To Have and Have Not

Crabs, Covid and the Art of War

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Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

The seas of South Australia were warmed by the intense sun as they lapped the scorched sand of the beaches. In the shallows were the shadows of 800 million Spider Crabs drifting harmoniously in the tides of their life. They are there for a single purpose. They are not there to mate. They are there to be reborn. Like an evangelical Easter Christian, they are there to remove themselves from their former life to take on a new cloak of armour through baptism. The first Spider Crabs to make it to the shallows are the first to shed their shells. They break free of the homes on their backs and like the coming of the Jewish feast of Sukkot they are exposed without s’chach as their now defenceless whole is washed back to the depths by the pulsating tide. Unlike the hardened shell that they have just discarded, their protection is now softer and an alarming, but attractive, shade of orange.

At this rebirth they are at their most vulnerable and with no regard for familial ties it is their fellow crabs who strike. Those yet to shed become the metaphysical incarnation of the apocalypse foreseen in the Book of Revelation — “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” They lash out with flailing mandibles as the remaining ‘hard-shelled’ crabs rip into the bright orange flesh and lacerate the underbellies of these once mighty, but now vulnerable examples of Southern Ocean crustacea. The sea becomes misty by the stirring of the sea bed and the haze of freshly ground crab flesh. Why? So that those who will come to be reborn last have the strength to remove their carapace and escape once again to the murky depths, until next time.

The commercial world may not be so cutthroat as crab life. Legitimate businesses don’t tend to murder people. There are some similarities though between the cutthroat world of the South Seas crab and the battle between the corporate giants of our business sector. The early adopter is always the one most at risk. There is value in bricks and mortar. The enemy is often behind you, not in front of you. As Sun Tzu says in the Art of War, “In the midst of chaos there is opportunity.”

Covid has thrown up many opportunities for the commercial world and in a previous blog I reviewed how well people had performed from the public sector point of view. In that blog I said the public sector cannot survive without the private sector. In our current time, there is a strong case that commercial organisations have more than stepped up to the mark to try and support the National Health Service and others in the fight against Covid and have often done so with little commercial gain for themselves other than what cynics might describe as their own public relations narrative.

Given the nature of the crisis it is probably only right that I start with the internet. There are three big winners here; Amazon, Netflix and online games providers. Of all these the one that simply had to make money was Amazon — it was almost ordained by God that regardless of what happens in the world, Amazon will make money. What startled me though was the way they could so quickly adapt to the circumstances. Given the enormity of their inventory to instantly be able to identify those items that were non-essential and then re-categorise them so they had longer deliveries showed the power of their systems and back office. It also makes you think hard about the data they have on each of us that can predict what we are likely to purchase and then adjust their powerful algorithms so quickly. Yes, I know some computer nerds will tell me that is just a matter of data manipulation but even putting the word ‘switch’ into Amazon search creates more than 50,000 products you can buy.

Netflix is also a huge winner. I read that they have had to reduce the bandwidth of their services simply because too many people were watching and therefore clogging up the domestic broadband in streets across the country. They have also brought forward the launch of some programmes to meet the demand they know will be there. Then there is the online gaming community. The stock market may have crashed around our ears but the sensible investor would have dived into Nintendo or other platforms and reaped the benefits of their growth. I was impressed how quickly they too could change their software to enable the NHS to advertise within their games to remind people to stay at home.

Then we come to the supermarkets. Their turnover shot up in March by more than £1bn and yet they were simply unable to keep up with the demand. Waitrose saw a 50% increase in turnover. Understandably, they ended all deals on products and so not only has turnover gone up, but sales were being made at full price. We can all imagine how life will be when we return to ‘normal’, but I wonder whether food is one area we can no longer take for granted. Our dependency on simple facts of life like food are somewhat more interconnected than we previously accepted. I will write another time about how the public has dealt with the problem of Covid but it is fair to say we have lots to learn about the world we live in and have just been taught an enormous lesson on food security.

Full marks must go to Dyson Industries. For a long time they have been at the centre of technology and the British entrepreneurial spirit. They have often been derided because they started by inventing a new type of vacuum cleaner and hand dryers (as if that is not cutting edge). In reality they have been much more than this. To have turned their design skills to the problem of hospital ventilators and produced a new design in three days demonstrates once again that dependency of the health service on innovation and cutting edge technology from the private sector is something we must all remember. The James Dyson Foundation already invests heavily in medical research and I wonder whether we will see a new manufacturing division of Dyson open up in the medical sector to produce more products for the NHS.

Drugs companies and chemical companies have not come off so well during this crisis. The seemingly total inability to supply testing devices has exposed something about the makeup of the UK science and technology sectors. The fact Germany could carry out testing was because of its very large chemicals sector and much larger laboratory base on which to test at speed. Someone needs to sort this and in any subsequent inquiry into this time decisions will need to be made about the decline of our chemicals sector. There are over 100,000 people employed in drugs and chemicals industries and yet we seem to have been slow to respond.

There are many commercial companies having a bad crisis. Airlines and the leisure sector have nowhere to turn. The reality is that all they can do is sit and wait out the storm and hope that people change their behaviour fast enough over the Summer to start booking destinations for the coming months.

Banks owe the country big time. The sheer cost and effort the nation has gone to over ten years of paying back for bailing out banks seems not to have sunk in. They have been slow to support business where the Government has been speedy. There are so many new and emerging challenger banks in the UK that are much more fleet of foot that unless the old-style banks get their act together the drift towards the new will continue for the foreseeable future.

Finally, we come to the non-food retailers. This has been a disaster for them. This has demonstrated more than ever, if they need telling, that there are two things that will mark out whether they survive. Firstly, they need to decide whether they are truly going to go online. No bricks and mortar retailer has ever come close to competing with Amazon and that should worry them. The speed with which they have invested in the web has been shocking and shows more than ever the lack of true retail talent in the sector. Which brings me to the second issue; the fact that retail is dull, and will be until the time comes that retailers realise they are now entertainment and they need to wow their customers to entice them to buy. Buying £5 pants in a lino floored shop flooded by strip lighting is no longer going to work. Lower the lights, make the interiors luxurious and give us other things to do whilst we are in your shops and maybe retailing will survive. They seem to forget they are competing with the home, sofa and TV all of which I can enjoy whilst shopping online. If shops do not excite us then they deserve to die.

As I have alluded to, all these observations come from understanding people. Until the time comes that we feel confident in the places we go and the people we know life will never get back to normal again. I will reflect next time on how we have all coped with this oddest period of time, in not just our own lives but in the lives of many around the globe. To quote Sun Tzu once again; “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

This article was first published on The Nudge Factory website on the 27 April 2020

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