Batuhan: Who moved the cheese?

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By Allan S. B. Batuhan

Foreign Exchange

Sunday, June 15, 2014


BEFORE there was China, there was Scotland. Ages before the emergence of India, there was Italy. And a long, long time before the Philippines, there was the United States.

What are we talking about here?

The peculiar, kidney-shaped patterns that we see printed on our fabrics are called paisley. The diamond lozenge designs that adorn our socks are called argyle. That is because at the turn of the 20th century, the city of Paisley and the county of Argyle in Scotland were located in what was then the textile center of the world—the corridor that runs from the north of England to the west of Scotland. Long before the mills of China started the looms that would make almost all of the clothes that we wear today, the mills of Paisley and Argyle were providing the very same function. Today, we still wear paisley ties and argyle socks – only this time they are probably from Shanghai and Tianjin, rather than Paisley and Argyle.

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In the 50s and 60s, makers like Aprilla, Benelli and Piaggio were what people associated with good quality scooters. In fact, there was nothing else that came to mind when scooters were the topic of conversation. Then in the 70s, the Hondas, Yamahas, Suzukis and Kawasakis came to dominate the scene. Every one and his son had one. Japanese was all the rage.

Today, brands like Hero (India), KYMCO (Taiwan) and Bajaj (India) dominate the scene.

So much so that KYMCO claims to sell more scooters in Italy than the Italian brands sell in their own country. Moto Aprilla enthusiasts, who take pride in their retro scooters worth hundreds of thousands of pesos will squirm in their saddles when they hear this, but it is true: Italy does not make scooters for the world anymore.

K-Mart, JC Penney, Sears and their kind started the catalogue shopping craze way back in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, people shopped from huge and heavy catalogues, for everything from cereals and jacket potatoes, to coats and men’s jackets. One simply had to dial a 1-800 number, speak to a friendly operator on the other side, and in a matter of days, the item of one’s choosing will be shipped to his or her address.

No fuss, no hassle, no long queues. Just shopping at its most convenient.

Today, these iconic catalogue stores are no more. In their place stands the behemoth of retailing called Amazon.com. And for those who prefer the traditional bricks and mortar store, there is the equally hulking behemoth called Walmart. Both sell convenience, albeit in different forms. And both require an army of call center agents to answer queries, take orders, route returns, and field complaints from their customers.

In years past, these banks of phones and their operators would be located in places like Houston, Texas. Today, they would probably be somewhere in a Manila, Philippines.

Our country has become informally known as the call center capital of the world, thanks in no small part to our facility for speaking better English compared even to those who invented the language themselves.

Things change, cheeses move—as the famous business book “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson would euphemistically say. But Scotland, Italy and the United States are doing quite well by all accounts, long after the industries they once dominated have moved on elsewhere.

But what about the Philippines? Now we are enjoying our heyday as the world’s leading contact center. But we all know this is not going to last forever. This cheese, too, will move.

Will we be ready when the time comes? Or, like the characters Hem and Haw in the iconic book, will we be lamenting “Who Moved My Cheese?” when the time comes for us to move on?

(http://asbbforeignexchange.blogspot.com & http://twitter.com/asbbatuhan)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on June 16, 2014.

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