Saturday, January 19, 2013

Choosing choices


It is a terrible thing to undermine our ability to choose - whether it be clothes, political views or groceries.

Hence, the big two supermarket chains of Australia are performing a profound disservice to the people with their campaign to swamp their shelves with own-brand.

It not only threatens the viability of smaller producers and manufacturers but also removes choice for the customer.

Already it has become hard to find Australian-produced canola oil. The globals are in ascent and with them, more and more foods and cosmetics prepared in China. In itself, this is scary, given China's history of contamination and corruption. I was very impressed with Woolworths when it led the way in trying to remove trans fats from its stores, starting with its home brand but, its marketing man in Singapore once told me, setting an example to all food manufacturers.

That fine stance looks a bit wobbly a decade later. I see China-produced confections for children clearly labelled as containing partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil. Lovely, tempting, delicious treats for Australian children - loaded with potentially damaging trans fats.

My respect for and loyalty towards Woolies now wavers. It has removed Evian water from its stock - never bothering to so much as answer my letter on the subject.

The water choices diminish - like all the stock choices.

Coles aisles, similarly, are less stimulating to peruse. The big excitement is seeing how many more varieties are turning up under their own label. There are knock-offs of everything. Just look at the growing range of own-brand flavoured tunas - which are the chic snack de jour - sitting there competing with the brands who may have brought such ideas onto the market in the first place but can't market it as cheaply. Long-term prognosis would have the cheaper brand killing off the original more expensive brand - and the choices declining.

America manages to run supermarkets where the choices are utterly daunting in their scale.

The first time I walked into an American supermarket the impression was definitely "super" everything. Even in small town outposts of New Hampshire or North Georgia, the supermarkets are consumer paradises of choice, variety and invention.

And nothing prepares one for Fairway, the supermarket to end all supermarkets. Like Niagra Falls, nothing can prepare one for its towering scale, its brilliant management, its endless variations on all themes, its fantastic hot and cold food prepared on the spot.

I found it in a rather dowdy old semi-industrial backstreet of Stamford, Connecticut.

Stamford, with its slogan "The city that works!", is not a huge city. With about 123,000 in population, it is only 8th largest in New England. It is an important rail hub servicing New York.

Fairway is a regional supermarket chain - there are other stores around New York. It's slogan is "Like No Other Market". How true.

One can design and have gourmet salads made to eat on the spot or take home for dinner. The supermarket has a cafe - in which I had what may have been the best clam chowder in the USA. Move over Legal Seafoods. The store describes its nearly 85,000 wonderful square feet of pure gastronomic joy as "an amusement park of food".

The aisles were so broad with such beautiful, well-stocked and maintained arrays of goods that one went almost into overload. But staff were on hand to assist and advise. Real, live, helpful, employed humans. "Service".

This is not to say that Woolies and Coles don't have fabulous, well-informed and helpful staff. The staff is one of the very best things about them.

But we Australian shoppers are being short-changed by their corporate policies and we need to stand up - or at least, walk away to Foodland and IGA.

They don't have the scale of Fairway but they give small companies a fair exposure to the consumer. They enable access to our gourmet producers, specialist products both local and imported.

They also listen to their customers and will endeavour to stock things which are requested.

We can't do things on the scale of the American model. But we can look at what the American model offers. And it is all about choice.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Twitter, you had parents, you know.

It is almost 20 years now since first I heard the ricochet tinkles of modem connecting to the Internet.

It was love at first flickering light, so to speak. From my desk in suburban Adelaide, I found myself meeting and greeting the world of invisible far-away people on Internet Relay Chat. And thus, instantly hooked, I fell into a crowd - one of the small groups of pioneer netizens, burning the midnight oil, fuelled by Jolt. Making friends, chatting, life-sharing, laughing.

Many of these people remain part of my life today, no longer on IRC but in retained fellowships on Facebook or Yahoo.

In the 90s, few people around me could comprehend what the hell I was doing. I had to explain the IRC and the Internet - which I did with missionary zeal.

Oh the dark and dangerous perils of it all. There were bots and baddies. There were predators. And porn. How swiftly they materialised.

But there were the good and outgoing folk, convivial and lively times. There were people who asserted themselves in ways their normal lives may never have allowed, arriving faceless online under a chosen nick. They assumed Ops, a status as channel operator, would throw their weight around, dominate the evolving communities on their channels. First "virtual communities" they were, drawn together by interests but not location. The borderless world had opened up. Out of Finland, believe it or not. And it was to explode exponentially.

There was Efnet at first and IRCnet - and then DAlnet arrived the Undernet appeared. We explored, regrouped. We hitched in through servers at universities in exotic places.

I navigated my way through the lists and lists of channels to some defined by age. Firstly #30plus, then #40 plus, then #41plus. They changed by breakaway movements. One could open any channel one wanted. With a friend, I created #Ageless and, later, #Greymatter.

Yep. #

Twitter thinks it invented the use of the hashtag.


IRC was your parent, Tweetipies.