Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal found that in certain situations, gray markets can actually help manufacturers and retailers. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

A camera store in Taiwan buys Nikon cameras from an electronics shop in the Philippines, where photo equipment is cheaper. Then the store sells them to consumers in Taiwan at a lower price. The camera comes without a warranty and instructions are in Filipino – the buyers in Taiwan are happy to have a real Nikon for a lower cost.

The sellers and customers are operating in the so-called gray market – where genuine products are sold through unauthorized channels. Gray marketers buy goods in markets with lower prices, then ship them to a market with higher prices, where they will likely sell for a profit. Though the products are identical, consumers typically see gray market goods as inferior since they often lack benefits like after-sale services or warranty coverage.

For years, gray markets have posed a significant threat to both manufacturers and retailers, depriving both of customers and profits. It's estimated that around $7 billion to $10 billion in goods enter the U.S. market through gray market channels every year. The IT industry, for one, loses approximately $5 billion a year due to gray market activities.

No specific laws in the U.S. ban this practice outright, however. As a result, in recent years, retailers are increasingly taking advantage of potentially cheaper prices abroad, personally importing or using third parties to buy original goods not meant for direct sale in the United States – and then selling them here for less. Alibaba, China's most extensive online shopping site, offers its hundreds of millions of shoppers a large array of gray market goods to peruse.

Manufacturers usually respond to gray markets with knee-jerk hostility, urging customers to avoid grey market goods and even filing lawsuits against grey market peddlers. Nikon, for example, includes a website section to educate consumers on how to identify gray market products, to shun the grey market.

But is grey market commerce always destructive? Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal joined then-Rice Business Ph.D. student Xueying Liu (now an assistant professor at Nankai University) to explore scenarios in which gray markets could be good for both manufacturers and retailers. Testing the theory in recent research, Pazgal and Liu found that there are indeed situations in which both manufacturers and retailers can profit thanks to gray markets, while the associated product also improves in quality.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers started by recruiting 118 participants between the ages of 25 and 45 to complete a gray market product survey. They found the majority had no problem buying gray market goods. Only 3 percent of consumers wouldn't consider buying cosmetics from a gray marketer, while 6 to 7 percent wouldn't buy electronics. Despite this, more than 90 percent of participants who were willing to buy required a price discount of 20 to 30 percent, showing the goods were seen as slightly inferior.

The researchers then tested responses to a model of a manufacturer selling a single product to two markets – or countries – that differed in size and in customer willingness to pay for the product. Consumers in one market would pay more, on average, for quality. For example, the Nikon D500 camera is sold for a 7.5 percent premium in Taiwan versus Thailand and a 10 percent price premium in Taiwan versus the Philippines.

Pazgal and Liu found that when the manufacturer sells their product directly to consumers in both markets when there is also a gray market, both the manufacturer's profit and product quality decrease. But when the same manufacturer sells their product indirectly to a retailer in at least one of these markets, both the manufacturer's and the retailer's profits can increase. So can the product's quality.

This occurs for several reasons. First, gray marketers increase total demand and profit for the retailer in the lower-priced market, or in the market where the gray marketer buys their goods. The manufacturer can set a higher wholesale price for the better quality product in a market where consumers pay more, and increase sales in both markets as consumers compare the regular, high-quality product to the gray market one. In fact, by offering a lower-priced, lower quality (that is, gray market) alternative to its own high-quality product, the manufacturer can better segment consumers in the higher-priced market.

Finally, the retailer in the higher-priced market becomes more profitable even though they lose some customers to the gray market. This is because increased product quality and price more than make up for lost sales. Researchers found that the results hold regardless of whether the gray marketer buys from the manufacturer or a retailer.

The bottom line: in certain situations, gray markets can improve profitability for both manufacturers and retailers (and, of course, the gray marketers). Counterintuitive though it is, manufacturers that sell through retailers shouldn't automatically see gray markets as an obstacle to their profits, rushing to demand that governments and courts shut them down. Instead, in some cases, companies could do well to embrace these gray markets, because they lead to overall improved profits.

Manufacturers can use this information to their advantage, Pazgal noted. Nikon, for example, could introduce a higher quality camera to the market, allowing it to set even higher wholesale prices and increase sales in both markets, far exceeding the cost of the higher quality product.

For consumers, meanwhile, gray markets are always beneficial because of lower prices. If companies heed Pazgal's findings, however, customers could also benefit from more innovative and higher quality cameras and other merchandise, as manufacturers hurry to create better products to bump up their profits.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Amit Pazgal, the Friedkin Professor of Management – Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business.

Turns out, timing is everything when launching a new tech product, this reacher found for Rice Business Wisdom. rawpixel.com /Pexels

Rice University researcher discovers what makes a tech product stand out in a crowd

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From smart phones to video games to virtual reality toys, new products roll forward as relentlessly as the tides. So what, and how, should you tell consumers about your product to avoid being swept away in a sea of similar wares?

To answer this question, Rice Business professor Amit Pazgal and colleague Yuanfang Lin of Conestoga College dove into the particulars of how companies differentiate their products by informing consumers about a new product's quality.

The rush of new products, they note, is particularly intense in technology, where innovations are constant — which means consumers constantly need information about them. Traditionally, tech companies make the case for their products using advertising, free sample, product trials and splashy product demonstrations. (See your local Apple Store).

But how does a consumer's wish for information interact with their ultimate buying decision?

Timing, Pazgal and Lin found, plays a powerful role in the type of information that best influences consumers. Suppose, for example, Firm 1 offers a new product, say a smartphone with innovative features. This makes Firm 1 a pioneer. For a certain golden period, Firm 1 might hold a monopoly in the market, since there's simply no other smartphone like theirs. This is the moment, the researchers say, to offer consumers information that reveals the product's true quality and uniqueness. Because no similar product is out there, Firm 1 has the power to establish the parameters for judging its invention.

Inevitably, of course, another company (call it Firm 2) will come up with something comparable. Thanks to the heavy lifting in innovation by Firm 1, Firm 2 has the luxury to create a phone of equal or greater quality. And this is when the tide starts to turn. One might assume Firm 2 would just inform consumers of the superior quality of its product. But, surprisingly, Pazgal and Lin found that in most cases Firm 2 will instead focus on educating consumers about their preference for quality — in effect, leaving it up to the buyer to decide which of the two phones they really wants.

However, if another firm emerges with a similar product of lesser quality, its marketing will likely take yet another turn. Instead of trying to claim better quality, late entry companies offering an inferior product typically admit outright that their product isn't as well made as other versions.

That's because such firms calculate that if customers discover this themselves, they'll react badly. By telling the truth and pricing appropriately, a firm can find a calm stretch of water elsewhere in the market, someplace where it's not clashing directly with the earlier, higher quality products.

Whether it's Alexa, a smart TV or a virtual reality game, Pazgal and Lin explain, when a product enters the market for the first time, consumers need to be shown how it works. When a second product in the same line is introduced by a different company, the marketing task changes: it's now more important to show consumers how to identify a quality product, and then let them choose for themselves.

Any time a company launches a device or service into the world, in other words, it needs to trust consumers' ability to learn — and not drown them with too much information. Informed what good quality looks like, Pazgal and Lin conclude, consumers will swim on their own to the item they truly want.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Amit Pazgal is Friedkin Chair in Management and Professor of Marketing and Operations Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

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Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

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A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Lessons in prototyping: Figuring out the best type of prototype

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As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.