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.

------

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.

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Global electronics manufacturing is changing — and this Houston company is leading the way

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 87

When the pandemic hit, global supply chains across industries were affected, and major corporations and consumers alike continue to be affected — especially when it comes to manufacturing.

In March, General Motors had to shutdown production at three factories due to the global shortage of semiconductors, while gaming systems like PlayStation and Xbox are dealing with a chip shortage that will affect production into next year.

Houston-based MacroFab has a solution. The company has developed a software solution and digital platform to optimize electronics manufacturing by creating a network of factories across North America. The growing business, which was founded in 2013 by Chris Church, saw a setback at the beginning of the pandemic just like most industries. But, Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab, says the company finished last year on track.

"We really reignited our growth in the second half of 2020 just as the economy started to reopen," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had about 100 percent growth in the second half of the year, and that really led to our ability to close our most recent round."

That round — a $15 million series B — was led by New Jersey-based Edison Partners. ATX Venture Partners also participated, along with strategic investor Altium Limited, a leader in the electronics design software space. Govshteyn says that it's an important moment for MacroFab to prove out its solution to manufacturing.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years."

For years, global manufacturers have faced supply chain challenges with tariffs, and the pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns took these challenges to a whole new level.

"Supply chains haven't recovered — if anything, things have gotten worse. It's a perfect storm of customers realizing they have to rethink the way they source products," Govshteyn says.

One of the ways to bring the logistics of the process into the modern era. Some industries, like plastics manufacturing, are already doing this, Govshteyn says, but MacroFab has a huge opportunity within electronics.

"We think everything's going to look like a cloud service in the future. Everything is going to be software-driven, and API-addressable," Govshteyn says. "We're staking a claim to electronics manufacturing being one of those areas — and we're still the only company doing so."

Govshteyn shares more about the manufacturing business and the role Houston is playing on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes

Houston-based MacroFab has created the Uber or Airbnb of electronics manufacturing. Getty Images

Houston electronics manufacturing company gears up for growth

On the line

It takes an unnecessarily long time for electronic devices to get from idea to reality — and much of that is due to inefficiency in manufacturing. Just getting a prototype together takes weeks of back and forth between the engineer and the manufacturer.

"The business model for contract manufacturing hadn't changed in 30 years," Chris Church says. "It was phone calls, emails, going out and playing golf, going to lunch, and negotiating everything endlessly."

Houston-based MacroFab is addressing these antiquated and outdated ways of manufacturing and changing the way electronics manufacturing is done. For its revolutionary work, the company has consistently seen its revenue at least double — sometimes tripling or quadrupling — every year, and projects to at least triple in 2019.

Addressing an underserved market
Church — who has a background in hardware development, specifically within robotics — created MacroFab in 2013 and launched the platform in 2015. Misha Govshteyn joined the board in 2014 and became CEO last summer. The duo co-founded cloud-based security-as-a-service company, Alert Logic, in Houston in 2002.

Using its custom software, MacroFab enables customers to upload their designs through the website, where they can then receive projected timeline and pricing information from the get go. The company has its own manufacturing area in its office for prototypes and small orders, but its network of large manufacturers is a key part of the MacroFab's growth equation.

The company has about 20 manufacturing plants as partners that can pick up manufacturing jobs from MacroFab customers when the plant has space on its lines up for grabs. Rather than let available capacity go to waste, these plants can easily pick up the design and materials to start production.

"It's not dissimilar to what Uber is doing with cars — there's a lot of people with cars that could give you a ride if they knew you were out there," Govshteyn says. "It's that matchmaking function is essentially what we're doing with our customers."

The manufacturing partners benefit from jobs they otherwise wouldn't have, and the MacroFab customers get access to a plant that they didn't have to do the legwork to find. Govshteyn says a he's heard horror stories from people who had orders that were unceremoniously dropped by a manufacturer because another one of its clients just placed a large order.

"That shouldn't happen. If a factory gets too busy, it should be easy enough to take that job and move it somewhere else," Govshteyn says. "But, right now, there's not a way to do that."

Using cloud technology, the MacroFab platform can easily share the design and translate it to any given factory, Church says. They also have a technology that combine smaller orders together so there's no wasted resources, which brings down the cost for the customer.

While usually a company might have to find a new manufacturer as they scale up and start making larger orders, MacroFab customers don't have to start from scratch to find a new plant that can take their order — MacroFab will do the matchmaking for them.

"We've created and are continuing to build a marketplace for excess manufacturing capacity," Church says.

MacroFab owns the customer experience and the sales aspect — ensuring a more positive and consistent experience — while the manufacturers can just take the jobs and go.

Scaling up
The manufacturing marketplace is a newer focus for MacroFab — the company just launched it in beta this year — and is a big proponent of the company's growth. Before, the company was limited to what it could produce in its own factory taking on prototype and small orders. Now, with access to the manufacturers, the company has served 1,700 customers, building 500,000 units for about 4,000 different products. Those figures, Church says, are scaling up so rapidly as they expand to new partners.

"This is the first quarter where more gets produced outside of our factory than inside of it," Govshteyn says. "By this time in Q1, 75 percent of our revenue will [come from outside manufacturing plants.]"

Since manufacturing plants haven't historically collaborated, Govshteyn says the reception from manufacturers has been "cautiously optimistic." But then they realize they are getting customers for free — all they have to do is meet the requirements and deliver on time, he says.

"It's great for them to see that their factory is only half used, but then they can fill it up with jobs from MacroFab," Govshteyn says.

Houston has been a great city for MacroFab with its port manufacturing and logistics, two things Govshteyn says MacroFab is focusing on.

"At the end of the day, we're a manufacturing company, and I think we'll dabble in logistics," he says. "There's a lot worse places to start a logistics-heavy company."

Suitcase company, Tiko, raised $100,000 in its first crowdfunding campaign. Courtesy photo

Texas-based travel brand unpacks stylish and affordable luggage

Wheels up

If Marcus Segui's successful 2016 Kickstarter is any indication, people are looking for innovative ways to make traveling a little easier. With that intention in mind, Segui launched Tiko, a Texas-based travel brand shaking up the industry by providing affordable, beautifully designed, quality luggage to passengers across the world.

On November 1, Tiko rolled into the world with its signature carry-on, priced at $195, and designed to fit in overhead bins (a must for those of us who find baggage fees insulting). Available only online, the company's first bag comes with 360-degree spinning wheels, and is offered in charcoal and gray.

For the Texas-born Segui, the idea for his company was born out of one thing: he travels — a lot. After a career in finance in New York, Segui traveled to Colombia, a trip that ended up lasting three years. "I got a Spanish tutor, found an apartment, and started looking for a way to do business," Segui says. "Before long I linked up with a local investment fund who asked me to launch a real estate company for them."

"Running a business in Spanish was really hard," he jokes, and by the time Segui decided to leave Colombia, he had logged countless flights across South and Central America. The University of Texas grad eventually made his way back to Austin with a busted carry-on in tow.

"After my time in New York and South America, I decided to return to Austin for two reasons: friends and family. Every entrepreneur needs to lean on their network to get a new company off the ground," he says.

And oh how that network helped. Unable to find a carry-on replacement that was both durable and affordable, Segui got the idea for a direct-to-consumer luggage company designed to bypass retailers and thus cut the price point for the luggage in half.

Segui began development on a series of prototypes, eventually landed on Tiko's current carry-on model, and decided to launch a Kickstarter to gauge interest (and funds, of course). The campaign raised over $100,000, allowing Segui to take off with the new company.

In order to move the company into its next phase, Segui assembled a who's who team of tech talent, including former execs from YETI and Airbnb. Earlier this month, the company officially launched its first product from its coworking space headquarters in South Austin.

A few weeks into the new endeavor, it remains to be seen if the public will embrace Tiko, but its launch points to a growing trend: consumers are demanding a different travel experience. Suddenly, people are beginning to question the inconvenient, expensive, and yes, unstylish things that must be endured in order to get from one point to another.

Perhaps one day we'll return to that glamorous apex of airline travel, the time where no one wore pajamas and passengers didn't have to line up like cattle to board the aircraft. Until then, at least we can have nice luggage.

------

This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

biz support

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

self-driving mail

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

guest article

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:

------

Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.