumption items. May be only Tokyo is more expensive than Dubai.
A Cafe Latte in Starbucks costs 19 AED (Dirhams, the U.A.E. currency), which translates to SGD 7.5 (as against SGD 5.5 in Starbucks Singapore). A decent lunch at a foodcourt in one of the fancy malls of Dubai costs the equivalent of SGD 20 to 25 as against a typical comparable lunch at SGD 11 to 15 in a Singapore mall. All tourist attractions are heavily expensive when it comes to the entrance fees. A typical entrance fee to a theme park or water park costs around AED 270 or SGD 106 – whereas a good price that can be obtained in Singapore for a similar attraction ranges from SGD 40 to 60. Taxi prices are more or less comparable, though the base fare from the Dubai International Airport is AED 25 (or SGD 10) as compared to SGD 6.20 (SGD 3 surcharge from Changi and base fare of SGD 3.20) as base fare from Singapore Changi Airport. There is no apparent reason for such a high base fare.
So, apparently, what the government does not collect is being collected by product and service providers in Dubai via increased prices. The argument that they have to operate with imported labour (mostly Filipinos in service industries) does not fly as the situation is not very different in Singapore for lower-end jobs. The real estate prices are comparable, so that argument also does not work. So, it has to be only the motive of higher profit from the flow of tourists and resident foreigners that is driving higher prices in Dubai.
I have not had the time to do a detailed research on retail prices at Dubai malls (though I bought a couple of items), but had the opportunity to kill some good time at the fabulous shopping areas of Dubai International Airport before departing to Singapore. The liquor prices at the Duty Free Shops were lower than in DFS Changi Shops, and the chocolate prices were marginally lower though the variety of chocolates available was vastly superior in Dubai. I ended up buying good amount of chocolates which are not available in Singapore. The electronic product prices were more or less similar – again, the variety of offerings in Dubai was superior. For example, I saw six different brands of drones in a single shop with almost all accessories as compared to just two brands in a typical Singapore electronics shop. Drones are hot selling items and I am developing an interest as my son is keen to try out the same, and will eventually buy one raptor kind of drone with electronic eyes quite soon.
Overall, living in Dubai is an expensive proposition but then residents save on income and other taxes though paying higher prices for consumer items. Interesting, isn’t it? More news on Dubai soon, it is a place worth visiting for all. Abu Dhabi should not be forgotten either, it seems to be more organized and apparently has more wealth than Dubai itself.
Welcome to more expenses as you travel the world!!!
3rd December 2016
Whenever I travelled to India, I used to depend on a small Samsung “Guru” mobile phone which served me reliably over the past couple of years. It costed just SGD 40, and its battery lasted for minimum two full days with reasonable usage. The standby battery time was probably more than 10 days !
What with India getting inundated with “Apps” for everything, I felt the need to buy a “samrtphone”, as the use of the Singapore smartphone was proving to be expensive when it comes to data usage.
But before I could do that, I had to upgrade the mobile phone plan at Airtel Relationship Centre (Airtel is the mobile phone service provider that I use while in India, while for my Singapore phone I select Vodafone, providing some redundancy !). My mobile plan had only voice, so I needed to get a 3G/4G LTE SIM Card – which was given free to me. In approximately 4 hours, my current SIM card disconnected from the network, and I could insert my new SIM. My data plan had only 500 MB per month in it, and that was more than sufficient to look up something on the net and order a cab ! And, that costed me SGD 3 per month. I thought the price was pretty decent.
Then, I went shopping for a new smartphone. I had shortlisted a few makes – such as Micromax, Motorola, Asus, Oppo, Xiaomi, etc., and also had read the reviews of the kind of phones which could fit my bill [I had a budget of INR 7,000 max as this was a standby phone with little usage, that translates to SGD 140 approximately]. I thought there is no point in going for a fancy phone, given the usage.
However, the Indian market for smartphones has marched on aggressively and has emerged as the second biggest and hottest smartphone market in the world, due to the very fast adoption of smartphones and mobile data plans. Every cab driver is having a smartphone, and the market for the low-end phones which cannot serve data has evaporated. Almost everyone on the street seemed to be using a big screen smartphone – may be they are all watching bollywood movies or song videos, or using WhatsApp. But the scenario has changed vastly over the past couple of years, so much so that mobile service providers are scrambling to ensure quality of service when it comes to serving data. The adoption of smartphones in India is very good for all stakeholders – the government, the mobile service providers, eCommerce providers, app developers, and the consumers.
In my shopping expedition, I found that several brands are not available off-line in a physical store. That was annoying, but then I realized that brick-and-mortar stores won’t be able to keep up with the fast and radical product releases by more than 30 mobile phone makers online. Many of them sell only online through Flipkart or Snapdeal or Amazon India.
Since I wanted the phone urgently, I had to settle for a brand different from the ones on my shortlist. However, my brother-in-law had given some positive recommendations, so I finally chose Lenovo. Yes, Lenovo ! I thought they only made laptops (mine is a Lenovo X230 laptop) !
I went to a mobile shop and saw Micromax, Oppo and Lenovo. The Lenovo P5 W Gionee had a good configuration with 5″ display which I preferred. It also had 16 GB RAM. And, most of all it came in at INR 6,900 just under my budget. If I had increased my budget to INR 10,000 I would have got a fabulous phone, but then I am not the guy who would increase budget for no significant and proportional return on the investment !
I also got Android 5.1 [Lollipop] without any customization, and so was happy the phone was designed for me to tweak around ! I quickly installed some 20 different apps, including some Android Optimizers. I am back to using an Android phone after a gap of over 3 years, and it was not bad at all. Android has come a long way during this period, and can give a run for the money to Apple iOS. Of course, my favourite phone is Apple, and that has not changed. But then Apple does not allow much tweaking, so it gives me pleasure to use the Android when I have some free time.
It was a good experience overall – however, I found the very next day that the Lenovo model that I bought was available for INR 400 less than the price I paid. But then, that is the way a competitive market operates, and I am sure that this phone would not even be available after a year as more advanced models at similar price points would have replaced it.
Welcome to a Smarter India driven by Smartphones !
14th February 2016
For his birthday, my son wanted to get a DSLR camera.
I let him do all the research on such cameras, and eventually he came up with his choice: it was Nikon D5500.
Of course, quietly and parallely I was also doing my research. For one, I love that kind of product research – trying to wade through many websites and reviews to determine a short list of brands. I also love “speccing” meaning identifying specifications which would suit one’s requirements. The more the demand on advanced specs, the more the price ! On another note, I have not had such a camera – my preference was for the point-and-shoot type of cameras and over the years I have had a series of Casio, Panasonic, Canon and Nikon cameras. And many, many years ago I had a solid Canon EOS camera which used film. Also, I have had used a series of Camcorders – Panasonic, JVC and Sony.
Not surprisingly, I also came to the same choice conclusion that my son arrived at. I liked the D5500 for several reasons, the most important being that of light weight. A few other reasons are built-in Wi-Fi, touch-screen display, and the 18-140mm lens kit. In fact, my son selected the wide-angle lens as the telephoto performance was good and the differential price was very reasonable.
Then came the matter of selecting a shop to buy. We rejected the online shops as the personalized trial and evaluation aspect would not be possible unless you go over to a photo shop and try out the various brands / models. The prices at online stores were lower by between SGD 50 to 200. In any case, we decided to shortlist three shops and then attack the one at the top of the list. My research produced John 2:16 shop in Funan Mall and Cathay Photo at Marina Square / Peninsula Plaza. Then I came to know that John’s photo shop has been closed, so the choice became rather easy. Go to Cathay Photo at Marina Square.
So there we went yesterday and bought the camera from a nice sales executive called James. My son has done additional research, so he needed a series of accessories which kept increasing my investment overlay. We also bought LCD screen for the LCD Display of the D5500, a UV Filter for the Camera lens, an additional 64 GB SanDisk memory card for Ultra HD Video capture (apart from the 8 GB card which comes with the camera kit), an optical cleaning kit, a SIRUI brand tripod, and a small drybox to keep all the camera stuff. The drybox is essential as we live on an island with sea winds and high humidity levels.
Camera buying is always a complex purchase. We considered both Canon and Sony, and I even looked at Pentax. For entry-level DSLRs, there was a neck-to-neck fight between Nikon and Canon. We could have gone either way. A couple of factors swung the decision in favour of Nikon, plus my son was very clear with his strong preference for Nikon after his due diligence on such cameras. Given that he was spending from his savings for the most part of the investment, I decided to give him full leeway in his choice of his own DSLR camera !
Goov overall experience, and the D5500 has been in action for a day now producing some rather good pics. Let us see how it works out on many of its promised features and modes over the next few weeks !
Happy Birthday son and enjoy your new acquisition.
22nd November 2015
I am not sure whether I wrote earlier about the pleasure and perils of shopping at Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital of Vietnam.
Vietnam is a great country, and I have written about my experiences in that country when I went there as a tourist. Everyone of us should visit this country, primarily to see how this nation of “small” people fought against the mighty forces of the United States for a long period of time, and eventually won the war. The only country in the world to have done so !
Now, let us visit the shopping experience in HCM (Ho Chi Minh) City.
I like to shop at the Ban Thinh Market at the centre of HCM City. It is huge factory shed kind of place (really huge), with hundreds of shops all over, all closely packed. Only one person can comfortably move across the aisle between two rows of shops. You can virtually get any consumer item – mainly branded clothing, leather items, upholstery, food items, handicrafts, and many other stuff. There is a steady stream of mostly foreigners who come to shop at this market. Surrounding this market is a number of hawker food stalls, and restaurants, and other shops.
I am writing this piece of blog post just to share with the readers on the selling tactics used by the shops within the Ban Thinh market, because I keep getting fascinated by their aggression, passion, and desire to push the goods.
I usually buy the branded (yet cheap – surely cheaper than India or Malaysia or Indonesia or even China) T-Shirts, track pants, jerseys of football teams, etc., The cost of a typical T-Shirt (which looks almost like the original) is around USD 6, sometimes it is USD 8 to 10 depending on the design and quality. Similar items in Singapore would cost at least 5 to 8 times more. Even in India, the cost would be at least twice or more.
Coming to the selling tactics, the sales girls who push these goods gauge the customer closely – they try to figure out if we would buy anything at all, are we just window shopping, are we able to purchase more than one item, are we engaged in a collective purchase, and follow our eyes to the specific items on which our eyes show a glimmer of interest ! Then they pounce on us like tigress, and try to hold us from moving to the next shop which is only 3 feet away. They offer a chair, there is another girl who is behind you and offers more choices from another shop nearby who is obviously connected to this particular shop, as messages keep passing back and forth seeking to fulfill our choices – like specific sizes, colours, different brands, et al. They rarely mention the price unless you ask for the price at the beginning, which is another tactic for generating interest and then hold the higher marked price as your resistance goes down after you have selected what you want.
In a recent encounter, I selected 8 items and was willing to offer only around USD 48 for all of them. I always get confused with the Vietnamese Dong currency, and then worked out that it is simple to remember that VND 100K = USD 5. The other funny thing in Vietnam is that almost in all market places (not the malls), they are willing to accept USD or EUROs, not necessary to carry VND currency !
The sales girl (who also appeared to be the owner) offered a final price of USD 56, take it or leave it. I offered a final figure of USD 50. She said no, the difference of USD 6 is too important for her, etc., etc., She said the value of 1 USD in Vietnam is very high. Finally I settled for USD 53 because I felt that her original pricing was about right for the quality of the items she offered. She appeared a little upset with the hard negotiation, but finally gave in because I pointed out that my friends have also bought giving her total business of over USD 120 at one go.
The key characteristic of the sales efforts orchestrated by almost all similar shops is their passion to offer something of value and negotiate to the hilt. While most sales people do this in one way or the other, most of the time it is difficult to decipher the passion code – I mean, the sales talk would appear to be flat and prepared in advance usually. In the case of Ban Thinh market, you can rest assured that the sales efforts will be driven with passion and the intense focus to close the deal !
Anyway, enjoy the shopping and contribute to the Vietnamese economy !!
15th March 2015