An incredulous National Post

The headline Couple turn down $2.9M for painting at London auction – ‘It didn’t reach the price … they were prepared to let it go for’ in Canada’s National Post caught my eye this morning. Here’s the lead paragraph:

A Canadian couple yesterday turned down a chance to make $2.9-million at an auction in London, England, after a Victorian masterpiece they acquired by chance with the purchase of a dilapidated farmhouse failed to generate enough interest.

This article betrays a surprising degree of naivety and ignorance on the part of the newspaper, while making the Canadian couple, who acquired the painting "by chance", sound like shrewd market traders. Obviously the owners know that it makes sense to sell as high as possible, no matter what the cost. I wonder if the author and editor would find the owners’ decision so hard to believe if the painting had simply been inherited? It’s a very strange reaction for a publication that comprises Canada’s Financial Post and was formerly owned by Sotheby’s board member, Conrad Black.

It’s all about the food

On the day when Tesco refuted claims that it was supplying spiders along with its grapes, comes news of a new on-line grocery business serving New York City (well, the Upper East Side at any rate).

According to the BBC (BBC News | UK | Tesco denies using deadly spiders):

Tesco has admitted that a drive to use less pesticides in its food could mean more spiders turning up in bags of fruit. But the supermarket denied that food producers are using black widow spiders, after three customers found them in bags of grapes. In separate incidents, the three women discovered the deadly spider among American-grown grapes bought from Tesco stores. Two of the spiders were alive. The company says producers do use natural predators to protect fruit, as an alternative to chemicals. But it strongly denies that the distinctive spider, whose venom is 15 times more potent than a rattlesnake, is deliberately used on suppliers’ crops in the US.

If that sounds like a scary disincentive, consider FreshDirect, a new on-line grocery delivery business based in Queens and currently serving the East Side of Manhattan.

According to Fortune magazine (The Online Grocer Version 2.0):

Their cargo–meat, fish, cheese, fresh-baked breads, produce, and other foods–sells at prices about 25% below what most New York grocers charge.

FreshDirect does deliver specialty-store-quality fresh food and prepared food at strikingly low prices.

It’s a measure of the times that Fedele and Ackerman [the company’s founders] refuse to call FreshDirect a dot-com. And while they admit that the company could not exist without the web (orders are placed on for delivery the following day), they insist that efficiency, not technology, is the point. “Our idea was to build the ultimate food company that could scale,” says Ackerman. “The only reason we chose the Internet was that it helped us reach people at a lower transaction cost. It allows us to do for food what Michael Dell did for computers.” One of the great unfulfilled promises of the Internet has been that it would enable manufacturers to sell directly to consumers. But few companies other than Dell have actually done it.

And of course Webvan failed spectacularly. That first great Internet grocery scheme spent more than $1 billion on huge distribution facilities in seven cities before closing shop in July 2001.

Why should these guys do any better? It’s a question they are asked constantly. Fedele and Ackerman insist Webvan was merely a distribution company that missed the point. Says Fedele: “This is a company based on food people, not dot-com people.” FreshDirect’s motto: “It’s all about the food.”

Hmmm…this is interesting. Up to now I had rather assumed that the attraction of on-line home delivery services was the convenience of the service rather than the quality of the food, which I have always assumed would be identical to that purchased in person at any given store. Certainly, here in the UK the food delivered by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, et al., is identical to that found in their stores. In most cases, the food actually comes from your local shop, so it is literally the same food that you would buy if you went shopping in person.

The interesting aspect of FreshDirect’s strategy is that it is offering better food at lower prices, as well as the convenience of on-line ordering and home delivery, which quite frankly sounds too good to be true. I find myself wondering what exactly "specialty-store-quality" really means and how it compares to the quality offered by the average grocery store in the UK. I also wonder if this approach would work outside of Manhattan, or more specifically in places where food is less expensive. Presumably shoppers in Queens already pay less for their food than residents of Manhattan. Will FreshDirect be as appealing to them?

Of course, Ocado (about which I have written previously, and on which the Economist reported just last week, see Off Their Trolleys) claims to be offering similar benefits here by supplying only food from Waitrose, which is generally considered to be the UK’s highest quality grocer; but Ocado is definitely not cheaper than food sold in Waitrose’s stores, in fact the delivery charge makes them more expensive still.

So perhaps FreshDirect’s approach will be limited to places with unusually high food costs. Of course it’s early days, and it remains to be seen if they can even make it work in Manhattan.

Nothing happened here

Someone in Paris has a sense of humour. According to the most recent Paris briefing from the Economist Cities Guide:

A mysterious public artist seems to be poking fun at the city’s glorification of its notable former residents. Now, along with plaques on houses boasting Victor Hugo as an erstwhile tenant, there are signs proclaiming that on "the 17th of April 1967 nothing happened here". On a wall in the chic seventh arrondissement, a plaque now informs us that Karima Bentiffa, an otherwise unknown civil servant, lived at 9 rue Pérignon from 1984 to 1989. How long can this phantom plaque-maker continue his entertaining mischief?

Predicting the news

It really bothers me when professional journalists manufacture news. One morning last week BBC Radio News began several reports with the phrase "Tony Blair will say in a speech later today…". I don’t believe reporters should EVER report events that have yet to happen, and it is disappointing to see that the BBC now does it. I mean what happens if he’s run over by a bus in the meantime? I suppose in that case they’d have some real news to report.

It’s even happening in new media as well. Yesterday BBCi posted a story on a newly revised forecast for the UK property market (BBC News | Business | House price forecasts slashed) that constantly referred to new statistics for the month of November, which as I write has yet to come to an end!

Overall price rises averaged 0.2% nationwide in November, down from 0.5% the month before.

How can they publish a statement like that without some explanation for their readers? Don’t they realise that anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that such a statement, and by extension the journalists that published it, cannot be trusted? Don’t they care that such sloppy reporting undermines everything else they produce? The real news is that journalistic standards continue to slide.

Just a bunch of pamphleteers

It occurred to me some time ago that webloggers are the modern equivalent of pamphleteers, and last weekend I did a little research on this idea. As you might expect, it’s been suggested before, most notably by Dan Bricklin, creator of the very first spreadsheet program, Visicalc (see Pamphleteers and Web Sites).

Now from the BBC comes news (BBC NEWS | Technology | Life lessons for web users) of a recent conference on the Internet’s potential to change society (Beyond the Backlash: Where next for the digital economy?). According to Mark Ward, who reported on the conference for the BBC:

John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, said there was a pressing need to nurture public discussion spaces online and to keep them free of the usual vested interests that can hobble debate.

His comments were echoed by John Perry Barlow, founder of US cyber-liberties watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who feared that badly drafted laws would severely curtail the freewheeling spirit of online discussion.

"I thought we would be spared the governments impositions by its incompetence," he said, "but we cannot trust to that anymore."

Instead, he said, the US Government and corporations were pushing a unified agenda that stressed control, censorship and the removal of basic rights over freedom of discussion and action.

Challenges to the corporate and federal axis were limited because, so far, net activists and protesters were not fighting on a united front.

"What we have now is 10 million lonely pamphleteers crying out on lonely street corners and not getting together as a block or getting together as opposition to traditional institutions," said Mr Barlow.

He said there were profound dangers in letting the government and business-backed view of what can be done online prevail because the net was at a pivotal moment in its development.

"If we design it to serve existing models of business and government and to follow short-term goals we will be bad ancestors," he said. "Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors."

I don’t know enough about the history of journalism to compare the effectiveness of the pamphleteers with that of webloggers, but it seems to me that it might be premature to draw any conclusions. Perhaps the "10 million lonely pamphleteers" will get together soon.

A number of interesting organizations appear to have produced this conference, including Demos, The Work Foundation, and vitamin-e.

National Post delay

It’s amazing to note that five years after the web was adopted by the mainstream media, it’s still not being used properly. Canada’s National Post displays the following image when introducing its columnists:

National Post advertisement

The two main advantages of the Internet are its global reach and its speed. In this case the National Post purposely negates the second benefit, and so undermines the new medium’s value. Does that make sense?

Obviously they want you to buy the newspaper instead of reading the free web site, but to those of us living in places where a subscription is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive, this artificial constraint on a technology’s natural strengths seems increasingly absurd.

Failures to face reality

This week’s Economist contains a review of a new book that sounds interesting: What Management Is: How it Works and Why it’s Everyone’s Business by Joan Magretta and Nan Stone ( | Management | The wood as well as the trees). The line that caught my eye was:

Management is about understanding people and all the heartache that flesh is heir to. "Failures of strategy", she [Magretta] says, "are often failures to face reality." This echoes some of the most original current writing about management, where the findings of psychology and sociology are applied to the building of organisations.

A diversity of food

Yesterday, while waiting in line for the cashier at the grocery store I looked to my left and right. On my right were lots of exotic convenience foods, such as single servings of Thai pineapple rice, and on my left I saw “instant Miso soup”, “Organic Japanese green tea” and bottles of Sake. This was in a small urban branch of Sainsbury’s, although admittedly it was in central London.

I can’t think of an aspect of British life that has changed as much as food in the last three decades. If you transported someone here from even 1980 they wouldn’t recognise the country’s culinary choices at all. Prospect magazine wants to provoke a debate and so has asked Did British food really get better? It’s an interesting question. There can be no doubt that British food has changed.