Category Archives: Whimsy

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.


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The unbearable lightness of Toblerone

tobleroneEarlier this week my son told me about an end-of-year costume party he was going to attend themed around all the horrors of 2016 and asked how he should dress. His friends would no doubt dress up as Trump, Farage and Boris Johnson. I suggested he should honour His Royal Purpleness, or perhaps  David Bowie – both great in terms of wacky clothes. Then, my son mentioned dressing up as a Toblerone to commemorate its tragic downsizing. I assumed he was being frivolous, but he insisted he genuinely mourned its shrinkage. He said lots of other confectionaries and snacks were doing the same thing.

In a sense, the shrinking chocolate bar does represent a truly existentialist threat to capitalism. Maybe I wasn’t properly appreciating the historical significance of its loss of heft. Every quarter poor Mondelēz International has to spin a yarn to its shareholders on how it plans to grow dividends. Ideally it would like to sell more chocolate at a higher price. But the company also owns Cadbury’s, Oreo, Terry’s and the handful of brands not owned by Mars and Nestle. As result of this concentration in the market, a proportion of extra sales will cannibalise sales of its own brands.

How to grow sales? The market for chocolate must surely be geographically saturated. I’ve seen its products in the tiniest village store in Philippines. I feel guilt every time I buy a medium sized bar of chocolate, so there’s zero probability of my upsizing to the larger bar, or heaven forbid buying two bars when I want a sneaky mid-afternoon snack. This is nothing to do with income or price elasticity. Doubling my income, or halving the price would not induce me to consume more. My body is rejecting the more chocolate with a Maslowian physiological insistence. Are we hitting peak chocolate? So what is capitalism to do?

So with stagnant sales all a firm can do is improve productivity or reduce portion size and hope customers don’t grumble. But productivity growth in manufacturing cannot keep growing indefinitely – factories have already been mechanised, supply chains squeezed. And the size of the product can’t keep on shrinking.

So maybe capitalism’s success at producing an abundance of goods, with a miniscule workforce through a handful of companies means that capitalism will eat itself. I wonder what will be left behind.

Perhaps my son should dress up as Fidel Castro.

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