The Traffic Jam Market

The Economic Times 30 April, 2007

There is a whole new market opportunity that threatens to grow for the next five years, and become a big money spinner - the commuting market. More and more people in more and more cities, are stuck in ever increasing traffic and commuting longer and longer hours each day. The fact that there are a lot of unfulfilled consumer needs is glaring at us, and the suppliers haven't even got there yet! This market is up for grabs for anyone who has the competence to translate these needs into crafting imaginatively designed and distributed products that can make the customer's life better.

Many of these are people who are money rich, time poor and travel by car. A wonderfully well focused target group that cuts across gender, age and occupation, this is a marketer's dream come true! What's more, it is a 'guaranteed to grow' need segment! With such a large car population, and forecasted to grow, there will be more jams on the road as we will all gingerly get our vehicles out there on the scarce road, in the great Indian tradition of what is best described by the Kannada phrase "solpa adjust maadi".

If the car market isn't attractive enough to those looking for larger numbers and mass markets, there is the top tier bus market too - rich kids school buss market, Volvo and contract and private city bus using commuters. And if you are willing to be persuaded that for those with less income time can be a valuable commodity too, then you have all of the bus market. Buses take longer to get anywhere as compared to cars!

So what business and profit opportunities does this unfortunate confluence of poor infrastructure and rising incomes and a striving, pushing, 'aspiring to earn more' people culture bring? Let us talk about car commuters first, the richest market of them all. First, let us picture this consumer correctly. With the drop in price thresholds for cars and the rise in average income of the top 50% of the country, the 'mainstream majority' consumers will now be buying cars not 2 wheelers, and they will be your regular Ramesh, not the upper echelon of the consumer pyramid. Now for the product-markets that are ready and waiting to be created for him and his family. With terrible lifestyles and worse postures, not to mention careless unsupervised exercising, there will be a huge rush for orthopedic seats in cars. The car maker could be the one to capture this value or the accessory shoppe or the ergonomically designed furniture store. In fact, car seats in smaller, cheaper cars are far below the threshold of acceptability on this count - the misnomer that car makers have is that rich people who drive in big cars need back and butt protection far more. I submit to you that they may also be commuting less! In any case regular Ramesh of the small car actually slogs his butt off too, and needs more orthopedic care; especially since he is less likely to have personal trainers, better gym equipment to work with and travel business class. Next, how about a slight pull out for the back seat, sofa cum bed style, and a head rest on the door rather than an arm rest for those who want to lie down and nap for two hours in the back seat? Fold up tables, aircraft style, in the back seat for lap tops etc. also would be welcome for better posture computer working in the car.

Now for car reading. Many people read in cars and facilitating that by minimizing shaking of the book, clip on book lights or better designed car lights that do more than light up one line at a time, are the easy obvious ones. The harder and more courageous part is to kill a few sacred cows, and launch an evening reading newspaper (as distinct from a classic eveninger). One where people can refresh their minds by reading interesting stuff to replace the TV viewing hours that they are missing out on. DVDs in cars (why watch movies on a lap top when we can do better), a games station in the car will work well I am sure - especially those that have cars zooming off on wide roads - the kind of escapism that we all would love!

Food for the body, not just the mind: sensible food to snack on those rides home, places to stock it, sandwiches and bhel packets, appropriately packed, sold railway station style, at traffic lights? And yes of course, disposal bags for the car and a place to keep them till we get home? Sky lights for those who want to see the stars as they use their I pods.... I guess the drift is clear. There's LOTS that can be done. How about cars which are designed London taxi style so conversations do not strain necks for those in the front seat, and family bonding is made possible?

For the bus dude who can't afford as much, a whole range of little things called Time Pass. Those magnetic scrabble, Chinese checker type, sudoku and puzzles made easy or difficult, craft things like crochet to do on the move, and also a whole market of enablers like book lights to enable reading in bumpy bad light, ortho cushions to carry on, small in size, air pillows for the neck and so on. In fact , Time Pass has the ability to be innovative have contests, generate excitement. And if I were a TV channel or a market research agency, there's lots of real vox pop opportunities here, and far better sampling than the 'man of the street' that they do. I would certainly buy shares in Time Pass Ltd., and in Travel Health Inc.

To those who ask "how come this did not come out of market research we did on cars or food or newspapers", my answer is that had market research asked people "what is the biggest pain point in your life and how well do you deal with it", rather than "how satisfied are you with your current car etc.", the answer would have come loud and clear!

I know that there is a segment out there that will ask "so show us in which other countries in the world such markets have been created". And to them I would say "it's time we all grew up and realized that sometimes we have to lead the pack." Also where else in the world do we have this dreadful combination of factors that create a beautiful market like this? It happens only in India!