I’m no expert in market economics

Posted: February 11, 2014 in Rants

[Originally written in September, 2013]

On the last weekend of the last school holidays we spent a day up at Tangkuban Perahu, an active volcano about 20kms drive from our place. (Incidentally, it’s closed to the public now due to an eruption a couple of weeks back and then a few clouds of poisonous gas seeping out of the ground.)
We got an angkot (public minibus) up on the main road which dropped us at the entry to the national park and then we had to charter another minivan to take us the remaining kilometre-or-so up to the top*.
It was pretty crowded around the food and souvenir stalls lining the car park and the rim of the spectacular crater – domestic tourists making the most of the last few days of Lebaran. Guys, carrying armfuls of the same tacky souvenirs and crappy knick-knacks that thirty other guys we’d just walked past (and said “no” to as well), still tried to sell us their wares as we walked past. As did all the people running the umpteen food stalls all selling exactly the same things – Indomie rebus (2-minute noodles), gorengan (fried stuff) and jagung bakar (barbecued corn-on-the-cob). Or little wooden cars, guitars or ashtrays, or t-shirts with “I love Indonesia” or “I Heart Bandung” written on them, or fluffy beanies with cute little rabbit ears on them.

Warungs & souvenir stalls line the volcano's crater.

Warungs & souvenir stalls line the volcano’s crater.

Now, I’m no expert in market economics, but it made me wonder. Surely the vaguest hint of innovation or difference from your competitors must be a more affective means of getting ahead in that kind of environment, rather than just doing the same as every other Tham, Dik-dik and Heri.
I don’t know. It’s weird. But it seems to be the norm here. Everywhere there are little strips where you find multiple shops in a row all selling exactly the same stuff or offering exactly the same services. For instance, up on the main road here is the pineapple strip – seven or eight stalls set up on the side of the road all selling pineapples for exactly the same price. We recently wanted to buy some pet fish for our son’s birthday and were directed to the aquarium strip in town – half-a-dozen shops all in the same block. On the road to Cirebon there’s a town called Sumedang where deep-fried tofu is the local specialty and, I kid you not, every 50 to 100 metres, for a stretch of… I don’t know, maybe 20km, there are places selling tahu Sumedang (tofu from Sumedang). The Bandung Elektronik Center is a ripper! Four floors of little shops all selling exactly the same phones, laptops, cameras, etc., for exactly the same prices. Or there’s the coffin strip on one of the roads in Yogyakarta – for all your funeral needs. It all seems very strange and counter-intuitive to me. Although, it does make finding things very easy (once you know where they are, of course).
I’m just not sure what people are being taught when they go to Business school. Or maybe that’s the problem – they’re not going. Or perhaps it’s something deeper, some trauma, something ingrained in the national psyche. A post-colonial hangover, some kind of fear-of-innovation or daring-to-think-outside-the-square lest your colonial masters get out the big stick. Or, dare I say it, a fear that your neighbours will come for you in the night because you dared to prescribe to something outside of the status quo. Like selling… I don’t know… Chicken soup and fried rice at Tangkuban Perahu instead of instant noodles and battered vegetables like everybody else.
I realise I’m simplifying and making light of what is a very serious issue – people struggling to keep themselves above the poverty line. I just wonder if there are too many people that think it’s going to be like Field of Dreams. “If you build it, he will come [and eat Indomie].”

PopMie, PopMie, PopMie!

PopMie, PopMie, PopMie!

* Actually, the angkot drivers working together with the charter minivan drivers to corner the market and get tourists to take two minivans (i.e. fork out twice for transport) shows good business acumen, so this article is all bullshit**. But surely you can’t blame a bloke for having a go, right? I mean, I’m just trying to get my writing read (by someone. Anyone!) and surely mine is unique. There aren’t many ranting-ignorant-white-man-blogs out there, right?…

** Well, duh!

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