The Five Least Business-Friendly Practices in Taiwan

The Five Least Business-Friendly Practices in Taiwan
Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像

What you need to know

If Taiwanese businesses want consumers’ respect, they need to earn it. Playing it cheap and chanting 'cha bu duo' has never worked, and it never will.

Living in Taiwan means being a customer in Taiwan. We are all diners in restaurants and cafes, shoppers in local markets and department stores, and riders in taxis and public transport.

But live here long enough and you will realize that spending money here is not always a positive experience. Unfortunately, businesses of all types consistently drop the ball when it comes to being original, creative and innovative.

Here are five ways Taiwan’s businesses disappoint:

1. Hey, it's good enough!

Can you guess the three-word phrase that Taiwanese businesses love to say the most? No, it’s not “I love you,” you romantic fool. It’s cha bu duo (差不多), which means “almost” or “good enough.”

Take Kavalan whiskey, the award-winning homegrown whiskey brand owned by King Car, which also owns Mr. Brown Coffee.

Kavalan has a fantastic product, there is no doubt about it. But have you ever stepped inside a Kavalan retail store? Or visited the Kavalan distillery in Yilan? There is very little that is “world-class” about either experience.

At a now-closed Kavalan storefront on Xinhai Rd — currently a Mr. Brown cafe — they sold the parent company’s frozen fish brand in freezers just a couple of feet away from the Kavalan whiskey display. Likewise, you can find Kavalan sold at many Mr. Brown cafes throughout the city. Imagine this page on their website as a retail space.

And if you have been to the Kavalan distillery in Yilan, compare it with the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka. I have been to both. It is hard to imagine Yamazaki with a year-round Christmas tree — complete with flashing lights — in their tasting room like Kavalan does.

If you are a fan of Kavalan, you have to assume the company simply does not care about its physical stores. There is no vision, and there is definitely no allocated budget. You wonder, what is so hard about giving a crap? But apparently, for many Taiwanese companies cha bu duo translates to hakuna matata.

The promising news is there are a few Taiwanese companies that actually strive for excellence. SunnyHills is a great example. Everything about how the SunnyHills business is run, to how you feel when you step inside their stores in Minsheng Community and overseas simply oozes quality and care.

Another is Gogoro. Their mission is not to steal incremental market share from Taiwan’s legacy scooter brands. They actually want to change the way people travel and make a positive impact as a company. So it has been fantastic to see more of their shiny experience centers popping up around town this past year, and even more of their scooters on the streets.

2. Shameless copycats.

Speaking of SunnyHills, the majority of Taiwan’s pineapple cake brands now make a pineapple cake that is 100 percent pineapple. Just like SunnyHills does. Previously, they used wintermelon. And they have also adopted the chunky brick shape SunnyHills made famous. Coincidence?

Shameless copycatting is a sad part of Taiwan’s business landscape. When one business strikes it rich, you can count on its clones to come out of the woodwork with logos that look uncomfortably similar. In a market as small as Taiwan’s, I guess you have to take it as a compliment.

A recent example is the niche category of parenting cafes, or cafes that cater to young families. When Moooon Spring Cafe & Play opened in Neihu in 2013, there was nary a parenting cafe in Taipei. Less than two years later, there were more than 50. You would think it was gold rush season. But all that happened was one business started doing exceptionally well, so other people wanted to strike it rich, too.

The funny thing is all of these cafes are vying for the exact same market — parents in Taipei with children under six. And the birth rate in Taiwan is still one of the lowest in the world. With such an over-saturated market, Moooon Spring & Play made the decision to close shop a few months ago. No doubt more than a few of its copycats will be following suit.

Considering this deeply ingrained clone culture, props need to be given to Taiwanese companies with genuinely original concepts. One success story is Cama Cafe, a local coffee franchise that is doing its own thing and killing it. How? When a dozen competitors were busying copying Starbucks, the creators of Cama had the confidence to look the other way.

3. Hideous design.

Exhibit A: The Taipei Times website. Exhibit B: The various websites of Ten Ren Tea Company. Exhibit C: The Eslite website.

I could call out a dozen more Taiwanese companies that desperately need to be reminded it is 2016 — not 1996.

4. Unwillingness to adapt.

One of the things I love doing on this site is interviewing young Taiwanese designers and sharing their work. But a couple of times, I have wondered to myself, are they still going to be in business in 12 or 18 months? The reason: they do not know how to sell.

No, I do not mean go door-to-door. I mean set up an online store, have a pricing strategy, figure out inventory, fulfillment and customer service. I can think of two small businesses featured on this site who at the time of publication, did not have a way for people to purchase their items online. When asked, “How much does it cost and where do people buy it,” one business didn’t respond, and the other said, “Tell people to email us.”

What could be the reason for this? Is it resistance to change? Unwillingness to venture outside of their comfort zone? Or flat-out denial that there’s room for improvement?

I am reminded of the traditional Chinese medicine shops in Dadaocheng that have not changed a bit in over 100 years. While the times have changed, their customers have changed, and the area where they are located has changed — they have stubbornly stayed the same.

How do they plan to survive for another year, let alone another 100? It looks like this renovated medicine shop in Wenshan District is the only one with a plan. Perhaps now other medicine shops will copy and renovate too.

5. Employees don’t come first.

Din Tai Fung. Love it or hate it, it is the king of Taiwanese brands. What I mean by that is it has a name, business and product that is widely recognized, universally respected and replicated to perfection throughout Taiwan and overseas.

CEO Warren Yang (楊紀華) visits all six Taipei stores daily, and the company spends about half of its annual revenues on salaries and benefits for his 1,000-strong team. Why? He says, “If you want happy customers you need to have happy staff.”

Other Taiwan businesses? Not so much. No one is fighting Din Tai Fung for the title of "Best Taiwanese Company to Work For." Taipei’s workforce is typically considered to be underpaid, overworked and miserable.

It all funnels up to the problem of brand. At the base, there is the product. Then there is the experience. And at the top, the brand. When the base layers are strong, you have a brand that’s set up for long-term success. When they are weak, the brand stagnates.

But above all else, brands are only as good as the leaders who run them. If there is no vision, no long-term strategy, no respect for the employees who keep the business humming, it is all meaningless.

If Taiwanese businesses want consumers’ respect, they need to earn it. We are all rooting for them to succeed. But playing it cheap and chanting cha bu duo has never worked, and it never will.

Tricky Taipei has authorized publication of this article. The original text is published here.

Editor: Olivia Yang