Chris Blackhurst: Will Amazon be the new beast in our supermarkets jungle once it gets fresh?
One evening this week, I dined with a senior executive from one of our biggest supermarket groups. I'm covering my tracks because we agreed the conversation was off the record. However, I'm sure he would not mind if I went public on one subject. It wasn't about his position or his company per se but concerned the future of his entire industry.
We'd been talking about Ocado and what next for the online delivery service. Once we'd put the internet start-up to bed and discussed whether it should cease to be public and who might buy it, he let slip something. He said it amused him that we're all obsessed with what is a tiny concern in relative terms; upmarket and still fashionable, but small nonetheless. His worry, he said was definitely not Ocado. Neither was it his competitors in the UK.
It was Amazon. He was nervous about Amazon going into fresh food. He saw my disbelieving expression and shook his head. I was wrong, he said, to imagine that Amazon was content to stick to books, videos, music, sports equipment, electronic gadgets, DIY kit, nappies and clothes as it does at present. The US giant was determined to conquer the lot. In particular it wanted to fulfil our staple needs, selling us bread, milk, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.
In the UK, they're offering a limited range of groceries: coffees, teas, biscuits, crisps, pet foods, soft drinks, beer, wine and other non-perishables. But right now, he whispered, in Seattle, they're trialling a fresh foods service.
It was a telling moment. Immediately, what went through my mind was how I'd resisted, then succumbed, to the Amazon behemoth, switching unforgivably from my local record store, where the bloke behind the counter knew every track by every artist (or at least he gave that appearance) to the faceless corporation, and how music had been followed by books, and even tennis balls, and how, one by one, the music, books and sports shops had all vanished. And how the supermarkets were not immune from its relentless march.
The supermarkets! The very beasts that had done their own bit of high street demolition were in Amazon's sights. He was right: in Seattle, Amazon is selling fresh groceries through its AmazonFresh.com website. Orders are delivered by Amazon drivers in Amazon trucks from local Amazon depots. You can order by midnight for delivery before you wake up the next morning, or order by 1pm for delivery in time for dinner. If your order is big enough or you spend enough in a month, delivery is free.
No wonder my companion was scared.
To make it worse, he muttered, Amazon does not pay a penny in corporation tax (its operation here, by far the UK's most popular retail website, is owned by a company based in Luxembourg).
We looked at the table. There was silence. More alcohol was required. We were in 5 Hertford Street, the brand new club in Mayfair created by Robin Birley and hailed as a rival to the long-standing, nearby Annabel's.
The place was nicely busy. Not packed but reasonably full (it is August, after all). In essence, 5 Hertford Street is a very smart restaurant with a comfy bar and some lounges, and a nightclub in the basement. I was so impressed, I enquired about joining. Membership costs £1,500 a year, plus there's a joining fee of £750. Annabel's is said to have 9,000 members. I did the maths. Assuming Birley attracts a little over half that number (as he surely will, his club is excellent), that's 5,000 members, coughing up £7.5m a year. If he reaches Annabel's heights, he's looking at £13.5m. And, don't forget, that's before anyone has paid for any food or wine. Wow.
Umunna knows his stuff and is set for the top
To the House of Commons, to meet Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary. If I was in the Lib Dem or Tory hierarchies, I'd be alarmed by Umunna.
He's worked in big business. He was with the London law firms Herbert Smith and Rochman Landau, before plunging into politics full time.
He's able to speak the language of the City, but is not afraid to criticise. He's clever, smart, with a considered, careful answer for everything. He's 33, and has been an MP for little more than two years. Already he's in the Shadow Cabinet, asked to go head-to-head with Vince Cable. To say he's come a long way in a short time does not do his rapid progress justice. I suspect he's got a lot further to go.
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