Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Target Failed in Canada

The big news in North American retail this week was Target pulling out of Canada, shutting all of their 133 stores, and putting about 17,600 employees out of work. Now I, like many Canadians, loved to shop at Target whenever we were in the USA. When Target initially announced it was expanding to Canada, like many Canadians I was very excited. Yet, that excitement of many Canadians could not prevent Target from being a colossal failure here.

[image credit: CBC]

Why did Target fail, when another US retail giant, Walmart, succeeded? Now I am not a business expert, even though I play one on TV in this blog, but with my MBA knowledge, let me give my own reasoning, as a Canadian consumer.
  1. Canada is not USA

    Target just opened north of the border, without seemingly doing any appropriate research as to what will and won't work in Canada. They just thought a city in Canada was like any other American city. Even those that travel rarely will tell you despite the language and customs, Canadians and Americans are really foreigners to each other. For example, Canadians don't mind travelling to many places on one trip to get what they want, while Americans are more of a one-stop-shopping mentality. Many other mistakes, such as importing winter jackets that worked in the mild winters of USA, but would not work in Canada, and watching them languish on the shelves, were also committed.
  2. Target is not Walmart

    Canadians loved Target because it offered merchandise that wasn't found in Walmart or other places in the USA. The USA, being a bigger market, often had a larger selection and variety than Canadian retailers. The "Target experience", for Canadians, was going on something akin to a 'treasure hunt' and finding good deals - merchandise that was a cut above the Walmart and others, while being competitively priced. When Target opened in Canada, they just tried to be another Walmart. Their selection was nothing like the selection in Target stores in the US, and their pricing was way, way higher than the US prices. People wanted the "Target experience" in Canadian Target that they enjoyed in the US, and they didn't get that. What they got was another Walmart, just red in colour. Well, if I want Walmart, I will just go to Walmart.
  3. Target opened in locations where the doomed Zellers had been

    Zellers was a doomer retailer that had failed across Canada. It had been a staple of the Canadian retail market ever since I was here. When Zellers failed, Target bought those locations and opened a Target there. So in effect they chose a location that didn't work for the previous retailer, and tried to make it work for them. And as they say, location matters. For a customer in Scarborough, Toronto, the nearest location was outside of Scarborough - and that's a huge area. I have three Walmarts within five minutes - for a Target I would have to drive 20 minutes. And still Target had 133 stores open. That tells me they had too many stores open, spread too wide - when perhaps the better strategy would have been to concentrate on one target (one city or one province) and then expand organically while they iron out their problems (kind of like how Walmart had operated in the last 20 years).
  4. They did not have IT

    Information Technology. Target did not have a website for Canada. Whoever didn't think this was important should be fired ten times over. If I wanted to check whether an item was in stock at my nearby Walmart, I could do so. Not so for Target. Moreover, IT means strict control over your inventory, pricing and stocking of shelves (you are a retailer after all). I remember going to a Target and seeing a bunch of empty shelves (where were the goods), and then another where the most popular items were all sold out (where is your inventory) and the items that were there, were more expensive than Walmart or ToysRUs.
And finally, they exit strategy says a lot about why Target is no. 2 and Walmart is no. 1. Walmart too faced significant challenges initially in Canada but they persevered, adapted and prospered. Target chose to flee. Now I don't have access to all of their numbers, but if I was the CEO, I would try closing the unsuccessful stores only, and concentrating on a smaller but more successful stores, and then trying to grow organically.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

PK The Movie, Religion and Islam

This blog post will discuss the Bollywood movie PK and the religious points it raises. Spoiler alert: while I do not give out the plot details, if you are going to see the movie and haven't yet, do not read any further - come back after you have seen the movie.

The Aamir Khan starrer Bollywood movie PK [trailer] has grossed Rs 500 crore worldwide, and inching towards Rs 600 crore. There are indications it may even cross $100 million worldwide - it is already on its way to become the most successful Bollywood movie of all time. There are now violent Hindu protests in India against the movie, despite its popularity.

I watched PK last night. Someone I met at a party told me, "Oh, this movie is against Hinduism. We Muslims can watch it, no problem." After watching the movie, I can say that it's a very well made, intelligent, and entertaining movie. If there is one actor whose movies are consistently a bar above the rest, it's Aamir Khan.

PK also raises certain points against religion, and this is what I want to discuss. Even though the main villain of the movie is a Hindu godman, the target of the movie seems to be organized religion as a whole, despite what the makers of the movie say.

First of all, let's me say what the movie gets absolutely right.

If you are a devoted Hindu, or you worship idols, you cannot help but be rankled by the way the movies shows up your beliefs. The very concept that man worships a stone, a statue that he himself created with his own hands, is richly lampooned in the movie. Superstitions that any intelligent man should laugh at are held in high extreme by idol worshippers and pagans, and this is mocked too in the movie.

PK also takes aim at the way the caretakers of temples and majars and other holy places seem to ask for money all the time and say "your work will be done" (God's guarantee!). The seemingly absurd steps sometimes devotees take to make sure their prayer will be answered (such as crawling on your knees across some steps) is shown up to the foolishness it is (as per the movie). There is a scene where Aamir Khan participates in the Shia ritual of Matam. The more extreme Shia practice self flagellation with knives and blades, drawing blood from their bodies [News article with graphic content]. Is there any point to all of that? Some devoted Shia Muslims may say this makes them commiserate with the suffering of Imam Hussain but there is no place for such self abuse in (Sunni) Islam. Self flagellation is a ritual imported into Shiaism from some orders of Christianity that also practice this to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ.

These practices that have crept in religion and are basically a front from men acting in the name of God to collect money are rightly depicted in PK as an affront to the true worship of God. I must also say that the movie makes its point in a very entertaining manner, with songs, comic sequences and thoughtful scenes, and rarely takes on a sermonizing tone. It encourages you to think.

Now let's come to where the movie gets some things wrong, especially when you think from an Islamic point of view.

In the movie's climax scene, the main eponymous character makes clear that he is not against God, but what man has made God to be - in other words, organized religion. Islam, Judaism, Christianity are all lumped in along with Hinduism as "organized religion", and therefore a problem.

Now when atheists who are from a Christian society (such as Richard Dawkins) criticize Islam, they make analogies of Islamic theology from a Christian viewpoint, when there are major theological differences between the two. Similarly, when religious practices, customs and rituals of a pagan, idol worshipping society such as India are being lampooned, we cannot lump Hinduism, a polytheistic religion in the same bucket as monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity.

By and large, the superstitions, religious practices, customs of Hinduism aren't common to Islam or Christianity. Yes, some practices such as venerating the graves of holy saints and asking them for prayers rather than Allah, charms and amulets have crept in to desi Islam, but overall Muslims (and Christians) look at prayers, nature of evil, Judgement, destiny and others differently from Hindus. A Hindu man may stand in line with a coconut for two hours and give a few rupees to the temple and the priest will tell him his job is done, and he will believe it. Yet no Muslim cleric of repute can make that guarantee for anyone. For us we don't go through a priest or a medium, our communication is directly to God. And we understand that prayers, while never being rejected, are not always answered the way we want. Perhaps this is why it was easier for PK to make fun of Hinduism and the Hindu godmen, rather than Islam or Christianity since they have fewer of these "silly" rituals.

PK also states about how religion has caused a lot of bloodshed in the world. While this sounds nice to hear and seems a solid argument, a simple count will prove it false. Europe has killed more people since they abandoned religious governments (since secularization and Reformation of the 1800s and the Industrial revolution). Before the religious wars were limited to Europe and they didn't kill as many in numbers. Ever since colonization and the 20th century, the wars have become more and more bloody. Where was religion in the 2nd World War? Vietnam? Iraq War 1? Iraq War 2? Panama? Falklands? What about the ethnic conflicts around the world - such as Rwanda? Was it a religious war?

PK also raises some deep questions that philosophers have debated for eons - such as the nature of evil and why does God, if He is Merciful, allow evil to exist? It seems to indicate a belief that we (all of us) have God wrong. Now I can only answer that from an Islamic point of view, and I will point you to an excellent speech (of around 20 minutes) by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi discussing some of these points.

The movie also shows complete disregard for followers actually following the rules of their religion. It seems to tie in with its theme that religion itself is bad and if we only get rid of organized religion itself humanity would prosper. This is shown by a couple who have premarital relations (banned in both of their religions) and marry each other (again not allowed by their religious laws). There are grounds for which some people are upset at PK!

So, overall, what do I make of the movie? It's a good movie, for sure. It has a few scenes (brief nudity, off screen sex being depicted) that can prevent it from being a clean experiences, but over all is a good movie with a good script, entertains and causes one to laugh, and manages to raise some questions we can all think about.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Do you want to pray?

I was just about to start my prayer as I laid out the prayer mat. My toddler son Yusuf was watching me.

So I turned to him and asked, "Yusuf! Do you want to pray?"

Yusuf carefully considered my question, and then replied, "No Abbu! You pray! I play."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

House of Bengal

Opening a restaurant in Toronto that caters to Bangladeshi cuisine in a sophisticated setting is a tricky business. There's not enough Bangladeshis (there's a lot, but not enough) that can comprise a good market, and the general people of Toronto are more familiar with Indian and Pakistani cuisine than Bangladeshi food. Yet, I believe, with the right amount of marketing, location, and most importantly food, it can be done.

On Saturday night my brother and I had the pleasure of dining at the House of Bengal, which bills itself as "the only South Asian restaurant in the GTA specializing in Bangladeshi cuisine", on the Danforth. Now strictly speaking, this isn't true, of course. There's a bunch of restaurants on "Little Bangladesh" (the stretch of Danforth between Victoria Park and Woodbine) that serve Bangladeshi food. However, they are mostly cheap mom-and-pop establishments, usually for takeout, and hardly have an ambience that you can take a date too. House of Bengal has developed a "buzz" on social media, and billed itself as a more upscale take on Bangladeshi food; hence we were eager to try it out.

The only parking available is street parking. I was told there is parking at the back of the building as well, but I couldn't find it. We went at 7 pm on a Saturday evening, and we managed to get a parking spot very easily on the street directly opposite the restaurant (and pay parking is enforced till 6 pm there, so parking was free). The restaurant is more easily accessible via public transit, with Woodbine Station being the closest subway stop.

D├ęcor and Ambience
The House of Bengal hasn't officially opened yet, but it's having what is known as a soft opening. They are still testing out operations, procedures and facilities, with many of their clientele coming via word of mouth or through targeted Facebook promotions.

My brother and I had the pleasure of dining with Yawar Amin, whose brother is one of the owners of the restaurant. Throughout our stay, the owner popped in quite a few times to talk to us, and ask about our meal, and we also met one of his co-owners, an Arab man (who was cooking Bengali food!), and who also decorated the interior of the restaurant. The customer service was excellent throughout. I value customer service very highly - you can often eat at home what you are eating out, what makes the difference is the customer service and ambience.

The restaurant is decorated very nicely, with a contemporary ambience to it, and yes - that's a Surface computer on a table if you have to wait during busy times. At 7 pm on a Saturday night, I would estimate the restaurant to be about 40% full, which wasn't bad for a place that just opened up literally a few days ago.

The restaurant was split into the general dining section, like any other restaurant, with tables and chairs, but also had a "lounge" section. A projector displayed Bollywood and Bengali song videos on a wall at the end of the lounge. I was told that this area is also planned for use for live performances in the future, if needed.

We dined in the regular section.

What drew us to House of Bengal was the promise of Bangladeshi food in a more upscale setting. We were curious to see what it would be. When we were seated, the owner told us the food was more of a fusion of Bangladeshi food and Arabic style of cooking, since some of the owners were also Arab.

I should add that shisha is also available at this time at the House of Bengal, but I didn't try it, and I didn't see anyone try it while we were there either. This might be an issue if you want to bring kids to the restaurant.

Any desi establishment has special drinks and House of Bengal was no different. Their beverages, such as the Lemon Mint Tea, or the Mango Lassi, come supersized (something that I approve - you often pay a lot for say a lassi at a regular desi establishment only to get a small glass of it).

We were given a menu, but we were also told since the restaurant was trying out various combinations in the soft opening, the menu wasn't exactly in sync with what was on offer, and also didn't match up to the website. I was looking to see if they had some Bangladeshi seafood dish on offer, but on the owner's recommendation we ordered a kebab platter, which comes with a beef skewer and pieces of chicken breast kebab, some chutney and raita, as well as a small plate of white rice.

The kebabs were flavourful without being spicy. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem too oily, and actually preferred the beef skewer over the chicken.

We also ordered mutton biryani, which was served in a clay pot. It reminded me of a restaurant I had eaten at in Old Dhaka, near Laal Baagh. The biryani carried that Bangladeshi food / Arabic twist fusion concept; it wasn't spicy, but it was definitely flavorful and tasty, and definitely something different compared to the usual Indian/Pakistani biryani. It's not kacchi biryani though.

As for the food, if you go to the House of Bengal, you have to try their biryani. It's what I would call their signature dish, and it is pretty good. The biryani is a bit pricey, but if you order it, I would recommend ordering it with the garnishing (raisins and nuts) as well. It's just about big enough for two people to share (or one really hungry person!).

We also ordered a side of vegetables to go along with it (again, I missed it on the menu, but went on the owner's suggestion). And finally, it was time for dessert, and we ordered some rasmalai.

This was pretty much the best sweet / dessert dish I have eaten in a while - and as you can see their presentation was pretty awesome as well.

Our whole meal cost us about $15 per person. This isn't bad at all for a weekend dining. If you are bringing a date to the House of Bengal, I would recommend the biryani, and kebab rolls in paratha (not the platter), and mango lassi for the same cost, all to share.

The House of Bengal made a positive impression. It was clean, upscale, and the food was decent. I could definitely see it as becoming a "hip" or "trendy" place for young desi folks, especially Bangladeshi youth, to gather. The availability of shisha make its "cooler", and a more happening place.

If I have to suggest room for improvement before their "official" grand opening next year, it would be to have more Bangladeshi dishes, especially some type of seafood. There's a whole bunch of restaurants all over Toronto that have biryani and kebab, and often much cheaper too. If the House of Bengal has something unique going for it - it's the Bengaliness of it. So I would concentrate on kacchi biryani, ilish (Hilsha, boneless), bhuna chingri and other Bengali treats.

Would I go again? Yes, definitely, but I am older, and have a kid - so House of Bengal would be reserved for when it's just my wife and I, and we are in the mood for Bangladeshi fare. So do definitely go and try it out, and if you do, let me know what you think of it via the comments section.

House of Bengal
2183 Danforth Ave.,
Toronto, ON M4C 1K4
Tel: 416-546-6647