Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Black Olive: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

olivesA long time ago, in a former life, far-far away I remember tasting a succulent, savoury black fruit. I seem to recollect buying them in jars – from all good purveyors of food. I would add them to salads, pasta, maybe in mischief even to a curry. They were known as black olives.

But if such things still exist, surely I must be able to find them in Hong Kong too. Few cities are as obsessed with food and shopping (though strangely not cooking) as Hong Kong. I searched the supermarkets near  my home and office. Obviously a Mediterranean fruit would not be a staple component of the Cantonese diet, but surely some stores would sell them.

No olivesI went to one after another supermarket. Food sales in Hong Kong is a cosy duopoly shared by Dairy Farms (Jardine-Matheson) and PARKnSHOP (Lee Ka-shing) who between them account for 94.6% of food sales. (This is a fake-statistic because next to no business-intelligence is published in Hong Kong. There is no lovely Kantor World panel, nor any pesky CMA haranguing retail with competition enquiries. It’s approach to competition could have been dreamt up by John D. Rockefeller and Ayn Rand).

Perhaps, in the spirit of Nassim Taleb, the probability of a store selling olives is astonishingly non-random, like wealth or prowess at writing Canned olivesbest-sellers. Maybe 99.999% stores don’t stock olives, and one store sells has cornered the market. That would be very Hong Kong. I came tantalisingly close in one large retail chain. Next to a jar of green olives, was a can of black olives.

But every new condiment shelf was like the last. I was starring in Groundhog Day but instead of Sonny and Cher singing I got You Babe every morning I déjà vu-ed shelves of pickled vegetables, soya sauce laid out precisely like in the last shop.

But this tale has a happy ending. Hong Kong is one of the only countries in the world outside the UK where M&S still manages to make a profit. It does this by air-freighting all their lovely food-stuffs to Hong Kong circumventing the duopolies stranglehold on local suppliers provisioning their competition. The store in Central had jar after jar of black olives. I bought two.


Filed under Whimsy