America’s Misguided Missionary Obligation

October 12, 2011

Tom Carter, the author of China: Portrait of a People, sent me a link to a New York Times (NYT) piece, In India, Online Retailers Take a New Tack.

Carter did not suggest a subject for this post, but he did ask that I include the promotional video for his next book with whatever I wrote, and it “rather” fits the topic I decided to write about, which is that most of America may learn something from those Americans that “really” want to do business in China and India.

Besides, Carter’s photos of India are as stunning as those he took of China are.

Vikas Bajaj wrote the NYT’s piece, and we learn that Amazon is moving into India and whatever Amazon’s plans are for entering India’s consumer market, Amazon is not talking.

However, “while dozens of electronic commerce firms have recently sprung up to capitalize on India’s growing Internet use” Bajaj wrote, “they have a problem. Indians are not yet comfortable with shopping on the Web. Many of them remain unwilling to use credit cards online. So the Indian retailers have gone to great lengths to gain customers. Customers may pay in cash on delivery, and the company fields delivery squads to ensure shipments get to customers quickly.”

What we learn from this quote is that cultural differences influence how people shop but culture goes deeper than shopping habits, which is a fact that many Americans do not understand.

In addition, a Blog at Stanford.edu says, “Approximately half of Amazon.com’s revenue comes from outside the United States, according to the company’s Senior Vice President of International Retail, Diego Piacentini. This makes global strategy a key component to the company’s continued success,” and “Amazon aims to be the ‘most customer-centric company on the planet’.”

Then Matt Harvey, who wrote the post for the Stanford Blog, asked, “But what do you build, and how do you act, to make this mean something?”

The answer may come from Amazon’s Diego Piacentini when he said, “When Amazon began doing business in China in 2004, some of the company’s core values came into conflict with traditional business practice.” Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs was quoted in 2010 saying Amazon has competition in China with Taobao.com.

Taobao.com, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, generates estimated annual sales of close to $60 billion—about 75% of all online retail sales in China while, according to Goldman Sachs, Amazon had only $750 million in annual sales in China in 2009 with estimates that Amazon sales in China would increase to $1 billion in 2010. Amazon has a long way to go to catch up with Taobao.

The moral of this story is that Western retailers such as Amazon must learn to do business in other cultures such as China and/or India without attempting to change the people.

They must “start with the customer and work backwards”, which isn’t what most of America’s politicians and religious leaders are doing and the best quote that explains why comes from a Henry Kissinger quote  that I have used before. “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world.”

From what I understand, two of the world’s greatest conquerors, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, knew the key to hold an empire together was not to change other cultures but to allow those cultures to remain unchanged, so why can’t the rest of the West learn from them?

Discover The Importance of Guanxi to Chinese Civilization

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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