How to make money (in groceries)

February 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

The latest FOODmap report was released this week by the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Who also do Food.

I pounced on it because I’m kind of obsessed with the rise of private-label (that is, retailer-owned) grocery brands. It seems that every time I go to the supermarket these brands are cramming the shelves and squeezing other brands to the outer margins. I’m not a short woman, but I have had to get on my toes (or rummage around on the floor) to reach non private-label groceries.

If you’re wondering why I have to go to the supermarket, it’s because of the long list of processed and packaged goods that a family goes through even when that family also buys from farmers markets and specialty grocers. Think dog food, toilet paper, soda water and breakfast cereal. And pretend-foods my kids will actually eat, like fish fingers.

Anyway, FOODmap has a little section on the private-label issue, from which I have extracted these facts:

  • Private-label food brands now account for one-quarter of all supermarket sales.
  • Private-label market share of bread and butter categories has more than doubled from 2002-2010.
  • The five biggest private-label categories are grocery staples: sugar, butter, eggs, bread and milk.
  • In each of these categories, private-label brands now have more than 50% market share.

There are some very good reasons for the growth of private-label brands, but I’m concerned about the loss of diversity in our supermarkets because of the category-killer expansion of retailer-owned brands.

On a related issue, in Question Time in the House of Representatives just yesterday, Bob Katter had a go at the intense duopoly of Woolworths and Coles, the top two retailers. If you push it out to the top five, you’re looking at more than 90% of the market.

Take a look at this extraordinary chart from a 2004 report Food Exporter’s Guide to Indonesia. (Sorry it’s so tiny.) It shows the level of concentration in selected Asian countries. Australia is way up there. Like I said, we buy more than 80% of our groceries from just a couple of companies.

Now look at China. There are 1.4 billion people in a country whose five biggest grocery chains only account for 2% of the market. It’s an incredibly decentralized and disintegrated market where everyone still buys from Ma and Pa on the street, the provisions shop on the corner and the wet market down the road. (Which is actually rather nice and makes for great holiday snaps.)

But if I were a grocery tycoon with a view to a kill, or at least a killing, that other 98% is what I’d be thinking about.


A note or two about music

February 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

It was with dismay, derision and eventually delight that I followed the Classic 100 countdown of twentieth century classical music. Especially the battle that raged between the musical purists (who wanted to hear and celebrate obscure and innovative works) and the toe-tapping populace (who had voted with their much more mainstream feet).

Halfway through the first Sunday I squirmed and fidgeted to a composition that had some listeners rejoicing and others hiding until it was over: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie (at number 81). Over on Twitter, Tim Senior declared the piece “uneasy, spiritual, effortfully joyful“. Effortful? This sounded like praise for the emperor’s new, horrible clothes. A word you’d use to describe art that was conspicuously messy, noisy and sort of…awful. Like giving birth in an art gallery.


The thing is, I grew up listening to bad music. My parents played the classics. Then they played the Hooked on Classics. Then they played Richard Clayderman’s piano, James Galway’s flute, Abba’s moog and guitars, Herb Alpert’s tijuana brass and the Inca’s godawful pan pipes.

They liked music. Awful music. Still do: my mother proudly announced on the phone just the other day that my father was playing Andre Rieu’s Christmas concert and it was SO LOUD!

But all that bad music may have opened my ears, because I spent the next twenty-five years singing, more or less.

As I prepared to leave home for university, my mother handed me a clipped-from-the-paper audition notice for the Queensland Youth Choir. A few weeks later, in a small room in Kelvin Grove, the musical director declared me in possession of a “warm tone” and signed me up. It was the end of the eighties and we were a show choir, a flash of Fame, a grown-up Glee.  We opened the Queensland Tourism Awards, performed David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus, laboured through Boojum! and scored a week-long gig in Japan. It was four years of intoxicating bliss.


So when Classic100 came along my inclination was to defend the popular and the crowd-pleasing (because why shame people for loving glorious anthems?) But the countdown and the debate that accompanied it made me think, and for that I am deeply thankful.

I laid down, headphones in ears, to listen to the final five on the list: Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Gershwin, Holst and Elgar. I felt connected, temporarily, to that slice of Australia to which these things mattered dreadfully much. It was nice.

And then, after it was over and everyone had retired to their corners and their beds, Julian Day played a piece that didn’t make the cut, and I hung on the line and listened.

It was “Black Angels” by George Crumb, an experimental piece about heaven and hell, angels and devils. It spoke so immediately, so clearly and so intricately to me; became not just an aural but a visual work in my head, that I wondered if I had taken some enabling substance. Within the first few bars a quiet and sinister cold descended. I heard frost forming on trees and ponds hardening into ice and snow settling on dead things. This was music to freeze by.

And just like that, it became crystal clear. Like Tim Senior said: “Isn’t that the sort of thing music should do? Not just soothe.”

The Young and the Shirtless

February 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I stared at a bloke while he worked out.
He was young,  tanned, shirtless and ripped. (Jacked. Buff. Swole. Cut. Shredded.)

I live near an expanse of sporting fields. On winter mornings it’s a frozen sea. On summer afternoons, it’s either a straw-coloured desert or a lush green cushion. This year, cushion.

It being warm, and having walked a mile or two, and recovering from an illness, I collapsed on the grass in the shade of a tree. The next time I propped myself up on an elbow there were two young men setting up a fitness circuit, right there on the oval. There was a bar bell, a kettle bell, a skipping rope on top of a nearby concrete plinth. A squat-jump station. The soccer goal post was a pull up bar: one chin up, one toes up, repeat. Then repeat all of it. Welcome to Crossfit.

I don’t normally eyeball the Mens Health stereotype. I think it boiled down to this:

  1. They seemed young. No, not that young, but young, like late teens. I liked their companionable effort. The way that some men at that age – for a variety of reasons – set physical goals for themselves that swiftly turn into obsessions. How much can you lift, how much can you squat, how many reps can you do?
  2. I was really impressed by the effort they’d gone to, in a public place, to put themselves out there with all their showy equipment and “Hey, check this out” moves. Dedication with a side of poseur.
  3. It looked like a gut-wrenching workout, so I felt a bit “WOO! HIGH FIVE!” for them.

Anyway, with each new effort my shirtless young hero’s six-pack buckled appealingly and as the workout extended, his olive skin started to shine with sweat. So there I was, Unaccustomed As I Am To Staring and old enough to be his mother. I felt…well…I felt a bit like this, really:

Keep it up, son. I’m just (as they say over at the bodybuilding forums) mirin.

PS. I’ve been looking for the slightest reason to link to the stupidest, most awesome, several page, first world problem thread in which a bunch of bodybuilders argue about how to fit a Pizza Hut Big Box into a bar fridge. This seems like a good enough excuse. Here it is.


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