I’m a collector of stories. Stories about family, friends, wishes, dreams, and everything that makes up the human experience. But those stories come to me in a way you might not expect. I’m not a journalist or an anthropologist—I work in the world of global commerce. Part of my job is to interview people from all over the world and listen to what they experience when buying online. In today’s world, that single act—buying goods and services over the internet—encompasses a huge number of aspects of what it means to live on Earth. And so I think of myself as a collector of stories of the human experience.
One of the most important things I’ve learned while doing this job is that global business is really about understanding. And I don’t just mean understanding cultures and business ecosystems and international supply networks. Global business isn’t just a financial transaction—it’s all about understanding people. It’s about the trials and tribulations of the individual in an increasingly globalized world.
Here’s a notable example, one you might find surprising, but one I think can help our understanding of international business. I interviewed a Chinese woman recently who told me about her grandmother. Because of the cultural norms of gender and beauty in China when her grandmother was born, her feet were bound as a child and today she can’t walk. The woman who told me this story also said that during World War II, she covered her face with unattractive makeup and walked with a limp to avoid unwanted attention from men as she walked through the market. So how can these interesting insights into Chinese culture help to inform our understanding of business?
Well, in this example, understanding a cultural history can help to explain certain trends in consumerism. It tells us several things—first, ideas of beauty are deeply engrained in the Chinese culture. It’s important to understand that the assumption that what a Westerner might find attractive (or marketable) might not be the object of desire on the part of Chinese women. Second—and very differently—it describes a culture in the throes of radical social change. Where once women were systematically and radically repressed, now new cultural norms have allowed women to become far more powerful, successful, and socially mobile. This means that there are new market segments emerging with very specific demands. So understanding culture is to understand the customer.
Here’s another example in which history and culture play a big role in the dynamics of online business and global retail. I recently sat down with an executive from a large German shipping company. It turns out that there is a significantly higher rate of returns in German eCommerce than in other national contexts. “Why would that be?” I wondered. “Are Germans harder to satisfy?” He assured me that wasn’t the case. Instead he attributed it to something he termed a “postwar catalog culture.” After World War II, the German transportation infrastructure had been almost entirely destroyed and so the availability of goods in the postwar years was spotty at best. As the Allies rebuilt the roads and rails, shipping became easier and shopping catalogs became ubiquitous. These catalogs offered clothing and household items, usually produced in the allied countries. As a drive to encourage the purchase of things like clothes sight unseen (a familiar state of affairs in the eCommerce age), free returns were included. Because of this interesting historical anomaly, German shoppers today still have fewer qualms about returning merchandise purchased online.
So understanding the culture and history of your target market can go a long way toward understanding shopping habits, potential pitfalls, and all of the intricacies of doing business in a globalized economy. All of this information is out there to be absorbed by those who want an edge in new markets. I like to call this wealth of knowledge the “global voice.” It only takes someone to listen to this voice to tap into its wealth of information and create new opportunities. In the end, as a collector of stories, that’s what I take pride in—listening to the global voice and helping businesses to create a culture of understanding and trust with their customers, wherever in the world they might be.