Selling Surplus Food

community shop

This week I want to add a post to my food series and related posts from earlier this year.

One of the posts in the series was about wasted food.

The Scale of Waste

Just to give you an idea of the content I opened with the following: It is estimated that in the USA between 40 and 50% of all food produced is wasted. There are about 320 million people in the US, so we could safely say that this wasted food could feed at least 100 million people.

And the shocking thing is that nearly all of this wasted food is edible. It is close to its sell by date, the packaging is damaged or incorrectly labeled, Christmas pudding in January. Much of it never even gets to the shops, it fails a quality test because the label is not correctly attached or the packet printing is wrong, and it is discarded.

This week the first UK based Community Shop opened, and in this shop they only sell discarded food. Sounds like a great idea, they take food that is lost during the preparation stages, on its way to the supermarket, and food that is discarded once it has arrived or sat on the shelves for a while, and they re-sell it. Very cheap (70% less), you can make a profit and waste problem resolved I thought. Great!

But of course it is not that simple.

Supply and Demand

One problem is that if you sell this food at a fraction of the previous price, people will buy it and not the full price food. This means that for every tin of beans bought at the community shop, a supermarket sells one tin less. So they might not like that, and that is why in many cases they prefer to destroy the food than to pass it on.

This problem can be seen in this case on a local scale, but it also happens on a global scale. How do you think the farmer in South Africa feels when she sees thousands of tons of free US grown grain distributed for free in a neighboring country? She cannot compete and sell her food any more. Feeding a population without charging them directly destroys surrounding markets.

This is not just a food problem. When we donate our old clothes and they turn up worn by kids in Kenya (Manchester United shirts come to mind), that means that those kids did not buy their clothes, and the local clothes suppliers, and makers, and distributors, don’t work.

So the community shop have found an answer. You have to be a member to buy food there, and to be a member you have to be receiving benefit from the government and live within a local postcode area. Only 500 members at a time, and membership is not for life. The shop also offers free courses in food preparation, CV writing, and many other things that help to manage the household and improve quality of life. Sounds great, but we should remember that many people are working poor that do not receive benefits, or have fallen through the benefit net, what about them? What we need is more of these shops, so that the entry rules can be broader.

This is a great idea. Let’s use the stuff instead of throwing it out. And to be honest I have little sympathy for an industry that is so wasteful and non-sustainable.

If there were a community shop of this type on every corner we could all benefit, and I for one wish them well with their endeavour.

Black Friday – Getting caught in the rush

There are various thoughts as to where the term Black Friday originated from, one I recently heard was that it was the date that retailers expected to break even – so move from the red (making a loss) into the black. Black Friday is no longer an American phenomena, Australia, Mexico, the UK and many European countries (just to name a few) also now run similar events.

In recent times you could argue it is so-called because of the havoc it wreaks. People die in the rushes that Black Friday creates. Some sources state that the day has claimed as many as 100+ lives in the last decade. Many hundreds of people are injured every year in the stampedes and commotion that have become associated with the day. Today the BBC are reporting on a Tesco which has had to close its doors this morning, due to what it calls ‘scuffles’ amongst customers.

Whilst physical stores are experiencing high volumes of customers, I suspect their online stores are experiencing many many more. Retailers have known that Black Friday was coming all year, so they are all super prepared aren’t they? It appears not.

Many retailers websites have been experiencing higher than normal volumes of traffic today. They expected that though. So why if they were expecting this have many hight profile sites gone down?

Argos – a previously struggling UK retailer – appears to be turning itself around, yet on what will almost certainly be its websites busiest day of the year, customers have to wait to access their site.

I didn’t think they would let this happen, so tried to click through to Argos.co.uk but was greeted with this page.

Argos website down on Black Friday

I followed their advice and refreshed the page a few minutes later, and amazingly the site worked! I did try again in a different browser a little later on and I got the same message, however again after a few minutes, it cleared.

On any other day of the year, customers would find this completely unacceptable, so why on its busiest day, did Argos let its site get swamped?

Argos wasn’t alone though. Currys site was also offline for many visitors. Unlike Argos Currys gave an estimated time that they would let me in.

They predicted around 20 minutes when I first joined the queue (yes I joined a queue to enter a website) but by the time I finally got in it had been well over an hour.

Curries crush - Black Friday

Currys Black Friday queue to get into their website

What I can’t understand is why their sister site, PC World, had no waiting time yet it took me over an hour to get onto the Currys homepage. When I was in everything seemed to load pretty sharpish, so I don’t know why there was such a long wait. Surely more people on a slower connection is better than a handful loading fast?

Tesco Direct by far was the worst though. Despite being the second largest retailer in the world (as measured by revenues) the wait to get into the Tesco Direct shop was ridiculous. After at least an hour an a half, Tesco’s 30 second refresh countdown timer was still going. Every 30 seconds it was checking if there was space to let me in, and there never was.

I don’t know what Tesco were offering – and I suspect many people will never know – because honestly, who is going to wait by their computer for more than 90 minutes to access a website?

Tesco offline during Black Friday

Tesco’s Black Friday Calamity, customers can’t access Tesco Direct for hours.

So what lesson does this teach us? Well if you are a big retailer, who is taking part in Black Friday, make sure you invest in the appropriate infrastructure before the day, or else you could miss out on a huge number of potential sales.

Car Trouble

car loans

Last week the New York Times ran an interesting article about cars fitted with the so-called starter interrupt device.

Many might know that some cars have an engine cut off switch that can be remotely operated. If someone steals your car you might be able to track it and turn the engine off if you have forward thinkingly fitted one. But they are becoming more commonly used today on cars that are sold with lease or debt payment.

And it is extremely simple, I sell you the car and as long as you repay the debt or lease charges the vehicle is yours to do what you will, and drive where you like. But if you miss a payment, I can remotely track your movement and at the moment I see fit I can block the car.

So one morning, you have not made the payment on Friday because you are on holiday, you go out to take your child to school, or the dentist, or the hospital because she is sick, and the car won’t start.

Now I would agree that if you want a car you should pay for it, and that if you don’t keep up payments you may lose it, but there are other knock on effects to using such technology in this way. Of course there is the problem that you might block a car that would be used in an emergency situation, like the one suggested above. But the effect of having such a ready resource in reclaiming the car may lead you to sell it to someone who might have difficulty repaying the loan. If you knew that you might have to first find the car, send a car transporter out to recover it and incur some time and financial interference, you might think twice about selling it to someone with a bad credit rating and precarious situation.

If you know you can just track the car, block it when it is in a good place for you to collect, and always know where it is, then who cares? Give them the car and get it back later.

These devices are currently fitted on about 2 million cars, and the article states that their use is helping to push the use of sub-prime auto loans. I am no financial guru but I have heard a lot of talk and read a lot about sub-prime mortgages, and they don’t get good press.

So even if we put aside the issue of privacy, as the lender can see your every move (I put it aside because if you carry a mobile phone you are in the same boat), there is the problem of physical security in case of malfunction, data protection and of course dragging people into high rate loans and all the associated black market dealings that go with debt. But we should not forget that this technology also means that people who would not be able to buy a car can get hold of one, and people might accept the device if the choice is that of car with device, or no car.

High rate loans are justified because they are high risk, so I might argue that if you take the risk out of the loan then the rate should drop, this does not however seem to be the case (surprisingly).

Read more on the argument through the link to the New York Times above, and let me know in the comments section if you have any experience.

Blind Date (More Unauthorized Online Experimenting)

blind-date

Following up from news a couple of weeks ago about Facebook manipulating its users, this week news abounds regarding a dating agency that has been conducting some experiments on its users.

The New York Times reports that the online dating agency OK Cupid has been manipulating the data it gives to its clients, to find out how compatibility and looks effect the dating process. The company conducted 3 different experiments, in one it hid profile pictures, in another, it hid profile text to see how it affected personality ratings, and in a third, it told some hopeful daters that they were a better or worse potential match with someone than the company’s software actually determined.

So as we might imagine they came up with a series of findings, that we could loosely interpret as the following:

1. If you are told that the person is more compatible you are more likely to contact them.

2. Users are likely to equate “looks” with “personality,” even in profiles that featured attractive photos and little if any substantive profile information

3. When the site obscured all profile photos one day, users engaged in more meaningful conversations, exchanged more contact details and responded to first messages more often. They got to know each other. But when pictures were reintroduced on the site, many of those conversations stopped cold.

Well as far as I can see number 1 is pretty self evident. If you send me a note saying that a person is not compatible then I probably won’t bother them with my personal issues., 2 is quite interesting, if I like the looks of someone I am more likely to think that they are an interesting person, may be fun and without doubt the perfect match for me. And also the third is quite obvious, if I don’t know what a person looks like I might imagine their looks and would be more likely to want to get to know them.

The OK Cupid blog will fill you in on the details.

One interesting line from the blog states that “guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”. Wise words, but I wonder if everybody realizes that. And what power they wield!

Now I would like to raise the issue of how someone can design an algorithm to measure my compatibility with another person. What will make us more compatible? Height? Interests? Worldview (and if so how can you put that into numbers)?

There is an interesting book by Hubert Dreyfus called “What Computers Can’t Do”, and in it he argues that there are some areas and situations that cannot fully function. A computer program is based on expertise, on experience that can be categorized. If there are subject matters that are impossible to completely formalise, then they are impossible to formalize in computer programs (such as the one they use to find my perfect partner if they exist).

As a human I think we make decisions based upon generalizations of a situation. Characteristics are judged based upon experiences, I once knew someone with those characteristics and they were great, or stubborn, or nasty, etc. Research suggests that we play games such as chess in this way. We do not think about a long series of possible moves in the way a computer plays, but we see a situation, it reminds us of another situation that we have confronted in the past, and we act according to our experience of action in similar situations.

I am sure some readers have experience in this field, and I would be very happy to get some comments and expand my understanding.