Archive: industry

Labor Costs and Service Prices in the US economy: hidden flexibility?

Travelling through the US once again and hearing comments about the recession every day, I was struck by the elasticity of US business once again. As much as the business climate is intoxicating to the point of being hectic in boom times, as seen in 1999/2000 and once again in 2007, in bear times everything gets very gloomy.

I was riding in a cab in Las Vegas headed to CES and for once in the habit of European cab fares I forgot to tip the cab driver. He commented “You Europeans never tip, do you?”. After paying the due tip, I reflected on how dependent employees in all services industries were on tips for their regular income. I also noticed that tipping behavior on the part of Americans differed strongly from what I had experienced just 6 months ago on my last extended trip to California. People now, out of need or out of fashion, were downright stingy. Given that such large portions of the US economy are service based, I could not help but wonder how that had the same effect as a wage cut in many of these industries. At the very least, it shows that employers, who deflect part of the necessity of paying market wages to the culture of tipping and its encouragement in the policies of their businesses, thereby have an instrument to reduce and flexibilize their labor cost. In boom times employees earn more from tips and in bust times they earn less without the employer having to enforce wage cuts. This benefits the employer because he remains at his (low) wage cost basis, keeps his prices stable and lets the customer reduce tips if he feels he needs to. Since tips are part of the price structure of using a service, this means that lower tipping amounts to a deflation of service prices from the point of the customer. Thus, in a way, the business owner is leaving part of the pricing to the customer who can deflate the price he pays at will if his pockets are tied – as is the case in a recession.

Now while this, from a European perspective, could be perceived as an unfair advantage the business owner has in his relation to employees and customers, it could also be described as an “entrepreneurial risk” of the employee. Employees that commit particularly well to the service they are a part of and endear themselves to customers will invariably in good or bad times reap better tips from the customers. An employee who does well will probably convince a business owner to give him the responsibilities (assigned tables, assigned services) that will have the highest likelihood of earning him tips. One can already observe that some businesses compete on a labor market by installing policies that encourage tips.

A hamburger chain called Fat Burger places a small tip box next to a big tip box at the cash register and each time a larger tip is paid into the so called “fat tip box” the cashier yells out “FAT TIP!” and all other employees chime in yelling “FAT TIP!” as well.

As ludicrous as a discussion of the macroeconomic effect of tipping might seem at first glance, the impact on the US economy must be sizable. Considering the service industry is a 10s of billions of dollars segment of the economy and that average tipping is between 10 and 20 % of a purchase, tipping could well amount to several billion dollars in the economy. Adding or subtracting billions of dollars of volume to the price structure of the service industry could in turn have stronger than imagined effects on inflation and deflation, as well as on purchasing power in low income segments of the population.

As I am not an economist, I will leave the discussion at that, but I sure would find it interesting to know if this has ever been explored academically.

What is Web 3.0 ? (revisited)

As always, that’s a difficult discussion. First of all it’s important to remember that “Versioning” the web is initially a marketing trick, albeit a powerful and a valid one. It does make sense to try to assess the pace and scope of change in and through the Digital Revolution. In our internal discussions at http://www.denkwerk.com we differentiate the technical, the social and the business levels of analysis. Our very broad clusters are as follows:

Web 1.0:
It is particularly inexact to retroactively dub the pre-2004 era as „Web 1.0“, since that is a rather vast period of time which underwent different phases in itself. When did it start? With Tim Berners-Lee & the appearance of Mozilla in 1993? With the first Social Network (sic!), the Well, in the 1980s?, With the ARPANET in 1968?

Tim O’Reilly coined “Web 2.0” as a call to reconsider the then ruling technical paradigms and the generalized underestimation of the social and economic impact of the internet in post-bubble headache times. But the 90s, the bubble, and 2001 – 2003 constitute a wild rollercoaster of different developments. In our view in short:

Technology:
The first simple websites evolved to more and more interactive, from static to dynamically generated, from handcrafted to cms-driven, from pure media to more and more transactive, and these vast increases in value remained through independently of the vast hyperbole of expectations that the New Economy and Irrational Exuberance engendered. In software paradigms though, simple web development and early script-based architectures and languages were supplanted by Enterprise Application thinking, the advent of web services, and the JAVA Revolution. After 2001, you were a wimp if you stuck to PHP.

Social:
Mostly Early Adopters went from discovering the web and portals as sources of information to accepting shopping, then dating and other increasingly interactive services and transactions.
The Internet, however, was never “lean-back”, a prerogative of TV.

Business:
The only really working business models (at high volumes) were
a) lead generation for existing brick and mortar business (“click and mortar”)
b) Online Advertising (mostly banner, after 2002 more and more search engine marketing)
c) E-Commerce (online sales, B2C or B2B )

BTW: Many ideas that now resurface in Web 2.0 were imagined just then, but failed because user behaviour and markets weren’t there yet. We founded http://www.oneview.com as a very early precursor of deli.cio.us, for example.

Web 2.0:
Somewhere around 2003, disgruntled entrepreneurs, the aforementioned PHP Wimps, the Linuxites, and others started reforming and having Galilean Moments („eppure si muove“ – “and the Earth does rotate”). That is what O’Reilly picked up at his conference in Fall 2004 when he coined Web 2.0.

Technology:
On the technology side, Web 2.0 can be oversimplified by describing it as a set of new or renewed technical paradigms:

a) the return of scripting and DHTML.
b) AJAX and the transformation of websites into dynamic applications
c) much faster development speed, prototyping
d) APIs and total interoperability of all digital services (mashups, microformats etc..), the rebirth of standards
e) the end of the concept of “the site”, with functionalities spreading across converging media (web, mobile, TV) instead

Social:
a) You Are Not Alone:
If “Web 1.0” was all about discovering the potential of interactive services, then Web 2.0 is the discovery of the Fellow Users, of the immense potential of finding online people that you can share interests and needs with.

b) You Can Do Things Together / User Generated Content:
New Web 2.0 tools let the vision of the web as a collaborative platform slowly become true: every type of content can be shared, discussed, rated, and messaging allows constant and instant, but also deferred and intermittent interlocution with other users (networking, messaging, Blogging, co-shopping etc…).

c) Mashup Everything / User Generated Functionalities:
The combination of different services, information, and functionalities that the technical paradigm shift of web 2.0 makes possible opens a whole new set of possibilities for networked and collaborative behaviour on the web that creates value from the wisdom of crowds and the knowledge of the few.

Business:
a) Businesses are under pressure and with the opportunity of adapting to the fact that the consumer / customer has an increasingly wide, reliable, and truthful range of sources of information and first-hand experiences with any given product.
b) Creating customer communities becomes increasingly relevant as a business factor. This increases the demand on long-term accountability and trustworthiness of business institutions
c) In the same vein, Business and Media monopolies on information and broadcasting power are dwindling with the advent of increasingly differentiated access to the opinions and knowledge of customers and the creation of increasingly valuable User Generated Content and Community-Based or Collaborative Functionalities. This doesn’t mean a perfect world of truthfulness, but it certainly shifts power to the customer.
d) an open question is by whom and how is this information power, the interlinking of customers, and the long tail of business, going to be aggregated, thus creating the next Googles?
e) On the long tail of business, even the most absurd niche markets can network worldwide, thus creating market volume until now completely untapped.

Web 3.0:
We don’t really need a new term – but it is clear that versioning will somehow be inflationary, since it is such a nifty marketing tool. So we might as well tackle the definition now (and secure some mind share early on, hehe).

In our view, Web 3.0 describes where the different patterns and revolutions might lead to. Think “minority report”, “Neuromancer”, “Matrix”, for early paradigms (not literally of course, we’re between 30 and 1000 years away from that). It is hard to describe and open for discussion, but we see the following trends:

Technology:
a) Interoperability and total convergence of all media and networks to form the Evernet
b) The End of The Site: Functionalities can be used by any user on any device in any network.
c) Everything is mashed or modular or snippeted or microformatted, so that a search on your handheld will deliver a topical article, four experts, seven alternative topical products to be ordered along with their ratings and reviews, three according services and information about what your friends or respected contacts think about the topic, all in one fell swoop.

Social:
a) The rise of the „Digital Boheme“ – in a No Man’s Land between employment, freelance and artistic lifestyle, everyone on the web can “market” whatever talents he has, whenever and however much he wants.
b) Thus, “virtual environments” will play a much bigger role in determining the social status of an individual much more than his geographic environment used to. In other words, the lost liberal hippie tech geek living in, say, Oklahoma suddenly gets a life and recognition – that’s one of the reasons for the hype about Second Life.
c) Thus a) and b) become more and more determining for the identity of the individual – with all due consequences
d) Technology and the networking of individuals and their expertise will lead to an increasingly efficient tapping of the Deep Web (that has been building up since 1974), thus creating a “semantic and human web”, where searching and finding delivers increasingly complex results, ranging from data / documents to Evernet functionalities and sites, to experts and interest groups and events.

Business – we call it VIRAL SOCIAL COMMERCE
In the virtual worlds of the web 3.0 or Evernet, every individual will get a much fairer share of his or her social and economic status. If until now, the consumer was an object of the economy, he increasingly becomes a an active element in every one of his areas of expertise and interests. (Someone who is into handmade puppets from the Münsterland [a region of Northern Germany] can connect to fans of handmade puppets worldwide an be recognized as an expert and set up business selling access, expertise, or even the puppets themselves – if he chooses to do so).

We could call it the Ebaying of life – but the differences to the Ebay model are:

a) it expands virally along social network lines
b) it is not focused on price, and probably not even profit-oriented, but is a blend of social and economic rewards that triggers individual behaviour
c) it is in an elementary sense democratic, with almost any space for very individual definitions of success and lifestyles.
d) thriving in such environments will require new business, communication, and marketing models in almost any industry.

In Science Fiction, the various visions of the emergence of a web interlinking society almost invariably include that web become a determining factor of social and economic status in the real world. We aren’t that far away from that, even if reality always tends to be mundane. What is almost certain is that already today, the web liberates the individual even from very difficult forms of seclusion, allowing him to overcome niche market intransparency and increase his social and economic impact in society.

What we are doing at sevenload (http://www.sevenload.com), itravel (http://www.itravel,de), oneview (http://www.oneview.com) and Qype (http://www.qype.com) is working toward that vision.

Join us, discuss, hire in, let’s create the tools of this evolution step by step!

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