Money saving apps and Retailers

As a Consumer, a challenge I have with shopping both in-person and online is – am I missing an offer or coupon or promo code and related rewards and savings? A few popular solutions like Groupon, RetailMeNot, Rakuten (formerly ebates) etc. are of some help, time to time throwing up offers or coupons or promo codes resulting in some savings. With thousands and thousands of offers and coupons and promo codes floating in the market, I am always unsure if that was the best offer or coupon or promo code and I am left with a lingering feeling if I was missing some more savings or rewards.

I discovered Money saving apps like wikibuy (now Capital One shopping) and Honey, both available as browser extensions or mobile apps. There are many more options like Ibotta for grocery, CamelCamelCamel for Amazon shopping, GoodRX for pharmacy, Swagbucks, Checkout 51 etc. Once installed these browser extensions or apps automatically search for the best offers or coupons or promo codes, compare prices across multiple platforms and apply or suggest the best one automatically, save money and / or fetch you rewards. These Money saving apps have other features but the most important being the one I mentioned. I particularly use wikibuy as it is owned by Capital One, a leading credit card company and gives me a reassurance that it is safe and is not taking away my personal data in return. The Money saving apps solves my problem to a large extent. giving me the satisfaction of the best purchase without too much effort. A few businesses have started automatically extending offers or applying coupons or promo codes without having the customer rely on money saving apps like Uber or select Pizza chains but not all of them.

Businesses are offering special deals or commissions to these money saving apps to drive footfall and traffic to their websites or stores. Wouldn’t it be better for Retailers specifically to own this rather than leave it to Money saving apps to fill the gap? Retailers running loyalty programs have customer data and can recognize them on all the channels and it is much easier for them to extend offers and automatically apply coupons and promo codes. Can Retailers not do all this automatically without being vague and hiding offers or coupons or promo codes and be more transparent? Can Retailers not pass on savings and rewards to customers automatically and directly on their websites or mobile apps? Will this not increase credibility and trust? Perhaps this will happen in the next few months or years in the process of Retail evolution.

As always I welcome your feedback.

Social media linked to verified identity (KYC)

I watched a Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma” recommended by several friends. After watching the show, I would now recommend it to everyone in my social circle who use social media at some level or the other. It gives an insider view of what happens in companies that are contributing to how social media is shaping up and what is done to drive behavior of people. I could relate to many behaviors depicted in the documentary to my own and more so in the recent few years when my social media usage has increased. Data is the new natural resource as many say, and this is what social media companies are collecting and using to understand our behaviors, best guessing our future behavior and trying to influence how we behave. Many companies engaged in social media until a few years ago did not even make profit and were burning investor money and yet investors were pouring more money into these companies. Why? Because they have customers and their data and the ability to drive and influence customer behaviors. Very valuable right!

Search for an airline ticket or a product on google and then see all the ads that are rained on you on all social media platforms and promo codes landing in your mail box all related to the vacation or the product you searched for. Sounds familiar? To me it was no surprise like probably to many of you. We have all read, heard and personally experienced this at various levels. These social media companies have too much data, power, influence and have largely gone unregulated. We have seen CEOs of some of these companies squirm, dodge, fumble at publicly televised hearings of the US law making bodies. Governments across the world have woken up to this malaise and are bringing in laws to regulate and curb the uncontrolled power of these large social media companies and to enforce ethical usage of customer data. We have seen several laws like GDPR in EU, CCPA in California, laws in UK, Brazil, Serbia, India and new laws in motion in many countries in recent times. These are welcome steps in the right direction.

Regulations on social media companies is one thing and we see some noticeable actions from governments. One area that has been relatively unattended to is regulation on social media users. Toxic content, misinformation, fake news, fake accounts and profiles, political and religious propaganda, uncensored videos, stalking, drug trafficking, child trafficking, cheating and frauds, serious crimes etc. are widespread ill effects of social media that is largely unregulated and there are no easy ways to remove this malaise. It is possible for vested groups to spread misinformation and propaganda by buying priority for their content from social media companies, it has come to light several politicians and celebrities have been able to purchase thousands of fake followers in a matter of hours, riots and social unrest have been engineered and even election interference by foreign countries has been a hot topic in recent years. It is possible for social media companies to voluntarily bring some controls and some are making new attempts to flag the authenticity of content and these methods will evolve with a combination of technology with the aid of AI/ML and government laws. Some governments recognize this malaise and have attempted to bring in laws to link social media to some form of unique verifiable identity. These attempts have not been easy to pass the legal hurdle of freedom of speech and fundamental rights in many democracies. This is a valid argument and many courts are reviewing the merits and demerits of the case. I personally believe everyone should have the freedom of speech, but not freedom from the consequences of their speech. If there is a willful misinformation or abuse or threat or crime in the name of free speech, then the perpetrator which may be a person or entity should bear the full consequence of their actions as per law of the land they operate or actions intended towards. Today many people or entities do not have any fear of the consequences of their social media actions as they know it is difficult for authorities to track and punish them especially with social media having no geographical boundary. These vested people or entities fearlessly abuse and issue threats to opposing views and opinions and spread false narratives to suite their interests. While most social media accounts need a mobile phone number and is one level of a tracking mechanism but is inadequate as there are loopholes on how people or entities with vested interests can procure fake SIM and phone numbers. I would argue everyone with a social media account needs a legitimate identity verified to operate in the virtual world just like we need an identity to open a Bank account or a driving license, stock trading etc. in a real world.

I have seen calls by several thought leaders for a Know Your Customer (KYC) kind of model or linking social media accounts to a legitimate verifiable identity. A solution is most urgently needed sooner than later. I wish the authorities will find a middle path where people’s fundamental rights are not compromised even by an inch, yet they have a valid identity in a virtual world for everyone to lawfully and peacefully engage in social media.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions.

Elections and online voting

Elections are the current flavor of the season with the just concluded US Presidential elections and Bihar state election closer back home in India. This got me thinking of technology and elections. And specifically of the possibility of casting votes online either from computers or mobile phones. Large sections of population in developed nations or emerging nations today have access to internet and computers. Many of us perform large parts of our corporate work activities like mails, meetings, screen sharing, instant messaging etc. on laptops and mobiles in a fairly secure way. On the personal front we do online banking transactions, shopping, social media, travel and vacation reservations, GPS, stock trading, order food, hail taxis and many other things that are significantly important and of monetary value. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation across the world. Online education, health care, entertainment etc. are the need of the day. Then why not casting votes online via computers or mobile phones? The Pandemic makes online voting option as probably more important than ever?

A quick google search threw up some very interesting information. I learned that roughly 1 million people in Seattle used a mobile app to register their votes in early 2020 for a local election. West Virginia was the first US state to try mobile voting in 2018. Apparently, the small European nation of Estonia has been using online voting for several years and with good success. Ontario local elections in Canada and Switzerland have experimented and continue experimenting online voting. The research, observations and experiences from these online election exercises have pulled out some very interesting advantages:

While there are several obvious benefits there are also some serious concerns that remain. Here are a few:

These are all probably just an understated fraction of the pros and cons of online voting. The advantages are promising and online voting definitely a thing that I foresee increased adoption in the coming years. The concerns are real and genuine and need to be addressed on an ongoing basis before large scale adoption. There are potential emerging technology solutions like Block chain, secure encryption, finger printing, facial recognition, Analytics and ML etc. that can be used to solve the online voting concerns. It is something that I think will be used increasingly with small electoral populations and evolve in the next few years.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. 

Where can I find neutral news?

Growing up I learned that the “Pen is mightier than the sword”. Indeed, it was, is and will continue to be so. I have heard the famous stories of “Indian Express” newspaper releasing a blank editorial during the Indian emergency of 1975 as a mark of protest against the government for curbing the freedom of the press. Many other prominent newspapers followed suite. It had a huge impact on the national discourse. Free and neutral press was what brought out many scandals like the Bofors, Cricket match fixing, Defense deals or the Nira Radia tapes. Newspaper editors conducted themselves with the highest level of integrity and ethics. People could trust print media as much as they could trust the courts in India. Editors were rarely seen mingling with politicians or partying with people of power.

I had the good fortune of growing up reading credible newspapers like the Deccan Herald (Bangalore based printers), Hindu and the Indian Express. Credible they were and probably are even today because they have a balanced view and presentation of facts as news. Never siding on one side or the other and letting the reader form his or her own opinion. And when there was an article published by a person with an affiliation that could potentially present a favorable or unfavorable view on a topic, it was clearly called out as an opinion and not news to caution the reader. This was and though rare today is the journalism that is true to itself. At least this is my understanding of what journalism is.

The advent of TV and website journalism started with the same idealism of print media. With increasing competition, the idealism has eroded with ethics and neutrality put by the wayside. I have had the opportunity to watch TV media closely both in the US and India. I see a blatant change and one sidedness in what is presented to viewers as news depending on what news channel you are watching. Every news channel is either in favor of one political party or the other. If you flip channels on the two sides of the aisle, you can immediately see two versions of the truth that leaves the viewer confused on what really is the truth. Neutrality has fallen so deep down lately where we have witnessed a leading news anchor in the US sharing stage with a Presidential candidate or a leading news anchor in India threatening opposition political leaders. The news channels present opinions to the extent of brain washing viewers. Some have lost credibility and the right to call themselves journalists. Another problem is fake news or indicting people guilty with a question mark “?”. That’s a whole different topic and I won’t touch that here.

My struggle has been “where can I find neutral news?”. Funnily a TV cable technician once told me to watch BBC if I wanted to watch neutral news on America. Watch a foreign channel for neutral news about a country? While it may sound odd, its actually true in my view.

I am still struggling to find neutral TV news. Print journalism is slighly better in terms of neutral coverage. A few newspapers are still untarnished by the color of political affiliation. Some may consider a few neutral newspapers as anti-government. In my humble view it’s better for a newspaper to be called anti-government instead of pro-government. Journalism is supposed to be the fourth estate and a watch dog for the people against the government and that is what it should be. I wish and hope TV and website journalism come back to become the fourth estate.

On a side note, the first newspaper I read was Deccan Herald. I am a still a regular reader of Deccan Herald and it’s my favorite. My English skills are largely influenced by this credible newspaper. I have been reading Deccan Herald for now close to 40 years and it has still maintained neutrality irrespective of who is in power in the state or the center. Check out the daily / weekly / yearly horoscope. It’s almost 99% right in my case.

As always, I welcome comments.

Opinions on social media on sensitive subjects

Social media has taken over our lives and people have a platform to express themselves on all topics under the sun. Social media like everything else in life has its own positives and negatives. Social media has several benefits if used appropriately and with common sense. It can be nasty too with trolling, memes, abusive comments etc. One can also rub people off on the wrong side with strong opinions on sensitive topics. One thing that has been disturbing me off late is professionals and some of them holding leadership positions in corporate companies freely expressing their opinions and sharing content in favor of one political party and against some others. Other things that have disturbed me are opinions and content on religion, languages, caste, countries and many other sensitive topics. Some people go overboard and present a frequent social media dose of their strong views. These views are not to be mistaken for social causes like inequality, poverty, gender, crime etc. Caution has fallen by the wayside. It appears like a few people carry a badge of their opinions and affiliations on their chests always. This directly or indirectly has a bearing on the workplace and other relationships with friends and family.

What message does it pass to the co-workers? What about customers or business partners? What about family and friends? And what if the circle of people around the individual have a neutral or opposing view? Let me take some recent examples of some corporate leaders and professionals taking positions against a country or in favor of or against a political party / leader.  Most professionals today have international careers and are working with and leading people with diversity of citizenship, languages, religions and beliefs. How can co-workers, business partners and customers from that country or having an opposing or neutral political belief place their trust on these types of individuals? The counter argument to this could be that the professional is expressing himself or herself outside of workspace and the views are strictly personal. Of course, some professionals are mature and may not carry these biases and opinions to the workplace. My argument to this would be that the opinion is no longer personal once it’s stated on social media. The professional or leader has indicated a sense of bias and prejudice already and given space for people to look at them with suspicion . Almost everyone is on social media including co-workers, business partners and customers. They follow, see and read everything that the l professional writes. Trust and credibility in a leader and professional are of paramount importance. Why dilute this trust and credibility with the unnecessary free expression of views on sensitive topics? Why take public positions that can come back to bite you now and later? Is it right? Is it necessary?

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

Coping with loss of a co-worker

I have lost several people closely associated to me over the course of my life to inevitable death. I have seen death closely starting from my father when I was six years old to numerous family members, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Handling grief on each of these situations is different and varying at personal levels but equally difficult. But never have I experienced losing a co-worker on a team that I led until a few days ago.

Before I write my thoughts on dealing with this situation, I would like to write my tribute to my dear colleague Suzy Ong from Philippines who lost her battle to cancer. Suzy was (hard to use past tense) a young, extremely hard working, brilliant and honest woman. Professional to the core yet friendly and could strike a personal bond with colleagues and client team members alike. Very few offshore team members make a significant presence and impact felt on clients and Suzy was one. On a personal front her world was her family with her little daughter being the center of that world. All her aspirations and dreams were focused on her daughter. The news of her loss was shocking and unexpected. She was too young to die. My prayers and thoughts are with her and the family.

Suzy Ong

Coping with the loss and grief of a colleague working on a team you lead is personal, complex and a test of your character. I learned it is a delicate balance of professionalism, empathy and emotions. A few quick thoughts on handling these situations as a leader:

1. Absorb the shock quickly and take time to grieve later. You need to stay strong, help the team handle the loss and at the same time not let things go out of control and keep projects on track. Real contingency planning and execution is here. Allow team members to grieve and recover. Find time yourself to grieve outside of work hours in your own way

2. Reach out to the family of the departed colleague and show empathy, concern and offer assistance. Do it very quickly and don’t be late. Try to be in touch with the family during the ordeal and if the colleague has been sick for a while, offer moral support and work flexibility to tide through difficult times. The hard part of this is to recover the company assets like laptop, vpn keys etc. and do it sensitively at the appropriate moment later

3. Do something for the colleague’s family or something that would have pleased the departed colleague like a memorial, flowers, funds, charity etc. This is where the personal connect and knowing the colleague at a personal level matter. Knowing aspirations and beliefs of your co-workers is so important. Eventually the colleague’s memory will fade. Don’t let it pass as a just a news and do that something quick. Lip service is not enough. Your team is watching you and your actions matter to them and definitely to your own conscience. I was pleasantly surprised to note the maximum contributions for Suzy’s memorial came from the team or former team members and clients

4. Be transparent with communication to team members and clients. Be open about impacts on people and projects. Somethings will slip and it’s okay. Everyone is human, reasonable and understanding. Don’t be too hard on yourself and try to hide emotions while putting up a strong face. You are human too and your team and clients need to see this side of you

5. Allow time and be patient to let things settle down for your team, clients and yourself. Time gradually heals everything and reduces the pain and grief. Slowly move on with fond memories of the departed colleague and the good times together

6. Be thankful and grateful to the departed colleague. Reflect on all the good qualities and things done, hard work and contribution to the company and clients. Remember, although your colleague worked for the company everything they did was for you and for you to be successful, sacrificing many a thing putting your project over their holiday, vacation and personal time

7. Learn from the situation. Learn to eat healthy, exercise and stay healthy. Pause and reassess your perspective to life and bond with colleagues and people that matter to you. Make investments wisely and secure the future of your family. Life is much more than work

I pray to GOD to give Suzy’s family all the strength. GOD bless!

Corona Virus and Ransomware Parallels

Over the weekend I was pondering over what could be an equivalent of Corona Virus or COVID-19 outbreak in the IT world. Has something similar happened in the IT landscape with a malware or virus which inadvertently affects one system / server and starts spreading to connected systems / servers through the network and slowly makes the systems / servers / network dysfunctional? The trigger for this thought was to see how IT professionals dealt with the problems and if the solutions applied to solve the IT malware / virus spread could be applied to the current Corona virus crisis. The first thing that came to the mind was Ransomware attacks which have many parallels or similarities with the COVID-19 crisis and a relevance in terms of some solutions. In addition I have a first hand experience of dealing with a Ransomware attack in the recent months and it’s fresh on my mind.

Ransomware for the uninitiated by definition is “A type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid. Most ransomware variants encrypt the files on the affected computer, making them inaccessible, and demand a ransom payment to restore access. The malicious software can spread and affect connected computer systems”. Corona virus except for the ransom part has parallels and affects the functioning of the respiratory system and immunity of humans similar to file encryption and makes them dysfunctional and spreads to other humans in contact.

There are other similarities between the two although some may technically not consider Ransomware as computer virus but as a malware while Corona is indeed a virus:

Here are possible solutions used for handling Ransomware attacks and their relevance in medical context:

To me it appears from the lessons of dealing with Ransomware attacks, the only reliable solution for Corona virus spread is prevention as there is no widely accepted or known cure. Prevention by awareness and maintaining hygiene and hand wash, prevention by isolation, social curfews and distancing, stay at home orders are similar to preventive measures like Cyber security lessons and practices we all follow at workplace. Testing and seeking help from the professionals seem to be the options once we suspect being infected and have similar parallels in Ransomware resolutions. There is no reinstall or delete or restore from backup options for humans nor any proven widely accepted medication or vaccines as cure. Most countries rightly so are following and practicing available preventive options as steps to curb the menace. Stay indoors and Stay safe is the mantra until medication is discovered.

Like always the contents of this article are my personal opinion and should not be treated as medical advice.

I look forward to thoughts and comments as always.

10 takeaways at NRF 2020

I had the pleasure of participating in the NRF big show 2020 at New York City early this month. NRF for the uninitiated is the National Retail Federation, the trade association for members engaged in all phases of Retail industry. The big show is the annual event bringing together the largest community of people engaged in all phases of Retail. It is a great event to shop or sell new Retail capabilities, hear and learn from the experts and their success stories and to network. The theme for this year’s NRF big show was “Vision” – an opportunity for all the participants to share visionary ideas, build visionary partnerships and experience visionary technology. The big show 2020 was exactly that – visionary.

The big show has a plethora of things to offer and see, but you can only be at one place at one time although the desire is to be everywhere. Here are 10 things from the NRF big show 2020 that are my takeaways or was a reinforcement of what I believe.

1. Retail is well and healthy and that is happy news. The Retailers who have adapted to the changing world have mostly reported a marginal to modest increase or been at least flat year to year in 2019. I even remember an expert saying at last year’s big show that flat is the new high and will be for the next few years to come. The holiday season provided a strong push for most Retailers in the US to close the 2019 positively. Brick and Mortar stores are still relevant and reinventing.

2. Unified Commerce was the key word I noted in several sessions. This is the term used for superior customer and store associate experience by connecting all inventory and customer data across all channels of online, store, mobile, kiosks etc. Unified Commerce is to provide a consistent and personalized experience with every interaction for the customer and a complete understanding of the customer to the store associates during that interaction. This is all about putting customer first and breaking all barriers between internal silos of channels for the Retailer

3. OMS + POS on a common data model is key to Unified Commerce. A section of experts believe Unified Commerce requires POS to move beyond being a transactional system and move towards a customer engagement platform. A POS built on an OMS platform helps build a retail network and each store becomes a supply chain node with inventory visibility and access to fulfill items from all stores, DCs and suppliers. It empowers store associates with a single view of customer orders and profile across channels. An example provided was that not many Retailers can allow a customer walking in the store to complete a store purchase, a purchase for shipping a product to home and a purchase for shipping a product to home that is currently not available in the store but available at another store or DC all in one transaction. Honestly, I have not seen this experience in a single transaction myself. The OMS + POS appears to be the answer and here I had my aha moment and made me proud being an IBMer. IBM’s Sterling product suite is just this and interestingly called Point of Commerce and not Point of Sale.

4. Re-Commerce was a new term I heard and caught my attention. The returns rate for most retailers is as high as 25% for online sales. Retailers must find new ways to Re-Commerce the returned product. In addition, the customer expectation around the returns experience is crucial to future business. A few Retailers are using the returns experience and converting it into a profitable opportunity. Retailers are finding new optimization techniques to make returns a profitable opportunity. Customers returning products at stores are being offered, discounts, coupons etc. Retailers are finding new ways to make sure all returns do not have to go through the store or DC but redirected to channels for resell and smartly termed as Re-Commerce. A few startups seem to be doing interesting work in this space

5. RFID has been around and its adoption has swayed like a pendulum. Hot at times and cold at times. The use cases for RFIDs were limited in the past. The number of use cases are manifold now and not limited to tracking inventory and preventing pilferage. It was interesting to note the experts claim that RFID will not give Retailers an advantage, but not adopting it will leave the Retailer with a competitive disadvantage especially in Apparel segment as it affects the bottom-line. RFID use cases now have game changing opportunities for the Retailer

6. A section of experts predicted that 2020 will be the year for innovation in improving the speed of last mile delivery. The prediction is several Retailers will improve on their same day delivery to hours or some Retailers unable to do same day delivery will move closer to the same day delivery. A number of large Retailers are engaging with vehicle manufacturers and startups for innovation in this space

7. Human centricity was another prediction for 2020. Increased focus on the customer and Retail associates and an overall improvement in all aspects of engagement with humans at the center for meaningful experiences or reimagining experiences

8. Increased adoption of AI / ML was no surprise. The concurrence amongst experts was Retailers are still scratching the surface with a few use cases and 2020 and the next few years will see a big momentum in this area

9. Increased adoption of AR / VR at furniture Retailers to accelerate product launches, increase conversion rates, reduce returns and provide a superior customer experience and improve employee satisfaction. A number of popular furniture retailers showcased their success stories

10. Research Online Buy in Store (ROBIS) has become the norm with Gen X, Y and millennials. This is again no surprise

Of course meeting past and current clients, colleagues and friends and meeting new people was a pleasure. And New York City and it’s energy is endearing as always

Why do companies have co-CEO’s?

I have often wondered why large companies opt for 2 or more co-CEOs. There are numerous examples in recent times:

Oracle – Safran Catz and Mark Hurd
Salesforce – Marc Benioff and Keith Block
SAP – Jennifer Morgan and Christian Klein

My research shows that this has happened earlier at Wholefoods, Chipotle, Samsung, Deutsche Bank. It was largely uncommon until more recently with some large companies adopting this style. The first thoughts that come to my mind on the Co-CEO style are all disadvantages:

i. Conflict of visions / strategy
ii. Confusion amongst clients
iii. Confusion amongst staff with a division of power / command
iv. Conflict between core teams of the co-CEOs
v. Need for cross reporting to each other / slower decision making
vi. Stepping on each other’s toes
vii. Not enough authority to act independently
viii. Complexity with the Board’s assessment of the Co-CEOs (especially when things go downhill)

I had a struggle and had to think harder for advantages:

i. Effective for startups with Co-founders as co-CEOs
ii. Good short-term arrangement while grooming a new CEO while the old one prepares to step down
iii. Effective for Husband-Wife owned companies or people who have a great bonding
iv. Complements different skills / strengths
v. Balances power / reduces single point of failure (one could counter argue this with the existence of the board / second line leadership)

One might argue it works at Oracle and Salesforce. My counter argument would be that it works in Oracle because there is the shadow of a super CEO Larry Ellison. It works at Salesforce because Marc Benioff and Keith Block apparently have a friendship and trust since the 80s. We must watch what happens at SAP in the future although it seems to have worked fairly in the past.

I am not a big fan of the co-CEO structure. Imagine a country having 2 Presidents or 2 Prime Ministers or a sports team having 2 captains or 2 managers. Would it work? May be not. The disadvantages of co-CEOs far outweigh a single CEO structure in my view. There are far too many examples of success with one CEO / one leader at the top. It’s a time-tested structure. I like the one CEO leading the company being the first amongst equals.

Great quotes from workplaces

The workplace is a great source of words which inadvertently turn out to be great quotes. Although some statements were made to mean something in a specific context, they could mean multiple things and some even lessons of life when analyzed on its own beyond the context in which it was made. Here are some quotes that have happened in my work sphere in the recent past. I would like to hear any great quotes that you may have from your workplace.

“Real answers – Real quick”

“We have no problems – only opportunities”

“We got a heart transplant while running a marathon”

“Not being mean but being real”

“Don’t Spray and Pray”

“Not taking a risk is a risk in itself”

“Just in time to just in case”

“First to click or First to pick”

“One more or Once more has a big difference”

“Diversity is a fact, Inclusion is a choice”

“I don’t want to be politically correct, but just correct

“Better to lose sleep than lose face”

“The journey is more beautiful than the destination”

“Before COVID you were only as good as your team and now you are only as good as your wifi”

“It’s not the numbers but the impact that matters”