Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

Idea – Small Business everyday – not just once a year on Saturday

Posted by shannonclark on November 19, 2012

This Saturday is the return of the American Express sponsored alternative to Black Friday, Small Business Saturday which is indeed a great event where American Express is using their marketing clout to promote shopping at local, small businesses. if you are an American Express cardholder you definitely should register before Nov 24th via the above link and qualify to get $25 credit if you spend more than $25 (on a single transaction) at a registered small business – either per the website above or a Square merchant.

No complaints about that emphasis from me but it did spark an idea and a question.

Why restrict this movement to one Saturday a year? Why not create a way to promote shopping from innovative businesses every day? 

Clearly there are a lot of complicated reasons to focus on a single day – for one it is a great way for American Express to leverage marketing dollars to make a single push and to emphasize the value of accepting American Express to small business merchants (i.e. since it costs more for the merchants anything like this day that adds value to that transaction via stretching marketing dollars is a win for small businesses) but I think there is a lot of great opportunities for networks of smart businesses to work together to create value for all participating merchants.

First however a few definitions and restrictions I would put on any such project were I to pursue it.

  1. The value for consumers in shopping at a small, local business should be the service they get and what they can get there that can’t easily be found elsewhere. In many cases this means businesses that offer unique items, often locally made and/or that support and service older items no longer available elsewhere. Used bookstores versus an only new bookstore for example.
  2. If I were running things I would emphasize the value of curation and editing over comprehensiveness. Small businesses win against the Amazon.coms and Walmarts not by competing on price or selection but by offering better service – which includes editing what is available to only sell great products. This in turn also allows for value to buyers even if the absolute price of a given good is the same (or even higher) than that good might be at a big box store or massive online site. Busy shoppers value service – and help in identifying the great versus the not-so-great is, for many, worth spending slightly more (avoiding the costs and time of returning items or replacing things that wear out quickly)
  3. Small businesses don’t necessarily mean tiny one-woman shops. Relative to the $100B+ massive big box chains like Walmart nearly every other retailer is “small” – small in this context primarily means in ethos and focus – though I think I would start with businesses primarily in the <$100M/year range (mostly in the <$10M range with many in the <$1M). These could be mid-sized businesses like San Francisco’s Rickshaw Bagworks or even smaller businesses like my wife’s design business.
  4. Here in SF we have an example of the type of thing I’m thinking about – SF Made is a network of 100’s of local to San Francisco makers – companies that aren’t just based in SF but in most cases manufacture what they sell here in San Francisco. SF Made is close to what I’m envisioning though I think it should be a national movement not just a local citywide one.

I don’t mind in thinking about this idea if it excludes many types of small businesses. The idea isn’t to promote shopping locally or at small businesses just because they are small or local – ignoring whether they offer great products at fair prices – rather the idea is to find a network of likeminded, related businesses that through pooling together can better market and promote the unique products and service they offer. Any such organization has to be about the value to buyers as much (perhaps even more so) than it is about the value to the local businesses. If it is this could be a highly sustainable movement – if the value isn’t there however or if it is too skewed towards one party over the other then this isn’t a sustainable, long term movement.

Groupon’s approach isn’t, I think, the right on – it emphasizes price over quality and service. What I’m thinking about would be a service that is not open to any business to join – but which rather is possibly a co-op where very business has to be approved in some manner (perhaps not by each other – this should be open even to “rivals” as long as they all meet the core criteria and philosophy). Once a member and once pooling marketing and promotional budgets the idea would be that this organization could do things that no single small business could reasonable take on – sustained online marketing campaigns, long running offline advertising and promotional campaigns etc. Possibly this organization would also serve as a negotiator on behalf of these smaller businesses for a wide variety of products and services (health insurance for example but also negotiating with payment processing firms like Square, American Express etc.

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How to make chicken soup – part 1, the shopping and my recipe

Posted by shannonclark on December 24, 2008

Today I am making Chicken Soup, entirely from scratch. This post is my first post on what I am going to be doing, as well as how I prepared to make soup. I’ll post this, then later add a bunch of photos as well as a second post (or two) about the final results.

But first as I would argue in every case when it comes to food, it all starts with what you put into the food you are making. Yesterday I spent much of the day shopping for the three+ meals I will be cooking over the next two days. First a few dishes I’m bringing to a party this evening (for Jewish friends and other refugees from Xmas) and then on the 25th a brunch and likely dinner I’m hosting also for friends for whom the 25th is a day off work when most things are closed.

For my soup I shopped at three places this evening.

First, my butchers, in my case Drewes Bros Butchers which is reputed to be the oldest continuously open butcher’s shop in all of California, now owned by the fourth family to own it, it is an amazing neighborhood institution and bastion of really amazing food (and service). There I purchased a whole, free-range roasting chicken as well as two very full bags of chicken backs & necks. The parts will go into making the stock, the whole chicken into the completed soup.

Second, to my local neighborhood produce market, another amazing local institution and literally a corner store. There I bought bunches of celery, large (and baby) carrots, fresh Thyme, and onions (sweet and yellow) which will all play a part in the final soup.

And third, before I went to see the movie Milk this evening I stopped by another neighborhood institution, Cliff’s Variety where I purchased a conical sieve to use while making the stock.

To make the stock my plan is to take the chicken backs and necks out and place them into a roasting pan and roast them until a bit browned. I will also roast a few carrots roughly cut, celery, and a roughly cut whole yellow onion. When these are a bit softened I’ll put them in a lot of water which I will let boil. I’ll then deglaze the roasting pan and pour those juices into the pot as well. For spices I’ll add fairly course sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, fresh thyme, a few very high quality bay leaves, and probably a few cloves of fresh garlic.

I will let this simmer until the meat is falling off the bones, the bones are separating, and the vegetables are quite fully cooked.

Then I will pour this mixture through the conical strainer into containers and will seal those containers and place the stock into the fridge.

Next I will take the whole roasting chicken, rub it with butter, sea salt and fresh pepper and will roast it. Probably with some of the fresh Thyme in the inside cavity. As the chicken roasts (I’ll occasionally check on it and baste it if it looks necessary) I will also dice into bit size portions some organic carrots from the farmer’s market, celery, a few sweet onions, and will also use the baby carrots I bought. These I will roast (for about half the time as the chicken) – tossing them in a little bit of olive oil (extra virgin) and sea salt.

When the chicken is done and the vegetables are roasted (but still slightly hard – i.e. not entirely soft) I will take the chicken out and let it rest. Then I will carve the chicken (skin included) into small, bite sized portions, though I may leave some bones (legs, wings).

For the final soup I will skim off any fat from the cooled stock, heat the stock and then add the vegetables and let that simmer for a while, then I will add the chicken and taste (it may still need salt or other spices). For the final touch, just before serving I will stir in a few just cracked organic, cage free eggs into the piping hot soup, stirring as I do so to create egg drop soup.

I hope the result will be fairly tasty. It should, deliberately, be relatively mild, though the carmelization as a result of roasting (both of the bones for the stock and the whole chicken) should add layers to the flavor. I’m cooking for about 10-15 people later tonight so I suspect there may not be a lot of leftovers.

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Please copy this new business idea (but give credit)

Posted by shannonclark on November 23, 2008

Open Office

Consider this post as cc-atribution licensed – feel free to exploit this idea commercially (heck that’s the point) but please do give me at least some credit if you do

A timely, new (if also old) business idea

I describe myself as a locavore – whereever possible I try to purchase the food I eat – whether in restaurants or that I cook at home – from local sources – ideally as close to the source of production as possible. I shop at the butcher’s shop down the street, the corner (and great) produce market, the local farmer’s markets and try as much as possible to avoid shopping at big box national chains and when I do I try to purchase mostly locally sourced, seasonal products as well as fair-trade and environmentally friendly products when I have to (i.e. toilet paper etc).

But being a locavore is not just about food – I also try to do most of my other shopping – whether clothes, books, or gifts for family and friends from local stores. I often buy used books as gifts – both because I often find highly personally relevant works that way – and because philosophically I like supporting good reuse. However I also recognize that this does not support the authors directly – so in the case of books by friends of mine (which is literally nearly 100+ books a year, not all of which I buy) I generally buy those new, usually from a local independant bookstore (or occasionally the first week they come out from a big chain store such as Borders to help out my friend’s first week sales numbers). 

So what does my personal shopping preferences have to do with my business idea?

I moved to San Francisco only a few years ago, in that time I have spent a lot of time and wore out a few pairs of shoes, walking the streets of San Francisco learning the neighborhoods, finding shops and areas of interest. However I find that there is no good source for me to refer to, especially as we enter into the holiday shopping season, to know what stores are selling what, sales or special offers they are making, and especially about newer shops which might be offering just the right thing I want to buy.

I’ve looked at many of the various free publications here in SF (SF Weekly, The Bay Guardian) as well as a few of the monthly magazines – and while they offer a limited amount of coverage of the local scene (and even more limited amounts of local ads) none of them do a very good job – and the extremely local options (my neighborhood Noe Valley has a very small local newspaper) while interesting are quite limited in their coverage and fairly low quality.

Sites such as Yelp offer some coverage – though I do not like Yelp in the least – I find it next to useless – the food coverage is horrible and the shopping coverage to random and fundementally people have way too different a range of perspectives as to what is a “good value” to cite just one example or of what tastes good – I’m biased but I think I am a far more discriminating restaruant critic than the vast majority of the reviewers on Yelp.

My idea is a high quality, probably seasonal, web AND print publication (or publications)

The publication would be relatively high quality in the print edition – though it would start with the digital edition and extend rapidly to a print edition (once ad commitments were high enough to pay the cost of printing probably in color and a distribution/subscription plan was set). 

In terms of format the coverage of stores (which would be a major focus of the publication) would be highly visual – lots of photos to illustrate every article – at a minimum of the storefront, of the owner and/or staff, of a few representative products. The articles would ideally be part of a piece covering a broad theme – either a collection of related types of businesses and/or a given neighborhood of the city. 

Publishing an article would be seperate and NOT related to that business running an advertisement in the publication. But in the course of talking with each business ads would be pitched – the articles would run online, would include a link to the store’s website (if it has one) but would be writen to be relatively timeless – i.e. wouldn’t be focused on current sales (or perhaps only a current show in the case of a gallery). If a store pays for an ad – that ad would be a platform for them to maintain up-to-date information about offers (discounts for readers, current specials, new shows, upcoming events). The ad text would be clearly identified as being an ad. 

Pricing would be flexible – this is a bit of an experiement – my rough thinking is that broadly speaking pricing would be tiered – with one level for businesses under some arbitrary size (or in certain categories) and a tiering up level up – the result in part being that national chains would be charged almost certainly a higher rate than most local businesses – though a local business selling very high end products (and thus if their volume is also high having a fairly high revenue base) would also be charged at the higher rates. Ideally the rates would be for the whole season – so for a few months at a minimum. 

I don’t know the right rates – but my gut says something <$200 or so for a small business (<$250k/yr gross revenues) and going up from there to a few $K for a business such as Macy’s.

Technically each advertiser would be given a way to update their ad text – which would appear online around the article covering their store/business as well as in relevant sections (so in the larger article covering their neighborhood or business type). Before the print edition(s) each advertiser would submit the content they want to have – small businesses would likely have TEXT only advertisements and those paying a slightly higher rate would have small sized graphic ads (i.e. 1/4 page or likely smaller) with the largest companies who pay the higher rates being offered either a set of small graphic ads or a full page ad. The premium placements (back cover, front pages, middle pages) would go to the highest rates though likely at least one or two of those pages would be reserved for a collection of small, text ads from smaller local buisnesses. 

So this is a very commercial idea – it is not about long form investigative reporting, nor is it about highly political ranting (as is so much of the free weekly press). But neither is it only focused on businesses of a given type – i.e. not just “green” businesses or in the other extreme not just high fashion/design businesses. 

Executing on this idea would take a lot of people – and a lot of work – and the result would need to be carefully edited and produced to avoid (in the physical print form) being unwieldy – my instinct is to print many different editions – perhaps as frequently as once a week – with each one focusing on different neighborhoods and different themes – i.e. perhaps local butchers and bakers in the week before Thanksgving but also cover three distinct neighborhoods of the city – so both theme and geography – with the final result being nearly complete coverage of the city in some fixed period of time (perhaps the whole year or perhaps on a rotating basis over 3-4 months).

Each print edition might include a few long form articles – but initially I think it should not – the focus shoudl be on some visual (as well as textual) coverage of lots of businesses and lots of themes. As an article is written and edited the whole piece would be published online – probably with an editorial standard of a minimum number of photos (2-4 at least I think), an accurate address (or addresses), hours of operation, website link.

Of course technically much of this data could be marked up as one or more microformats – but that’s not the point here – the point is to build up a rich set of interesting content – content that gives you a solid sense of what the buisness is about (via visuals and writing with a human voice) combined with relevant – if also commercial – messages (i.e. ads from the business or related businesses – always clearly marked). 

The idea here is also to be a curator of the city (or more accurately to enable multiple people to curate different aspects of the city) so not every business will be covered – only the ones that a given curator thinks are notable – are worthy of being writen up and discussed. 

So that is my idea in the broad outlines – yes, it is in many ways very traditional – it builds on past ideas (Yellow Pages, those free publications you find in most cities in your hotel rooms) but I think there are a few twists here as well – lots more visual content (enabled in part by digital cameras) and an experimentation in the form of advertising content – i.e. to have ads which are updated by the businesses automatically for the duration of their contract (technically this could be via a custom RSS feed from a feed under the business’s control – with some HTML/URL filtering/preprocessing) Heck, the ads could technically be updated via Twitter!

In thinking about the businesss requirements of this idea I think it could be bootstrapped by a small core cadre of passionate people – it would require a few sales people and a lot of writers – initially everyone would be working essentially on commission/spec – but eventually a rate per business would be set, as well as rates for the curators who would choose which businesses meet the criteria and editors who would ensure that all copy is of a high quality (gramatically, factually accurate, all photos licensed accurately etc). 

The reason to combine a print publication and the web are many – for one the print publication would then, in part, be distributed at the many local stores featured in the publicaiton (probably sold there not given away for free – placing a small price on it gives a revenue incentive to the stores – probably the face value would be set at say $3.00 or so – and the stores would keep it all for the say 20 copies they get for free – if they want more they pay for them at some preset rate)

Anyway lots of details to work out – but if you are interested in exploring this idea here in San Francisco leave a comment or contact me directly. If you want to explore this idea in your own city – as I said at the beginning consider this cc-atribution – please go and try this – build up a great buisness and make lots of money – just also please give me some small bit of credit.

Posted in advertising, Entrepreneurship, internet, reading, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shopping for a Car part one, personal notes

Posted by shannonclark on April 5, 2008

This is a personal note about thinking about buying a car. In the next post (which may be posted elsewhere and I’ll then post a link to it from here I’ll analyze the current state of car shopping online in the US, which I will argue is pretty dreadful)

The last time I bought a car was Dec 1999, before buying I did a fairly significant amount of research online, though in the end I didn’t quite do enough, the deal I ended up signing was not particularly great and four years later when my car loan was due in full I calculated the value of my car at that time, how much I was actually using it, and decided to sell it and pay off the loan instead of buying it outright and keeping it. Probably the right move as I had almost not used the car at all, but at times I wonder. Though I went for a few more years where I really didn’t need a car, now I suspect I do really need to own a car again, far too often the lack of having a car is impeding me from real business (and personal) life matters – and no, ZipCar or CityCarShare are not alternatives for me.

First why both ZipCar and CityCarShare are not good options for me.

  1. My usage needs are almost never fixed or known in the future. I never know when I would want to return from someplace when I want to drive, in fact all I usually know is that I don’t know how late I’ll be staying. Mostly I don’t need a car for shopping (I don’t shop all that much at all) rather I would need a car for business events outside of San Francisco, or inside of SF but not nearby (currently it takes me 30-60 mins by public transportation and/or walking to get to many events, time I don’t always have)
  2. While ZipCar’s day rental is indeed an option, it is also a really huge and very new to my budget financial hit. $60/day for car, gas and insurance is I’ll admit a decent deal, but it is pretty painful as compared to typically spending ~$60/month or less on my entire transportation budget. For the month, not for a single day. I buy a $45/mth muni pass and most months may take an occasional taxi or use the BART or CalTrain (at most spending say $100 in a month of a lot of taxis and trains). The very rare exception is taxis to the airport, but even if I owned a car I’d probably still use a taxi to avoid parking fees as my typical trip is usually a week+ in length.
  3. My other likely usage of a car is long trips – driving down to LA, driving up to Wine Country, to Portland, driving to Half Moon Bay, to Monterey, to Santa Barbara. If I owned a car I’d like do such drives on a more regular basis, many weekends most likely in fact (though certainly having a girlfriend or at worst friends to join me on such trips would make that even more likely). This too is not a particularly good option for ZipCar or CityCarShare. I could, I guess, rent cars on a more regular basis (I haven’t rented one yet in 2+ years in SF) or experiment with using ZipCar’s multiday rentals for a few days at a time before I buy a car, that’s an option indeed, though only for shortish trips.
  4. The closest cars for both ZipCar and CityCarShare are a 10 minute or so walk from my house (about 1/2 mile or longer w/hills) That means it is far from spur of the moment, I can’t just walk out of the door and pick up the car, instead I have to reserve the car online (or over the phone I think) and then go there, drive back home if I need to load up the car with items from my house (which very often would be one reason I might need a car). In contrast if I buy a car I’ll likely also negotiate with my landlord for a parking space in my building – which also removes the issues of finding a parking space or dealing with street cleaning on weeks when I’m traveling.

So though I may cancel my CityCarShare account (haven’t used them in 6+ months so it is wasted money) and I may sign up with ZipCar in part to use them as an extended test drive service for the next month or two, I have decided that I almost certainly need to buy a car.

But how to buy a car? Car buying is a pretty horrible and painful process, at least it has always been so for me in the past, rife with scams, pushy salesmen (“used car salesman” is an insult for a reason) and countless issues whether you are buying a new car or an older used car.

A few of the issues I’m considering:

  • Technology inside of cars is more impacted by Moore’s Law. For many decades most of the technology in cars changed slowly with gradual but relatively minor changes. However increasingly cars are deeply computerized and technological, I suspect but don’t know for sure (going to research this) this has some pretty serious impacts in considering a used car. From whether or not mechanics will be able to maintain a car over time to whether even on a not all that old used car I’ll be able to use many modern tools (play my iPod on the car radio, have accurate and updated navigational systems, have a secure car from a locking/alarm standpoint)
  • My tastes and the car industry are clearly diverging. I hate blind spots in cars I drive, yet many “modern” cars seem to me at least to be minimizing the rear window and creating ever larger and more annoying blindspots due to roof framing and window/rear end shapes. Also many cars intended for younger, urban drivers such as myself (Scion for example) have for some bizarre to my eye reasons moved dials etc to the center of the car vs from in front of the driver. Many cars (starting with “new Beetle” from the late-90’s also now have to my eye vast expanses of space in front of the driver yet inside the car (you can literally put a large pizza box on the front dash of a Beetle) which is not a design I like at all.
  • My not owning a car is a statement of my green & environmental bent, but generally I don’t like most of todays hybrids. I hate driving the Prius, I don’t like the look, the controls, the feel of the seats, the blindspots, or the overall feel of the car, I haven’t been comfortable when I’ve driven it in the past (via City Carshare). I’m not much more of a fan of the look of most other hybrids on the market, certain Lexus models being a possible exception, but they are larger, bulkier, far more costly and not all that frugal of cars in any case. Especially given the performance of European sold cars today, I find the majority of US cars depressingly bad and behind the times (why we don’t have current generation diesels for example is something I really don’t understand – in Europe there are many which get 40-50+ mpg, with great performance and very very low emissions.)

Features I want in any car I buy in the future:

  • Flexible and ample storage. Two of my past three cars have been a hatchback (and yes, I realize for some bizarre to my mind reason hatchbacks are not popular in the US). I loved the flexibility of having a car that could easily convert to hold a lot of stuff, I didn’t use it all that often but I did my share of moving for myself and friends, here in SF I could easily see using a car with ample storage to take advantage of Craigslist, to help friends move, to throw even better dinner parties, to take trips to Napa and come back with some cases of wine, to perhaps go golfing for the first time in many years.
  • Great city (and highway) gas mileage. 20 mpg is not great neither is 25 mpg, I’m looking more for 30+ mpg ideally closer to 40 than 30. And yes, I know this is here in the US getting into the realm of seemingly impossible to buy, but if you look at the cars for sale in Europe they manage it (for cars larger than Smart cars in fact)
  • Fantastic handling and power when I need it. I am not a crazy or fast driver. But every car I have owned has had sports handling and more than ample power so when I needed it I could always accelerate more. Cars that went to 60 in very fast times (sub 7 secs I think though I’ll see if I can look up the details). Cars that could cruise comfortably at 80-90 mph and were perfectly happy to go much, much faster (my last Honda was happy to go up to 150+ though the fastest I ever took it was about 100 mph).
  • Not a manual transmission. I do not know how to drive stick. Nor am I interested in the least in learning. I do not want to think about driving when I’m driving – I much prefer to think about the road around me, I don’t want to have to monitor my car, revs, current gear etc. I simply do not care. Doesn’t interest me in the least. I’m not a car person – I want to get into the car and drive, under whatever conditions.
  • Extremely reliable. Did I mention I’m not a car person. I do not want to get to know my mechanic on a first name basis, I’d much rather own a car that requires only a minimal amount of regular services – oil changes, tire rotations, checkups occasionally but does not require lots of repairs and tweaking to get good, reliable service. And when or if I do need service, I want to drive a car that can be serviced wherever I happen to be most of the time – i.e .not something so obscure as to only have a handful of mechanics capable of servicing it as needed.
  • Value for my money. For my use a car is an expense, not an investment. I am not going to buying a collectible car or doing so much service and improvements to the car to render it capable of even holding even with what I pay for it, I fully expect nearly any car I buy to lose value as I own it, but my preference would be for a car (like all of my past cars) which holds a good portion of that value even after many years and miles. My last two Acuras even after I used them heavily held their value solidly, as did my Honda. Cars which tend to have solid and relatively stable used values for many, many years would be my preference over cars (such as many American models) that tend to crater quickly and don’t hold a great deal of value when they are much older – due to reliability issues etc.

My guess is that I am not going to be buying a new car (unless I close some amazing sales in the next few months – which is in fact a real possibility) but neither do I want to buy a beater and extremely cheap car (see above, I don’t want to spend my time with a mechanic). Instead I will probably plan on shopping for a lightly used car – a dealer’s demo model, a short term lease return, likely something which is just a year or two old so fairly modern and not yet completely out of date, but possibly with relatively high mileage for that age (my first car I bought for a deep discount because the last owner had put ~40k miles on it in one year).

But at this point I don’t have much of a clue as to what cars I should even start looking at – which models I should try to test drive and then watch out for as used car sales. Nor have I settled on a budget which I’m comfortable spending or once I have settled on that, researched what my CA car insurance rates would add, what my other CA fees (smog, license plates, parking space if my landlord charges me etc) plus estimated the gas costs then I will try to decide if I’m better off just biting the bullet and spending a lot with some combo of zipcar and car rental companies perhaps with taxis to get to the cars I’m renting.

Or if there is some other option I should consider – perhaps a very cheap car + zipcar. i.e. a cheap car with low insurance costs but some reason to also believe low maintenance costs but which might not meet all of my needs (might be smaller for example) and then use Zipcar for certain other uses.

Anyway it will be complex next few months as I research this.

Posted in advertising, economics, Entrepreneurship, personal, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »