|English: Looking northeast across 74th Street at Jackson Diner on a mostl cloudy midday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Tech In Jackson Heights
By Paramendra Bhagat
March Andreessen’s advice to the New York Times – and this was a few years back – was to kill the paper and go 100% digital, Andreessen being the guy who gave the world the Netscape browser back in 1995 that ushered the dot com era. He is now a top venture capitalist. The Huffington Post that was sold to AOL for 300 million dollars does not have a paper edition, never did. It would be hard to have a comments section in a paper newspaper, don’t you think?
But in Jackson Heights, the most famous Desi part of North America, there are a whole bunch of paper newspapers that are doing a thriving business. What gives? There is a lagging behind element to it, but there is also a counter current element to it.
Ecommerce is swell and grew like crazy through the Great Recession. But the intimacy of shopping in person will never go away, and I think the best ecommerce solutions of the future will enhance rather than wholesale replace that in person shopping. I dream of a smart mall. A smart mall is smart the way a smartphone is smart. There are dumb phones, and then there are smartphones.
The lagging behind element can be seen out in the streets of Jackson Heights. Smartphone penetration is not as much as it can be. With some carriers offering four phones with unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month – which comes to $25 per phone per month – you can argue maybe it is not the monthly bill that is the roadblock. It is the hardware. There is a lot of room for smartphones that might cost less than $50.
The counter current element is that in this foreign land when you are 10,000 miles away from home and where all the road signs are in English, a newspaper written in your language that you can hold in your hand, take home with you perhaps speaks to your homesickness. But then it is not like newspapers from home are not online, all the good ones are. And the top newspapers in Jackson Heights are all free. They are ad supported. You pick up your free copy and take home to read.
I have been walking the streets relentlessly for weeks now, I have had numerous meetings with local merchants. There is this mild cloud of despair that you sense. The neighborhood has been losing business year after year for a few years now. There is a saying in the US South in states like Alabama about snow that falls from the sky. God brought the snow, God will take it away. As in, they are not big on snow ploughs down there, like they are in places like, say, Connecticut. Many merchants in Jackson Heights have that Alabama attitude about the downturn. It will go back on its own, they seem to suggest. I belong in the snow plough school of thought.
I believe use of tech can help put the entire neighborhood on the upswing. There is no place quite like Jackson Heights in all of North America. Jackson Heights has a special appeal all over NYC, and across the tri-state area. Tech can help the local merchants cash into that.
Jackson Heights has a ton of the old economy mindset. The place reminds me of a small town like Sitamadhi in Bihar, not the Connaught Place in Delhi. There has to be a collective effort to break out of that old economy mindset and try out new things, and new ways.
The pie has to be expanded. The local merchants will have to reinvent themselves in ways so more people from near and far show up to shop. If the neighborhood is going to look the exact same that it did 10 years ago, that inflow is not going to happen.
Tech is the way out. Much of the rejuvenation will come through use of tech. There’s also a ton of room for social cross pollinations across the various country groups that are represented in the area. New kinds of businesses will have to sprout out. A further diversification in the local economy would be a good thing.
It is surprising how many of the local businesses don’t even have a simple website online. No business however small can afford to not have a website. A lot of businesses have only token websites when they need interactive ones. There are businesses that should but don’t have ecommerce sites. Only one out of 16 jewelry stores on 74th St has an ecommerce store, and even that one is a dud because it does not do active, monthly online marketing. People have to know you exist. There are businesses that could use business software but don’t. There are businesses that should be looking into mobile apps.
Some of the basic tech steps require only small investments but go a long way. Some of the more ambitious moves are bigger investments but pay for themselves many times over if done right.
Tech can drive up the local commerce. Tech can help build a more close knit local community. Tech can do what bricks and mortar simply cannot do.
A few months back Patel Brothers, perhaps the largest store in the neighborhood, completely redid its checkout lines for the better. Now buyers move faster, and that is a good thing. But there are better, cheaper software solutions that would take the store’s business volumes to whole new levels. To that the local manager says, “We don’t need it!”
That mindset gets in the way and has to change.