The Breakfast Table

Hong Kong and the Limits of E-Commerce

Air travel is a horror. But still, how amazing! I mean, to get on a plane at 10 p.m. in New York on a Thursday night and, 22 hours later, hop off in Hong Kong–where it’s 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, I’m sorry, call me Amish, but how cool is that! I’ve been thinking a lot about our trip and the amazing Place of the Future that is Hong Kong …

The thing that I think will totally mess up businesspeople when they consider Hong Kong and, to a different degree, the rest of China, is the extent to which e-commerce–and the Net–will catch on. It’s the classic fool’s trap that every businessperson from Marco Polo on has made when considering the gigantic potential market of China.

Again, it’s easy to leap to the wrong conclusions when you wander around Hong Kong and see how wired everyone is. So many cell phones! Groups of people out on the town, and rather than talking to each other, each was engaged in a cell-phone conversation with someone else. It seemed like we were never more than 10 paces away from a street-side stall selling cell phones, service, or accouterments. I’ve never seen such customizing of digitalia: It made me want to buy one (since you made me get rid of our old, useless one!) just so I could “personalize” it with one of those translucent antennas with the lightning bolt inside. People customize their phones in Hong Kong the way bus drivers personalize their vehicles in Mexico. Fringe, medallions, blinking lights. Remember the teen-age girls talking into phones that were buried inside Winnie the Pooh covers?

Now, imagine when all those cell-phoners start browsing the Web through their smart phones …

Shopping is the culture of Hong Kong, and add the Net to it, you figure, and you’ve got a trillion-dollar opportunity–but you’d be wrong. The thing about shopping here is it’s a social activity, a reason to get out of your tiny apartment. Didn’t we hear that HK is the most crowded place on the planet? That’s why e-commerce will never catch on: It provides a “solution” to a nonexistent problem. People want to leave their desks and their apartments, indeed, they have to if they want to see each other. The Net will never catch on there the way it has here.