A heads up: I’ll be appearing on Fox today: Your World with Neil Cavuto @ 4:10pm EST.
The topics include the 30 Year Bond, Equity Markets Inflation and the Fed, and how this plays out for the rest of the year.
Other guests include David Darst, Chief Investment Strategist of Morgan Stanley, and Bob Millen of the Jensen Portfolio.
We have been watching, with no small degree of skepticism, a stream of improving Macro-economic data. Color us unconvinced. Many of the key releases have been fraught with misleading headlines obscuring much weaker data beneath, and last month was no different. From Inflation to Federal Deficit to Unemployment Rates to Industrial Output to recent GDP…Read More
One for five.
That was my record for tech purchases during the 2004 holiday season.
My wife’s laptop arrived in perfect shape, worked great right
out of the box. That was pretty much where the streak ended — at one. The G5
iMac arrived with a thin pink stripe down the screen. A few calls to tech
support, and it was declared DOA, and shipped back to Apple. The replacement
had a white pinhole in the screen mask (that one pixel is dead for ever — and I didn’t bother to swap that one).
My wireless WiFi 802.11g Router didn’t work (hardware problem). The Bluetooth wireless keyboard had trouble connecting with the computer (but
the wireless mouse was fine). And the 40Gig iPod my wife gave me to replace my
first gen 5Gig iPod was great — but it came without the ordered inscription (Jim Cramer had the same problem).
As disappointing as the order problems were, I had (mostly) good
experiences dealing with tech support on replacing everything. Apple gave me a
choice of replacing or refunding my money on the iMac. A new wireless router
was shipped, along with a tag to send back the old one. They were less
cooperative on the iPod, however, telling me I would need to pay a 10%
restocking fee because I opened it. Perhaps someone at Apple explain to me how
else could I have found out there was no inscription before I opened the box?
These experiences intrigued me – I just had to laugh at 1
for 5 – so I started asking around. What I heard from friends, family, and
several hundred readers from Real Money and Dave Farber’s Interesting People list was that I wasn’t the only one having a
“funky” time with consumer tech orders. More than a few of you had horror
stories, which you gladly shared.
I got quite the earful from you guys. After reading hundreds of
emails (you can see them all here), I discovered a few interesting
things. For a guy with a mostly technical/quant predilection, I did a lot of
pure fundamental research.
This is an admittedly unscientific survey.
Perhaps we can glean
a few tidbits that are applicable to stocks. We might even be able to derive an
investable thesis or two. Indeed, there are a few lessons here for the
companies themselves to learn. With the 2005 holiday season only a few months
away, I wanted to revisit some of these issues that you, the reader, raised
about consumer tech companies this past holiday season.
Here’s what I discovered:
1) Some Productivity Gains Are Illusory
Since the late 90s, output per hour has improved dramatically.
But the measure of productivity is a quantitative one, a numerical reading of
total output per hour worked per employee. The problem with this measurement is
that it relies only upon easily quantifiable data; it ignores the qualitative side.
Example: Many tech companies have outsourced tech support. They now
handle more calls per hour than they were handling previously, and at a lower
cost. That appears terrific – if you rely on the quantitative data. But if my
mail was anything to go by, this cost savings approach is hemorrhaging clients
and damaging hard won reputation. Its approaching what I’d call "anti-productivity."
Outsourcing seems to work better for coding than it does for
telephone customer service banks in the competitive consumer products markets.
I haven’t been able to quantify the exact cost of lost customers versus saved
salaries, but if RM readers complaints are anything to go by, it is quite
All this suggests that at least some of the enormous
productivity gains (quantitative) are perhaps less significant (qualitative)
than we have been led to believe.
2) Dell generates a lot of furious emails
Dell is now the best selling brand of PC. They move so many
units, one has to expect some bad experiences here and there; that’s merely the
law of large numbers. I do not have sufficient data to draw a statistically
reliable conclusion that quality control is an issue for the PC giant. I
have a sneaking suspicion that many of
the issues are Microsoft Windows problems, and not Dell issues — but that’s
another column entirely.
But I was really shocked at how many complaints I heard about
Dell, and how serious the tone was. After you hear the 3rd person tell you “I
will never buy another Dell for as long as I live” — you take notice of it.
These emails were all post holiday season, 2004. More recently,
Jeff Jarvis (of Buzz Machine) had a big problem with his Dell. What’s so
fascinating is that a blogger kvetching about a tech problem has spilled over
into the mainstream to the point where the issue has been overheard in a mall food court.
All this implies to me that Dell’s award-winning service may not
be winning that many awards in the near future.
3) Amazon delights their customers
The overwhelming consensus from shoppers is that Amazon does an
excellent job. People who are customers become repeat customers. This is
reflected in the continued 25% year over year growth of ecommerce. As Amazon’s
most recent quarter reflects, they are doing an outstanding job of attracting
and retaining customers. Ever since my college roomate gave me a gift
certificate in 1997, I’ve been a big fan. A special thanks to the reader who
gave me their public – but very well hidden – customer service number – U.S. and Canada: 1-800-201-7575 !
Also on the big box retail side, Best Buy got very high marks –
while Circuit City did not. A glance at their stock charts reveals that
customer attitudes towards a company get reflected in their share prices.
The lesson for investors is that when you hear a few customers complain
about a given store, pay attention. That doesn’t
mean run out and short the stock instantly — but do not ignore these anecdotal
warnings. At the least, pay attention to what they might be suggesting.