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What’s the story behind the story?

I read in yesterday’s Financial Times (21 May 2005, London edition) that convenience grocery stores are growing their sales faster than overall grocery market, 5% growth as opposed to 4.2% growth for the whole market. The piece also mentions that over the whole year convenience stores are expected to grow 25% more than supermarkets. (Full story here, subscription required.)

What I wonder are the forces behind this growth? Why are small grocers growing so much faster than the big ones?

I’d like to think that customers have finally got fed up with “buy 2 get one free” type offers that obscure the real price and discriminate against those on low income or single people.

David Anderson has an interesting piece in his blog noting how the batch size for grocery purchases in Japan is much smaller than is typical in the USA. I’d say that UK purchase size is generally smaller than in the USA but is catching up. After all, it’s in the interests of WalMart-ASDA, Tesco and other big retailers to sell more. I read (the FT again?) or heard (BBC radio 4?) recently that half of all food in the UK is wasted. While I don’t think this happens in my house I can imagine its true, we do throw away lot of food, especially the “buy 4 widgets get 2 widgets” type where we can’t possibly eat 4 widgets before they go off let alone 6!

Anyway, I digress, I would be surprised if enough people where getting so upset with larger batch sizes and buy-get-free offers to bring about the statistics mentioned at the top.

Next theory: the sanity factor – sanity as in clean, rather than not-crazy. In the last few years most of the big boys of British grocery retailing have moved into the convenience sector: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc. Compare one of the small Tesco Express stores with your traditional local convenience store. The Tesco may not actually be cleaner but it looks cleaner, we are being offered a brand, something know, something safe, as opposed to a one-off at the corner shop. (Some of the more traditional local stores have also started to up their act, install bigger windows, use brighter colours.)

So, simply an improvement in the quality and branding of local stores is one factor I think.

Next, I think these changes in the market reflect some lifestyle changes. There has been an increase in city living in the last few years. Such people have the option of convenience stores – people living our in the suburbs, particularly on new middle class estates, probably don’t have any option but to get the car out and drive to the large supermarket.

One lifestyle change has effected me directly: Internet grocery shopping. We started doing this about a year ago – shortly after I got rid of my car. At first we bought everything online. Gradually though we’ve switched to buying more stuff locally. We still have the Ocado van visit us every regularly (9 to 14 days) but this tends to be the big heavy stuff, stuff we can store. I’ve been increasingly using my local high street to buy fresh stuff.

At first this felt strange, going to the butchers and asking for beef-mince, pork chops, etc. Almost like something from one of those “learn French” school textbooks. I’d never done it before – or very rarely. I came from a generation brought up on supermarkets.

Now I’ve got use to this way of shopping I love it. My butcher has a better selection of meat than the supermarket although the green grocers doesn’t compare so well and I feel more involved in the locality. I’m also convinced it cheaper.

I’d love to think that as more people shop online the high streets of the country will experience a renewed importance. In particular, I’d love my high street to get a renewed importance. Acton High Street needs: a baker that doesn’t shut at 10am, a good deli where I can buy fresh cheese, good quiche and fancy continental foods, plus a good off license wouldn’t go amiss. Of course I could just accept that this is Acton and move a couple of miles down the road to Chiswick!

Before I finished, one more point on those statistics. However you look at the grocery market it is growing. This doesn’t seem right. How can a market just grow and grow? After all, economic theory tells us that as people get richer a smaller portion of their income goes on food. So I can understand more clothes shops, more book shops and so on but groceries? Why is the sector expanding?

Some growth will be due to an expanding economy and higher incomes, some will be down to clever retailers finding new ways to sell us more food we won’t eat and some of it will be people buying further up market, e.g. organic carrots instead of regular carrots. But what else is driving it?

Many of the answers to these questions are probably contained in the IDG report cited by the FT but that will probably cost me several thousand pounds to read. So, I’ll have to stick to hypothesising.

At the end of the day I don’t know what forces are at work here, and forces are important.

Yes I Blog – second Blog entry in one day

Maybe it’s odd that I’m writing a second Blog entry in one day – I’ve just finished the first! – but I have something else to say.

I’m just in the process of updating my website to refer to my Blog, which means I have to take down a page that said:

  • “Strange but true. OK maybe not strange to you but some people have asked me if I keep a Blog and I say No. I then go home, think about it and decide it would be a good idea but I still don’t do it. Why not?”

Well, as you can see I do now. So I should answer the two reason’s I gave for not Blogging:

  • “Firstly I keep a work diary, by keeping it closed I can think more freely. I think it was Dag Hammarskjold (second secretary general of the UN) who advocated “open agreements arrived at by secret means”; (In contrast to Wood Wilson who called for “open agreements openly arrived at”.) His logic was that sometimes you needed to change your position, and this was easier done in secret. I feel the same way.”

Well, maybe I’m making a rod for my own back and I’ll regret it later. For the moment I’d like to try Blogging, lets see what happens.

  • “Secondly, my writing is too poor to keep a Blog. I do publish – on this website and elsewhere – a lot of writing. But this has usually been much edited and changed before it sees the light of day. This allows me to exercise my thoughts and get them into clear(er) English.”

In writing this Blog I’m going to attempt to address this problem. Hopefully, I can keep my ideas to “bite sized chunks” which don’t need much editing. Secondly, I beg the readers forgiveness.

Lets see what happens.

Flexibility, design and process

Software is, in theory, infinitely flexible. I can take the software from my toaster and, with enough modification, get it to run a nuclear power station. OK, I’d have to be pretty odd to want to do this, and one could argue whether it is the same software (does it pass the Mary Rose test?*) but you get my point.

(*The Mary Rose Test, the Mary Rose, is a wooden battleship from Henry VIII’s navy that is preserved in Portsmouth. Imagine I decide to renovate the ship, so every day I replace one of the aging planks of wood with an identical replacement. Now, further imagine that I use the planks I remove to build a copy of the Mary Rose. When I am finished which is the original? And at one point, if any, did it change?)

Much of software design is concerned with removing your flexibility: encapsulation, data hiding, cohesion. Sometimes you actually improve things by removing the option. (Less is more.)

The same is true in development processes. Often a company cries, “We need a flexible development process” because… we need to respond to anything a customer can throw at us, all our projects are different, etc. But I wonder how many of the organizations that say this actually do vary their process? In my experience companies like to say this but the only real variation that occurs is the number of people on the project. The actual project process is left vague and ill defined “for flexibility.”

If there really is no similarity in the projects that organizations do then I wonder if the organization really exists for a particular reason. What is the core competency if no two projects are the like? Far more likely there is similarity in some way.

So, what we need is to cut off some options to ourselves. I’m not saying we need to document our process – heaven forbid! Nor am I saying that we need to call in process experts to advice us on how to do the project. What I’m saying is we need some kind of process base line we can talk about, some reference point. For if we can’t talk about it we can’t describe it and can’t modify it. Within that we need to give ourselves some constraint, leaving all our options open makes for too much uncertainty.

With all that said its important to note that process must come from the bottom up. It is for the people who live and breath the process to decide what they are doing. That doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced in their decisions, nor does it mean they can’t be lead or challenged to do better. It may just boil down to showing them that things can be different and providing them with the tools and options to do it differently.

And when they find a better way of doing things the people above them should use their leadership to support it, and to help others see the benefits and change too.

The worst thing we can do is to just assume that tomorrow will be a repeat of today. We should ask teams to do better, to change, to improve but we should also give ourselves boundaries and rules to work within. And we should, from time to time, question those boundaries and rules.

Blog entry 1: What do I hope to achieve by Blogging?

As some people know I’ve not been particularly keen on blogging, so, since this is a blog, indeed my blog, that raises the question: Why?

In a future entry I’ll write about why I don’t like the word why but for now lets rewrite the question: What do I hope to achieve by writing a blog?

Well, I first got thinking about blogging about 18 months ago when I was at XTC (Extreme Tuesday Club) when Chris Matts asked “Do you blog?”

So, I’ve spent 18 months thinking about this and now I have a need. For about 5 or 6 years now I’ve been writing magazine pieces. Mainly these have appeared in ACCU Overload. They started with technical pieces and moved through an enquiry phase and into a research based new paradigm phase (influenced by my MBA course). Lately have become more opinion pieces.

After six years its time I tried something new, a forum that is more opinion based may just be what I’m looking for.

Next I’m quite taken with the idea of personal journals, or diaries if you prefer, or learning diaries if you want to give them a longer title. My interest in these was started when I kept one as part of my MBA course. Since then I’ve kept a professional diary quite regularly. I use it as a sense making and thinking mechanism in work.

I’ve always said that the advantage of a private diary over a public blog is that I can say things privately that I can’t say publicly, e.g. my boss is ??? However, I’ve also noticed a tendency in my own diary to sometimes become a frustration vent that can be less than constructive. So, this blog is an experiment: What advantages does a public blog have? Well, I’m about to find out.

(I suppose a legitimate question is: what makes me think that anyone would want to read my ramblings? Well my website is now taking over 10,000 hits a month so maybe some people are interested in my views.)

So now I blog. This is Entry One.

What is this blog to be about?

I’ve been politically active in the past but I’m not any more so I don’t think this will be a political blog.

There will be lots of software development stuff in here, that’s my background, although its something I’m trying to get away from – I’ll write another entry about this and identity sometime. When I write about software development I’ll probably be writing about Agile development and Lean software, I’m a big fan of both of these.

There will be some business stuff – I’m interested in business so I’ll pull that in.

Now there is an intersection here. Two in fact.

The first is Change. This is the real problem that both software developers and businesses face. How do I change my development team to Agile practices? How do my customers need to change? How must my business change?

Second, there will be a lot of stuff about Patterns. I came to patterns through software development (you know, Gang-of-four stuff) but my current interest is in applying pattern techniques to the business domain. When I say “business patterns” I don’t mean the kind of “IT business patterns” that some people propose as “business patterns” – I mean IT free patterns of business strategy, operations, etc. Take a look at my business patterns page if you want to know more.

There you have it, another blog is born.