Business Intelligence

Food and trade are two universal axes of civilization.

After the invention of money, which I’ll define as a portable proxy for trust, the concept of a physical place where food was bought and sold quickly gained traction—a store or a shop, in other words.

In the digital age, many physical stores have gone the way of the home phone—no longer does Mohammed go to the mountain, it is the mountain that comes his way in byte-sized pieces.

But if we go back to Ancient Rome, Athens, or Babylon, the concept that endures is the market. To this day, a collection of stallholders peddling different wares—but always with food as a centerpiece—is an extremely popular venue. In North America and Europe, these markets are sanitized, but I’ve spent many wonderful hours wandering through markets from Cape Town to Kunming, Bali to Bangkok, where the opium of mysterious scents and the presence of live animals is de rigeur.

Live turtles for sale in a Guangzhou supermarket. Other live animals are also on display.

Even today, in small towns in southern Europe, it’s possible to find a market seller with live chickens or rabbits, knife at the ready for swift execution upon request. But in China, as was highlighted during the COVID pandemic, the selection of creatures available to the consumer was and presumably is quite remarkable.

If you went to market regularly, as most families would, you might perhaps favor certain stalls—in turn, the sellers would cater to your preferences and the sum of that mutual knowledge constituted what is nowadays termed business intelligence.

Over time, specialization of both goods and services in the food sector was replaced by the business model that dominates since World War II—supermarkets.

The first ever self-service grocery store was created in the improbable location of Memphis, Tennessee—a city better known for it’s fantastic music scene.

The amazing Charles Anderson Edward Berry doing his thing. When Keith Richards inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he said, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played.”

The store was called Piggly Wiggly, and a supermarket chain with that name exists to this day. The owner of the first store, which opened in 1916 at 79, Jefferson Avenue, was a visionary—Clarence Saunders, a man with only two years of formal education, developed three key concepts:

  • Self-service
  • Price-marking for all items
  • The shopping cart

Before Saunders changed the paradigm, shoppers would have their order filled by a clerk—Saunders found that the money made with the new business model amply compensated for the cost of shoplifting.

One of the downsides of the new model was the distance between client and store. The butcher, baker, grocer, and fishmonger no longer knew what the customer preference was, except through an averaged approach based on what parked and what flew off the shelves.

Long before big data, supermarkets dreamed up ways to get round that problem. First among them, the loyalty card. Everyone likes a bargain, and although most of us feel that a loyalty card is a generous gesture that supermarkets (and now gas stations, utility stores etc) extend to their best customers, actually it ain’t so.

The first-ever supermarket started over a century ago in the USA. Note the wicker baskets, male clients, and complete absence of African Americans.

Loyalty cards (I’ve never owned one) are a method of associating purchases with a specific client. If you don’t have a loyalty card but you pay with a bank card, as most people do, it’s the same thing—the number is linked to you and makes the connection to what you buy.

With the advent of big data, everything becomes that little bit more sinister. By linking card numbers (whether loyalty or otherwise) to purchasing data, a supermarket can very easily infer a lot about you: what, when, and where are a good start. It can certainly group customers by frequency, wealth, and preferences.

It knows whether you’re a wine and cheese person, or prefer sugar and spice and all things nice. Do you have pets? It knows. Cat or dog? Parrot? It knows. Do you have a medical condition? Allergies? Gluten-free? Are you a health nut? On the Atkins diet? It knows, or rather with artificial intelligence it can make a damn good guess.

Small children? Divorced with two-weekly visiting rights? It knows that too.

Since big brother knows, coupons and vouchers can be tailored to you, and big data companies help supermarkets understand a shopper’s habits on a broader scale.

Are you a superbigamist? Are you cheating on your favorite store? Indulging in supermarket promiscuity? It knows, in fact they all know where you’ve bought what.

Enter the digital world, where you can imagine not one supermarket, but many. I don’t mean physically, I mean that the same physical store five people know, with its well-planned arrangement of shelves, might have five digital twins, in the same way as Amazon shows me ‘other things I might like‘ based on my browsing history. So, although we all shop at Piggly Wiggly, we see five different porkers preloaded for perusal.

Waiter, waiter, there’s a spy in my soup.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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