This is another Earnshaw reprint of a classic book about Old Shanghai. “The unexpurgated story of a Shanghai baby“, “All about Shanghai and its environs” and “Tael lights” were fun to read but were mostly of interests for people in love with old Shanghai. 400 million customers is definitely of a different class, this book is a true masterpiece.
I already wrote about Carl Crow in a review of his biography by Paul French last year. Carl Crow had many years of experience in Shanghai, going all around China for his own interest as well as the development of his advertising agency. He actually invented and developed the poster calendar that are now one of the symbols of old Shanghai. He was famous supporter of China, trying to show to the international community the real intentions of Japan invading China. He spoke fluent Chinese and his pro-Chinese positions did not always please the foreign community either. He was certainly had a correct opinion as history often proved him right.
400 million customer is not just any book about China, it is a book about doing business in China published in the 1930’s. Besides being a great read, the most amazing part is that most of the points are still valid today. Some of the article seem to be straight out of a contemporary management on his country. The first chapter is about the specificity of the Chinese consumer in knowing exactly what they want (I love the story of the needles) as well not liking any change in the brands they are used to (see the part on the Hamburg horse shoes). I had a conversation with a friend selling B2B goods in today’s China who just had exactly the same experience. If they make any change to the packaging, customers complain as they are not sure if this is truly the original or not. Furthermore, it is common place today to find items in the market that are very close imitations, sometimes even just copies. “When we start to exploit a new product in China, we can always be certain of one thing, and that is that if it is possible to do so some Chinese or Japanese manufacture will start making a similar article and selling it at a cheaper price.” Similarly, the whole chapter “fortunes through profitless sales” is just as true today as it was then.
Management in China receives one full chapter with “Tremble and obey”, and once again Carl Crow’s experience is not far from today. Giving more quotations would just take too much space, but parts about avoidance of responsibility and how to get any decisions made are just hilarious. 400 million customers is definitely a must for anyone interested to work in China. Not bad for a book that is more than 70 years old.