Learning the value of a channel partner’s activities

I’m finally starting to recover from my jet lag. To be honest, this is the worst I ever had it. I can usually fall asleep anywhere and it generally takes me one or two days to adjust. But not this time. No way. Since we got here, I started waking up at 2am and had the worst time falling back to sleep. Some days I wouldn’t fall back asleep until 5 or 6am and remained zombie-like for most of the day. I think I’m finally over the hump though. I had a normal sleep routine the past two nights and can finally think in a clear and logical manner again. Phew!

We had quite an exciting week! It began with Isaac turning himself into The Joker by gnawing on his crib and rubbing his lips/cheeks along the ridge of the crib until they bled. We realized we needed fabric covers for the edges of his crib until all of his teeth come in. I know that fabric crib covers exist in the US, but after discussing with some Bucharest moms via a facebook discussion post, we discovered that they’re difficult to locate here. They suggested that I hire a seamstress to make them for us. I took lots of measurements, drew pictures of my request, took pictures of the crib, and was armed with my translation app to help with the transaction. On Tuesday afternoon, I located a local seamstress via Google maps, walked to the address listed and found that it was a boarded up building. Womp Womp. Not one to resign to defeat so quickly, I went to a local pharmacy and asked if there was a local seamstress in the neighborhood. I was directed to a seamstress two blocks away. Yay! I walked in there, all smiles, and excited to ask for our project.

The seamstress’s shop had no air conditioning, no fan, and only one lady who spoke a small bit of English. It was hot and stuffy and I knew I had my work cut out for me to explain the work I wanted commissioned. I wore yoga pants, a tank top and my Birks; the 95 degree day forced me to seek comfort over style while on my mission. I received some very disapproving side-eyes regarding my outfit and more particularly with my shoes. Regardless, I pressed forward. Through a game of charades, I was able to mime a baby teething on a crib and explain my need for a fabric crib cover. I was then told that she could make the cover for me but that I had to shop for the fabric myself. When I asked if she had any extra fabric in the shop, she found one small scrap of white linen for a shirt. It was not big enough for the crib cover.

I asked where I could shop for the fabric and I was directed to the largest open market in Bucharest- a market called Obor in the south side of the city.  I asked if she could buy the fabric at Obor for me and she said that she didn’t have time… so no. Romanians are often very protective of their time and are not afraid to say no– very different than the customer service model in the US. I asked how to get there, and she said that I would have to take the subway and make one transfer and then ride on a different train for a few stops. I had one more task that I needed to complete that day and wasn’t sure if I could complete both.

The night before, it became evident that my Surface’s North American power cord died. I believe my converter did not do its job and fried the US cord. With no Amazon to rely on, I needed to find a computer store that would either order me a new cord or sell me a power cord fit for European outlets. I found the electronics store, but they could not help me. Microsoft Surfaces are not distributed widely in Romania and they did not have any in stock. Also, the store could also not order me a cord because they do not sell Microsoft products. The sales rep did help me though and located a cord on OLX– a Craig’s List type of website. I wrote down the number and sent the OLX person a text asking if I could buy the cord. I translated everything through Google translate and then texted it. However, in the end, I decided that this was too fishy of a transaction and abandoned it. The person would not give me his/her address or a time to meet to buy the cord. He/she only wanted to give me the details over the phone but did not speak English and my Romanian is too poor to understand directions at this point. Folks around here like to talk in person or over the phone more than text or email. It’s a communication style that we (in the States) have abandoned in the past decade and that we (Carl and I) are adjusting to in Romania. I went back on OLX and discovered another cord for sale in a different city in Romania. OLX has an option to order your item via courier for 24 Ron (~$6). The courier will deliver the item in 24 hours. You have 5 minutes to test it out and decide if you like it. If you do, then you pay the courier for the item and the delivery in cash. If not, you just pay for delivery. Not a bad deal. I ordered the cord and decided it was worth it to wait for the courier. I also decided to go to Obor the next day for our fabric purchase since it was already late in the afternoon and I was not confident that the fabric shop would still be open by the time I got there.

C.O.D. (Collect on Delivery) couriers are a very normal thing here. Romania’s e-commerce is blossoming and more websites are setting up distribution centers in the country. Couriers are sent out for delivery with two options: (1) buyer pays via C.O.D. or (2) buyer pays via credit card, but the courier delivers the package to the Post Office who holds the package until you pick it up. As a marketer, I find this type of distribution fascinating. It is not customer friendly and requires much more time on the consumer’s part. You have no idea when the courier is arriving and you have to pay in cash?! What?? However, it’s the start of more e-commerce deliveries, and that’s a good thing for Romanian commerce. Believe it or not, the US still offers COD service, but it’s a relatively rare service these days. And can you imagine if we had to go to the Post Office every time we ordered something online?! Sheesh.

We also ordered Jethro’s dog food online and used C.O.D. as well. It is not common for the courier drivers to speak English. They call you when they are about to deliver the item to give you a heads up. This means that I have to hang up on them when they call and then text them back using a translation app to text in Romanian. So far it has worked out for us. However, our building has two guards/ door men (one for each entrance). I saw a woman drive up to the guard yesterday and collect a box from him. We plan to ask them if they can sign for a delivery item for us. That will save us from going to the Post Office which does not have friendly customer service hours. I just hope that we can get the message across!

On Wednesday, Carl, Isaac and I went down to Obor to buy the fabric for Isaac’s crib. We figured out how to purchase the subway tickets as well as how to navigate our way using the subway system. Since both of us have lived in major metro areas, its a pretty easy system to decipher. Once we arrived at Obor, we wandered around the huge open market for the afternoon. First, we walked to get a sense of the scope of the market and next to locate the fabric. Isaac was a point of conversation by many of the merchants. We have no idea what they said, but can guess by their baby talk and smiles that it was friendly 🙂

After a bit of exploration and the use of our translation app, we found the fabric merchants. Each merchant is specialized. If you want plastic bags for your store, you go to the plastic bag merchant. If you want blankets for a bed, you go to the merchant selling blankets. So on and so forth. Every stall has a purpose and very few duplicate items. I found a roll of fleece and after a fair bit of discussion by the women who own the stand, they agreed that fleece is a good fabric for a teething baby. We purchased 2 meters for about $5. Next, I went to another stand to buy some ribbon so that we could tie the covers to the crib. That cost about $.75. Finally, we went to another stand to purchase some padding so that Isaac won’t chew directly on fabric and wood. The padding cost about another $6. Afterwards, we purchased some fresh veggies from the farmer’s market portion of the market. We scored some fresh okra, green beans, and zucchini for about $3. We also stopped by a stand for a late lunch and ordered some Romanian food. We ordered mici (kinda like a sausage/meatball), fresh bread, some hand cut french fries and some local beers. In total, our meal and beers cost about $6. Very affordable.

The next day, I went back to the seamstress (it was too late by the time we got back from the market) and completed our transaction with her. She will have the crib covers ready for us by Monday afternoon. She’s charging us 80 Ron for 1-2 days of work (~ $20) She was very concerned about how we were preventing Isaac from hurting himself in the meantime. I’m happy that we found someone so caring, I think that means that she’ll make sure that the project is executed well. Just in case you’re wondering, we tied a few of our jackets along the rails in the mean time. It’s helping, but it’s definitely a temporary solution. Isaac isn’t dumb and he’ll figure out how to move the jackets so he can get to the wood soon. Trust me, this kid is pretty dang smart when it comes to figuring out how things work.

Despite all of this customization and learning a new way of how business works here, I must admit that my time is much more valuable and I’m willing to spend more to purchase something in a speedier way. It took me 3 days of work and negotiation to have something made for Isaac. What would have cost about $70 in the US (unless my Mom made them for us!), cost us $33 here. While I love the cost savings, I definitely would have spent $30 more to save the hours of time that I spent walking in the heat to the seamstress (10 minute walk each way), negotiating, convincing, and navigating the subway, familiarizing myself with an a market I never went to before, negotiating again, etc. However, I had no other option. If we order from Amazon through Amazon UK or through Amazon Germany (where the main European distribution centers are), delivery takes 3 weeks and both the items and delivery are much more expensive than in the States. No Romanian e-commerce site sells these covers either. I suspect that as product distribution options grow in Romania that purchases from local vendors, such as this transaction, will continue to decrease. Duh. I believe that the level of specialization for each merchant and lack of service is what is driving consumers online. Another duh, but it is important to note because it’s the first time I’m seeing these dualing priorities (local vendors who help the local economy vs. speed & efficiency) first hand. Offering more customer service is such a vital area of marketing. I would have gladly paid double to the seamstress if she purchased the fabric for us, or better yet, if she had it available in her store. Instead, she had me purchase the fabric and then disagreed with my purchase once I gave it to her. Since this is her area of expertise, wouldn’t it make more sense for her to provide that service and charge extra for it?? In the end, I told her that I am happy with my choice. I have no idea what type of fabric she would have chosen but she was rather reluctant to go along with my choice.

In my opinion, marketing channels are often the unsung heroes of marketing activities. This is the area of marketing where consumers recognize its need only once it’s missing. For those not familiar with marketing channels- this is the area of marketing that handles the sorting, assembly, warehousing and distribution of marketing products, among others. In the US, we prefer to have our items assembled for us along the way so that by the time the product is in the consumer’s hands, it’s ready to be used. We’re willing to spend more money for the convenience of having product already assembled for us. For example, think about all of our pre-packaged, pre-portioned food. It’s not like that everywhere else. Often, our pre-packaged food is cheaper than purchasing the fresh ingredients which is pretty ludicrous! In contrast, many developing countries who are less concerned about time and more concerned about cost have fewer channel members assisting with assembly of the final product. There are more “blue collar” jobs assisting with the creation of the final product and more customization on the consumer’s end. That sounds like the American dream! But all of that customization goes back to the basic economic concept of opportunity cost. How much time are you willing to spend to save a few dollars? I would have gladly spent $30 more to save me days of work. Experiencing the difference in product assembly, like this, is one of the main reasons why the Fulbright exists. It opens doors for discussion and exchanging of ideas. I have a much better grasp of our automation and standardization practices in the US than I did before.

Another benefit to this experience, is that working through all of these daily challenges is helping to awaken an area of creativity in me that has not been utilized for quite some time. While teaching I use my creativity to explain complex concepts by using analogies. The type of communication we’re experiencing here is very different because we can see that folks understand our communication, providing more of an immediate sense of gratification. Academic concepts take a long time to learn. That’s why we typically meet for 16 weeks out of the year. These types of communication issues are solved within minutes and that provides more of an immediate sense of gratification. Each night Carl and I talk about our experiences each day and share things that we learned so that we can help one another adjust to our new life here. Because all of this is still new, even though it’s frustrating, it’s still exciting. It provides a good perspective of what we have available to us in the US and is giving me a very good perspective of the strategic position that channel members play in developing countries.

So, dear readers, have you experienced something similar in your travels? Do you remember something from your childhood that would take a long time to purchase that has since been placed by an app or an e-commerce site? Is that a good or bad thing? Do you regret not using a local shop anymore? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, if you would like to receive my blog in your mailbox, please click on the “follow by email” section below. Once my blog is published, you will receive an email about my update.

I leave you with some pictures of our apartment, our neighborhood, as well as some pics of the Obor market.

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