Monday, 26 September 2011

Toronto Diaries: An Organic Experience!

I happened to visit the Whole Foods grocery outlet for the first time yesterday. I did expect it to have a good range of organic and wholesome food offerings, but what came to me as a 'marketer's delight' was the way Whole Foods has built it's entire shopping experience around its core proposition of 'health via organic living'. 

First of all the grocery store has a very neat, clean and up-class environment to it (as you can see in the picture, it looks more like a cafe than a grocery store). You know that feeling you have when you think of your grocery list? Well you enter this store and you forget that dull feeling, in fact you will feel like you do when you're shopping for your favourite shoes or clothes - that's how pleasant the outlay and environment is. 

You think its a grocery store, but it's more than that. They also have hand made organic material gift section, natural ingredient cosmetics and more than that, they have a health bar - which includes an amazing Salad bar and an international cuisine bar. On the salad bar the board says 'Your Healthy Living Starts Here' 
On Saturday's the store invites you for their 'all you can eat healthy breakfast' - so you can make your Weekend grocery shopping trip a family breakfast time too! Something quite valuable to the busy working lifestyle here. It's also a great way to make your customers more 'organic loyal' by offering opportunities for them to taste and enjoy healthy eating. 

The store has an amazingly aesthetic display for each food section, be it cheese, bakery or sea food! They also have free sampling of their latest bakery or cuisine recipes. 

Another small but impressive difference was that all price tags were 'electronic'. How smart is that! Canadians would know how often stores have deals and sales on here - imagine how much paper and printing is wasted in changing prices over and over again! This is a truly  a 'green' initiative. As I said, I get excited by such things also as a marketer, because I can imagine how easily a brand could keep a check on their displayed prices at Whole Foods using their electronic pricing. I've seen the examples where brands lose out on sales because of mis-pricing by the merchandiser and it only gets detected after the loss has materialised - how often can you go to a store to physically check on each and every price in the aisle? 

When we talk about next generation shopper experience, Whole Foods is definitely one of the retailers bringing a step change! They stand for 'organic' in each and every way they sell their merchandise. Organic food is usually considered expensive to buy but if it is offered wrapped in a value added experience, I can imagine a lot of people feeling happier to invest in healthier food! 

Next weekend if you feel like breakfasting out of home and also have a boring grocery list - Whole Foods is your destination! 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Toronto Diaries - Home Shopping

If you're new to Toronto and looking around for some good ideas for home shoppping, well here's a tip list from my very fresh and recent experience: 

1. The main places for furniture shopping are IKEA, Leons, Bricks and Ashleys. IKEA is perceived to be cheaper and good for quick and practical home set ups, but beware - IKEA with its flimsy finish and quality is usually more pricey than Leons and Bricks - we experienced this mainly when comparing beds and dining tables.

So if you have kids, go ahead with ikea furniture for their bedrooms but for your lounge and master bedrooms, it might be a better idea to check out Leons, Bricks etc. Ashleys is really good too but on the pricier side.

Leons and Bricks seem to have either the same or extremely similar suppliers, because you find the same designs in both places. Leons offers free home delivery  for any thing over USD400 whereas Bricks charges about USD 50 for delivery, no matter how expensive. They usually have great deals on in some seasons so its a good idea to only buy during deals - its definitely worth the wait. If you however you buy something off deal and its put on deal within 30 days of your purchase, you can claim for a refund of the extra amount and they will cater to it.  For that you need to keep an eye on their prices even after you've bought your furniture!

2. So once you're done with the big furniture, you're probably thinking curtains and blinds now. This is a tough one,especially if you've seen better things back home (and especially if your home was Pakistan or India, where beautiful and customised curtains are made at amazingly low prices as compared to the dollar prices you see here). So my first suggestion is, if you can get your drapes made custom made back home (incase you have an excellent cousin, sister or friend who can do that for you and ship them across, or you happen to be going back for a holiday soon - that should be your first option). Because good drapes are found few here. The ones that are even close to good are extremely expensive.

If however you just need very plain, no frills, simple drapes - I'd suggest you get them at Walmart (starting at 20 dollars). If you'd like to get slightly classier ones, then you can get them at Home Outfitters or Sears(starting at 40 dollars) 
If you're going for blinds, then IKEA or Blinds to go - are good options. Blinds are relatively easier to find and cheaper than curtains.

3. Ok drapes done too. What's next? I guess Kitchen and Crockery. Here you won't have trouble looking for options, starting at Walmart and going up to the classiest stores - you'll find good crockery and cooking ware, all price ranges and qualities. My favourite are:

 - Corelle
 - Benix 
 - Home Outfitters

4. Ok done with all the necessary stuff? Now comes the fun part - Home Decor.  Here again you'll find many options but what you must check on your shopping trip are:

- Home Sense
- Home Outfitters
- Pier One (on the expensive side)
- Bouclair (on the expensive side)
- Do NOT shop at IKEA for decor before checking the above out, chances are you're going to regret!

5. Now you're wondering, that's a bunch load of places to visit. So let me give you some good news. There is an outlet store area where you can find almost all of the above stores. This shoppers' heaven is called 'HeartLand' - your ultimate destination for cheaper prices on ALL brands - home or clothing or accessories.

Good Luck Shopping & Settling in :) 

Toronto Diaries - Arts & Culture

I'm going to start a series of posts titled 'Toronto Diaries' which will talk about my experiences in this new city. It seems like 'Google' isn't always a great help when you're searching for the right stuff in a new city. What helps more is word of mouth and that's also hard to find in a city you're new to. 

So I'm hoping information in my posts would help anyone who's new to Toronto (or Mississauga) and for the rest, perhaps you can just enjoy the read !

Well if you're new in Mississauga and do not want to travel to downtown very often for something artsy - whether its an art class, theater show, musical or concerts, one place you'd like to keep a tap on is 'Living Arts Centre'.  Living Arts is conveniently located in the center of the city of Mississauga, very close to the shopping mall 'Square One'   Living Arts is an amazing place where cultural, community and art activities taking place all year round. Currently they are holding a range of workshops and courses including, Theater Classes, Pottery, Hot Glass Sculpting, Wood Sculpting, Oil Painting, Drawing, Dance and Creative Writing. 
They have exclusive studios for each of these courses; the studios are fully equipped with all kinds of tools and machinery required for the craft. Class sizes are usually small (12-15 persons) so individual attention is given to each learner. All class times and fees can be found on their website! I'm attending the oil painting class and loving it so far!  Living Arts also stages musicals, so Mama Mia is coming up in November. Recently they staged an amateur theater, Anarkali - so you can expect ethnic performances as well. Last month one evening was dedicated to Mehdi Hassan, where one of his trained pupils from Pakistan performed Mehdi Hasan's popular ghazal songs. 

Another place you might like to check out for Art courses is Visual Arts Mississauga; they have a similar course offering and slightly less expensive fee structure. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Morning Shows or Naach Gaana?

Turn on GEO or ARY at 9am in the morning and you see a pastry face woman glad in a perfect wedding attire, dancing, singing and doing crazy things. That's definitely not what I like to wake up to! Many years ago, morning shows used to be informative, decent, inspiring, and an interesting start to your day. Recently however they have become one hour long fillers for lack of quality entertainment. The host is more concerned about what what she thinks, how she looks, how she dances, than about the views of the guest invited to the show. The guest is forced to dance and act crazy like the host on an indian song. After a lot of haahaa, hee hee, hoo hoo - the show ends adding no value to the audience.  

It just leaves me bewildered that Pakistani show presenters have no talent at all - even the singing and dancing is not worth seeing and hearing (I'd rather sing in the bathroom myself than hear them). Is there no criteria for hiring these plastic women? Is there no training provided on what a morning show format should look like? Operah Winfrey has been a legendary talk show host and I hardly saw her getting up to sing and dance on her own show! It was all about the guest, about their life and about experiences. Although that isn't what a morning show can be compared to, but that definitely is the kind of show any talk show in general can be inspired from. Even the Sahir Show (failed imitation of Shahrukh Khan and Koffee with Karan) isn't any different from his sister's (Shaista Wahidi) morning show. I watched the show yesterday and almost half the show time was spent in Sahir trying to show off how well he can sing (which he was quite average at) , when the guest was a well known singer! Imagine that - trying to show off your pathetic singing skills before a professional pop star! The rest of the show was about dancing on a famous Amitabh Bachan song and the little talk on the show was also about 'how many Bollywood stars had the guest met in on his visit to India and what they said to him etc.' - how complexed are we? 

Confessions of a Confused Patriot

Scientists once conducted an experiment: They put a frog in a tub of water that had a burner underneath. Gradually they kept increasing the heat by fraction of a degree everyday. Every day the frog's body adapted to the increased temperature. They still kept on increasing the temperature up to a point where normally a frog would jump out of the water not bearing the heat, but because it was done little by little everyday, the frog did not feel the difference and its body kept adapting.
Then one day the frog died. 
It died because it should have died in the first place. It died because if you had put a frog into this temperature out of fresh air, it would have jumped out in the first place. 
This one did not act immediately, but died eventually - like the people of Pakistan, because the burner was raised so gradually that we learnt to live with burners like bomb blasts like we drink tea everyday."

Since childhood I have been a true patriot, always very passionate about my homeland, its economic and political situation and with undying urge to serve my country. Then something happened - I moved out of Pakistan for work and spent almost 4 years out of the country. Also, I left at a very crucial time, before the fall of the Musharraf military rule, before the Lal Masjid operation, before the Judiciary strike, before the Benazir killing, before Mr. 200% percent (the most hated man in Pakistan right now, Asif Ali Zardari) came to power, before power shutdowns became a nightmare, before the floods happened - I left at a time when Musharraf was still considered to be doing better than most other governments before. I visited often but that did not spoil my cherry-eyed image of my country. It was not until 2011 when I moved back to Pakistan, that I realised how much this country had deteriorated over the past few years. I had heard about it, but I had not believed it until I saw it for myself. The divide in the rich and the poor is at its worse, the common man is at his worst economically, socially and medically. The recent floods have brought so much more contamination to the country, there are more people dying of Dengue right now than of chronic illnesses.  

However, been born in raised in Pakistan, and being from the fortunate 10% who can still manage to afford generators, sweet water tankers and petrol at the sky rocket prices,  I managed to settle back in. But I did forget, although I was lucky enough to provide basic needs and basic entertainment for myself in Pakistan - I could not imagine to feel as liberated, as care free and find opportunities as easily as I could while living abroad. But this part of the equation only hit me when I moved out again (just last month) and came to Toronto. Landing in Toronto, I saw such amazing social infrastructure, offering such easy access to learning, training, entertainment and that too without any security or social threat - that it almost felt like I was breathing again! There are free libraries and community workshops, there is free assistance in language training and job hunting for new immigrants; one can walk out of their home anytime, without having to worry if your clothes look great (referring to the condition of the Pakistani elite right now), or that the neighbour's security guard is going to stare at you as if he had encountered a rare species. 

Its sad, and I confess, I am not the frog that was in the pond, I am the frog outside the pond that jumped in, felt the heat and jumped back out again!

As a native, I am still all for doing something to improve the situation for Pakistan, but I don't think I can be happier just living there as a dormant part of the problem.

P.S: While I confess the above, I still stand by the firm belief that Pakistan is a young country with problems of its age and additional problems due to constant international interference and dependence. I still believe that terrorism is not a problem we invented for ourselves but a problem that was shoved onto us for 'someone elses' global agenda (call me a conspiracy theorists but conspiracies are an exaggerated version of some lurking truth underneath). I still believe that media does blow Pakistan out of proportion, not because they show the bomb blasts that rightly take place in the country, but because they fail to show what 'else' (good) happens with our budding youth. (Reference to my earlier post: Re-Launching Brand Pakistan)

The 2996 (more important?) Deaths...

Observing the recent 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I felt grieved and saddened for this was perhaps one of the most shocking and heartbreaking global event over the past many decades. At the same time, I also felt deceived and ignored, a lesser human being, a less important race in humanity - because in my country (the much talked about, Pakistan) there are on average 2-3 bomb blasts, drone attacks or target killings every month and the  death toll is in multiples of what was at the twin towers - but no one mourns that. In Africa, more children die of contaminated water than of bomb blasts in my country, but we live with that as a given. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, foreign military forces are guilty of killing innocent civilians, also in multiples of the number that was killed on 9/11, but no one mourns that. 

Mourning 9/11 is natural, but glorifying it beyond exaggeration and documenting the life histories of those 2996 families as if those were the only families who have had to survive without a father, a brother, a mother or live to see their children die, is almost discriminatory and racists. Yes racist - just like bullying homosexuals is considered so in most parts of United States. Being so sensitive towards 2996 deaths and so insensitive towards the other, greater number and perhaps more devastating deaths, does not sound fair either. Honestly, there are more people fighting for of minority genders and school bullying victims than the deaths of innocent civilians in Middle East, South Asia and Africa.  

I think Americans need to grow out of their self-pity glorification and look around at how privileged they are as compared to the rest of the globe. At least their children get free education, social protection and life long healthcare if they do not have a bread earner in the family. Yes, that's what a starved, abused,  poor orphan on the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Palestine would think! 

Dragons Den for Pakistan?

Recently I've been watching 'Dragons Den' again on TV, a reality show where small and up start entrepreneurs are given the chance to present their business plans to rich investors and raise capital to expand their venture. It reminds me of my MBA days when we used to present academic business plans to our jury and get trashed and grilled on what we thought was a well thought out plan.

I was wondering, and I doubt that we have something like this in Pakistan. We have been very proactive in copying the 'american idol' and 'indian dance divas' which has brought forth a lot of hidden singers / actors and dancers and that might have helped a few fortunate individuals to embark onto a career and support their families but it hardly goes on to help improve lives beyond one family in the short term. Also, not that I am against performing arts (in fact I'm quick a fan), I do think it is important to attract talent towards other fields as well because in the arts and talent industry only a small percentage becomes successful. That's just the nature of the field, most artists only become legends after years and years of consistent hard unpaid work and that doesn't help raise their families or school their children but a small hot-dog stand stand can give you cash starting from the first day. I use the example of a hot-dog stand because given the unemployed numbers in Pakistan, many would even value being able to just do that if they could just raise a little bit of start-up cash and many mobile food shops turn out to become big cafe's in a few years, so there is a good possibility to get bigger with a small business like that. 

The good thing about something like Dragons Den is that it closes the gap between the 'good ideas not so wealthy people have' and the 'capital and experience big investors have' . When an individual gets approved for investment by 'dragons' in this show, he/she is able to start up a business which will usually be scalable across cities or the entire country and that not only makes a living for the entreprenuer but also for all the people employed in the value chain. It bridges the gap of not only capital but also experience, training and mentorship because when a 'dragon' (investor) invests in one of these business ideas, they also hold a stake of the company and agree to provide hands-on guidance to the budding entrepreneur. At times two or more investors join in which brings more capital and experience to the table.

I have followed a few success stories of 'Dragons Den' which have led backyard businesses to reach out across borders! This is indeed very encouraging and perhaps one of the best ways to create jobs in the current post recessionary environment.

Economic Development cannot take place without the flow of cash from the rich to the struggling and the transfer of skills and knowledge to a greater deprived population. If we start Dragons Den in Pakistan, I can imagine philanthropic business tycoons like Razzaq Dawood and Syed Babar Ali also finding a structured channel for boosting social capital and growth for Pakistan in the shorter and longer term, because its not every day that you can build something like LUMS

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Back to School!

So there is this whole 'back to school' phenomenon here in North America that I'm experiencing for the first time. Everyone's just blabbing about it, from a pencil to a car, everything is on a 'back to school' promotion and deal. I'm reading moms posting messages on facebook about how 'bullying' is uncool and literally every TV commercial talks about back to school. Its not like I haven't seen 'back to school' happening back home, I mean every country has this post summer phase when kids get into new grades with new uniforms, and new books, stationery etc. We have ourselves experienced this excitement too as kids but what makes me smile and kind of laugh time and again is how 'big a deal' it is over here (in a good sense). 

The only thing that disturbs me though is how back to school advertising from clothing brands focus on the 'cool' or 'uncool' school wear and how they emotionally seduce moms to buy their kids new wardrobes so that they do not face self esteem issues when they go back to school this year. At the same time this part of the world experiences more bullying issues at schools which I think is somewhat also fueled by not having uniforms in school. By not having uniforms you're opening a whole new opportunity of discrimination, finger pointing, prejudice, increased self indulgence and consumerism among kids. Whats even more ironic is that its the public schools which do not have uniforms (most of the private ones do), whereas you have more children from the middle class and immigrant backgrounds studying in public schools. Being an immigrant is in itself sometimes food for bully-ism; so to add to your different colour, you now have your dress sense or money (or the lack of it) add to the diversity overdose in schools. 

As they go to the next grade with perhaps more books and heavier curriculum, the last thing I would want my kid to worry about is his/her clothes and whether or not they look cool enough for school. And it doesn't just stop at clothes you know, its all those accessories that go with it (and for girls the list is never ending). I think when it comes to student life, I like the old school thought from back home in south asia where people think strictly about exams, sports, extra-curricular and activities that add to your character and not more. Our schools did not even allow us to have a different coloured or fancy pony tail, let alone anything else. And I think that really kept us from being distracted by our or other students' appearances.

I think there is at least one element that needs to be removed from this whole 'back to school' phenomenon in the media, and that would be the 'wardrobe'. 

p.s this is what you get when you type 'back to school' on you tube (just notice the order and you'll understand my point).