Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

New York City’s 311 could become a model of customer service innovation

Innovative customer service is probably the last thing you would expect from a city government. And yet, New York Mayor Bloomberg came up with just that when he introduced ‘311’: THE number for New Yorkers to call when they have *any* question relating to their city, neighborhood or the city government. In 1996, across the US, the 311 number was set aside as a non-emergency alternative for the well known ‘911’. Ever since, a growing number of American cities have introduced it to their citizens, including Chicago, which actually won a ‘Innovations in American Government’ award for it in 2002. However, Bloomberg’s initiative is the boldest so far to date: 8 million people in the most demanding and fast-paced place on earth certainly have a lot to ask and gripe about. 311 and the accompanying 24/7 ‘Citizen Service’ call center allows New Yorkers to immediately report everything from potholes and defect street lights to loud noise and parking violations, information on trash collection schedules or community center resources, or leaving a (frank) opinion for the Mayor. All this with live operators, who amongst them speak 170 languages, and who will give callers a tracking number so that they can follow up on the status of their requests. (more…) No one wants to read papers online. Or so many of the old school news publishers still want us to believe, even after years of non-stop growth in the number of potential online readers. Well, South Korea’s internet newspaper OhMyNews is proving these ‘dinosaurs in digital denial’ wrong, with a vengeance. In a country where close to 70% of all households subscribe to a broadband internet service (source: Morgan Stanley), and where next generation cell phones are as widespread as last-generation phones in the U.S., three-year old OhMyNews is getting 14 million pageviews a day, with 1-3 million active readers a day. The big twist: OhMyNews uses 26,000 ‘citizen reporters’, who send in stories and pictures, which make up 80% of all content. And it is all done online, 24/7. OhMyNews pays up to $20 per article, though for many citizen reporters, getting their name in the paper is the real reward. Facts are checked by a staff of 40. Fiercely outspoken, OhMyNews has successfully challenged the traditionally conservative press in South Korea. In fact, the online newspaper has already been credited with having swung a presidential election, and influencing the government’s stance on the North Korea issue. So much for paper! 😉

Opportunities

Now let’s see which other ‘young’ democracies will succumb to new online papers the moment internet access becomes ubiquitous amongst younger generations. Equally interesting, with start-up costs so low, the OhMyNews phenomenon should aspire to many ambitious ‘new style’ publishing moguls in tired democracies, too! Everybody is online, which means plenty of readers and citizen reporters. Will the new Turner or Murdoch please get up?

The i-Shakti project will enable saleswomen in rural India to access Hindustan Lever product prices and place orders online, from what are now distinctively offline villages and regions

With 1.3 billion eager consumers, China steals most of the emerging markets limelight these days. However, India, China’s mighty neighbor, with 1 billion plus inhabitants, is not exactly lacking in smart, new business ideas catering to aspiring consumers and entrepreneurs either. Case in point: an online direct selling portal for women who represent Hindustan Lever consumer goods in rural villages (source: FT). The initiative, called i-Shakti, which is the online component to the now three year old ‘Shakti’ project (training women across the country in micro-business skills), is set up by Unilever and Hewlett Packard, and will eventually enable saleswomen to access Hindustan Lever product prices and place orders online, from what are now distinctively offline villages and regions. Hindustan Lever has a presence in 100,000 of the 638,000 Indian villages, and gets 50% of its turnover from the rural markets. The products sold often come in small quantities, including 1 rupee (2 US cents) sachets of shampoo. Other multinational companies are joining the fray: Philips Electronics (light bulbs), vehicle maker TVS, UK based pressure cooker manufacturer Prestige and Japan’s Nippo (dry cell batteries) are all working on expanding their presence in rural India. As highlighted by our earlier ‘Small is sundara’ and ‘Small loans, big ambitions’ articles, selling to emerging consumers requires creativity and sometimes deep pockets, but the pay-off could be enormous. If you’re working for a true multinational, the Shakti set-up is one to watch!

Opportunities

Even though Springwise thinks all of this is getting slightly scary, it is nonetheless an interesting twist to Pine and Gilmore’s ever-expanding ‘experience economy’, in which the usual suspects (lifestyle brands like Disney and Nike) are now being joined by more mundane, down to earth brands and products. Link this to online companies setting up stores and entertainment spaces (see our earlier Expedia example) just to gain a presence and some credibility in the real world, and you get a bonanza for retail space vendors, decorators, and new business concept consultancies.

Might seem like a lot of fuss for such a small chocolate covered candy, but M&M’s World was packed with buying customers when we dropped by.

Remember the customised M&Ms in our February 2003 issue? Well, M&Ms seems determined to keep the buzz going: there’s an actual 26,000-square feet, four-storey ‘M&Ms World’ extravaganza on Las Vegas Blvd. South, complete with a Colorworks section, which was, well, MOBBED by wild crowds when we visited. Besides being able to choose and mix M&Ms candy in dozens of exclusive colors, customers can shop from endless rows of branded mugs, T-shirts, pillows, school supplies and stuffed M&Ms ‘dolls’, and be entertained in the M&M Academy and 3D movie theater.

Opportunities

Even though Springwise thinks all of this is getting slightly scary, it is nonetheless an interesting twist to Pine and Gilmore’s ever-expanding ‘experience economy’, in which the usual suspects (lifestyle brands like Disney and Nike) are now being joined by more mundane, down to earth brands and products. Link this to online companies setting up stores and entertainment spaces (see our earlier Expedia example) just to gain a presence and some credibility in the real world, and you get a bonanza for retail space vendors, decorators, and new business concept consultancies.

FreshDirect sells fresh food online that comes directly from farms, dairies, and fisheries, delivered to the home or office, at prices 10-30% lower than other local grocers.

OK, here’s an idea: why not start selling fresh, top quality gourmet foods like meat, fish, vegetables, cheeses and breads to demanding consumers, businesses and restaurants, delivering it ‘Kozmo’, ‘WebVan or ‘Urbanfetch’ style? Does this sound too 1998? Not to Joe Fedele, founder of FreshDirect, a food processing plant in Queens, New York, that provides customers access to its goods via the Internet, selling fresh food that comes directly from farms, dairies, and fisheries, delivered to the home or office, at prices 10-30% lower than other local grocers. At the refrigerated, state-of-the-art food processing plant, FreshDirect roasts its own coffees, bakes breads and pastries from scratch, and cuts each piece of seafood and meat to order. Since customers don’t shop in the facility, FreshDirect can maintain different environments for each type of food they sell. (For example: seven different climates for handling produce ensure that the bananas are just as happy as the potatoes.) Product categories encompass Fruit & Vegetables, Coffee & Tea, Meat, Seafood, Deli, Cheese, Bakery, Pastry, Pasta, Kitchen, Dairy, Frozen, Grocery, and Specialty. The website offers a customized shopping experience, letting customers decide how thick they want their steaks, or how ripe their tomatoes. There’s even an array of prepared foods cooked to one’s liking. Right now, delivery is only offered to Manhattan’s East Side and Battery Park City, but the service area is quickly expanding. A $40 minimum order applies, plus a $3.95 delivery charge. (more…)

Honda and Toyota create vehicles that are both a means of transportation AND a destination in themselves.

Mass Customization is alive! Witness Honda and Toyota’s bold move into the Activity Support Trucks (AST) category, which is all about Generation Y and the way it uses and customizes their cars. After a successful launch in Japan, Honda recently introduced its ‘Element‘ model in the US market, a car that is, in marketing speak, a means of transportation AND a destination in itself. Meaning that the owner can hang out in it, get dressed in it, and customize the vehicle from looks to multi-media capacities. Toyota recently introduced a similar ‘dorm room on wheels’, the ‘Scion xB‘, creating an entire new brand around this phenomenon. All of this was inspired by research showing that Generation Y not only loves to cruise, but also likes to hang out in or around its cars, listening to music, eating and drinking, playing games, or using it as a changing room when at the beach or doing outdoor sports activities. On top of that, there was a demand for enough space to stuff everything from lots of friends to skate/surfboards and mountain bikes into the ASTs. So the cars feature backseats that can be folded into beds, or folded against the walls to create unobstructed storage space, front doors that open wider than usual, and sunroofs in the back so you can stand up (head sticking out of the car) to get changed. Interior surfaces are covered with a durable rubber texture, to facilitate garden hose-style cleaning, and loads of optional technical gadgets, rrom video screens in the back to wireless internet and massive audio systems including ten speakers, subwoofer and MP3 player. Not only should the Element and xB appeal to Gen Y (and older, wealthier Gen Y wannabe’s) in car-loving, outdoor crazy nations like the US, Canada and Australia, they also offer a valuable lesson in how to truly cater to an audience’s changing needs and uses of familiar products.

Opportunities

Sounds like a winner to Springwise, and even better, sounds like one of those smart ideas that will get copied instantly by the Vodafones, Sprints, DoCoMos and Oranges of this world. So if you’re in mobile marketing or the printing business, make your move!

Combining the best of both worlds — MMS snapshots printed on real, paper postcards that are sent to recipients by regular mail

Will snail mail survive after all? T-Mobile in Germany now lets users of its camera-enabled cell phones turn their holiday pictures into real, paper and text-on-the-back postcards. The customer simply emails a picture (MMS) from their phone to ‘postcard@mms.minick.net’, including accompanying text and the address of the recipient, and T-Mobile, working with printing company Minick, will produce the full color card and send it to the intended recipient via ‘normal’ mail. Pics received before 4 PM are delivered the next day.

Opportunities

Sounds like a winner to Springwise, and even better, sounds like one of those smart ideas that will get copied instantly by the Vodafones, Sprints, DoCoMos and Oranges of this world. So if you’re in mobile marketing or the printing business, make your move!

The easyGroup has now re-engineered the business of showing films and has removed the frills from going to the cinema

The world’s first no-frills cinema, easyCinema, is all about going to the pictures for as little as 20p (25 dollar cents/30 euro cents) per movie. After trying his hand at everything from a no-frills airline (easyJet) to affordable rental cars (easyCar), easyGroup founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou has now re-engineered the business of showing films and has removed the frills from going to the cinema. Efficiency at easyCinema (the first one is a 10 screen multiplex with 200 seats in each screen, in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom) starts at the box office: it’s been removed. Seats are booked online or by phone (soon to be available on a premium rate line). The earlier you book, the less you pay. From their own computers, customers print a barcode which they scan at the turnstiles to get into the theatre. There are computers in the cinema itself so that customers can book online while they are there. Not only did they take away the box office, there’s no popcorn either. If moviegoers want to eat and drink at easyCinema, they have to bring their own (and clean up afterwards!), which is much cheaper than the prices charged by regular cinemas for food and drink. This high volume, low margin approach should boost bookings: on average, across the whole cinema industry and across all showings, occupancy of cinemas is currently only 20%. Not surprisingly, easyCinema is experiencing resistance from the main film distributors, who control more than 90% of the market (20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Disney, Columbia Tristar, Universal/Paramount). Worried about losing their profitable ‘first week opening’ revenues, and all but one owned by a film studio, these distributors have refused to give easyCinema a film for its first run, in other words on the date that the film starts being shown for the first time to the public. (more…)