Friday, 27 October 2006

Steak vs Pizza

So finally and after weeks of trying my family and I achieved what I was beginning to believe might be impossible. We got into the new Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone.

On previous occasions we’d been there in the hope of finding a table but faced with a long queue and an unknown waiting time we had given up and gone downstairs for a pizza at Primi Piatti.

Actually I’m not going to complain about not getting in at an earlier attempt because there are few things that give me more genuine, heartfelt joy than seeing a busy restaurant. There is something so satisfying about seeing people enjoying good food, good drink and good company out in public. It’s such a fundamentally human thing to do.

I’ve never actually worked in any sort of food outlet but I’ve known a few restaurant owners and I understand quite how much hard work goes into starting and maintaining the business. I also know that it takes a certain type of person either to run a restaurant or to work in one. In short someone completely unlike me. Someone who can always show a smile, make people feel welcome and who doesn’t impose his bad moods and temper tantrums on the paying customer.

So when I see a restaurant that is so busy that I can’t get a table I know something is working well and the new Spur seem to be a good example of this.

However the thing I really started thinking about was one of my favourite subjects, yet again.

Competition.

Specifically the inevitable competition that will emerge between Spur and their neighbour downstairs: Primi Piatti.

Incidentally I make no reference to either of the other two restaurants on the same floor as Spur, neither of whom ever seem to have any customers. How DO they pay the rent when they are always empty?

Anyway, back to Spur vs. Primi. Are they competitors?

Well, obviously they sell different types of food. Spur don’t serve pizza or pasta. Primi do sell steaks but they are very different to those on offer at Spur. So far, that is the only major difference between them but both satisfy a need. Sometimes I need a steak, other times I need a pizza.

It strikes me that they are targeting broadly the same community. Spur is obviously very family-oriented with balloons and a kiddie’s adventure area and the evening I visited there were dozens of little monsters (mine included) running around, making loads of noise and generally having a great time. Primi is slightly more adult-oriented but my kids love it there as well.

Also they seem to focus on similar price brackets. My feeling was that we paid pretty much what we would have paid if we had eaten downstairs.

Both have a slightly eccentric quality that I enjoy. Primi have their crazy uniforms and d├ęcor decisions, Spur have loads of noise and, well, until you’ve seen the line dancing you won’t believe it.

Finally they both seem to have focussed on what matters most to me as I write this – the customer service experience. Both have staff who you can tell have been hired and trained to be cheerful, friendly and attentive. Most importantly of all both have what I would call “active management”. Unlike certain restaurants where the manager is that faceless one hidden in the back office doing the accounts, both Primi and Spur have managers you can’t help seeing. They are constantly walking around, observing the customers, the service they are getting and, where necessary, intervening to prevent or resolve any issues that come up. Or they just smile at you, perhaps have a quick chat and generally make you feel like they are happy you are there giving them your money.

This is one of the areas where we consumers can expect to benefit. Although personally I can’t think of a way in which Primi could actually improve their service we now have a guarantee that they will maintain their standards. If they don’t we’re all likely just to go upstairs. It works the other way round as well. Spur need to get their service levels as consistently high as Primi’s so we don’t all stay down below.

So yes, I DO think they will compete with each other to some extent. However I can’t see that being a problem. They are addressing slightly different demands but I suspect that the market is big enough for both of them. My prediction is that once the novelty value of Spur has died down a little both restaurants will continue to be popular. The likely victims will be the other restaurants in the vicinity, the ones we already seem to be avoiding anyway.

My only request is that both of them try their very best to vary the menu somehow. Yes, we know they are franchises and that there are very strict controls but a little variety would be nice. I really think I could recite the Primi menu while wearing a blindfold I’m so familiar with it. Even a little variety would be good sometimes.

This week’s stars!

  • Peter and the entire crew at Spur at Riverwalk for selling us a great meal and for completely exhausting my family. I was awake for 2 hours the next morning before any of them even started to wake up. Good luck to you and keep it up!
  • Will and the crew downstairs at Primi. Don’t worry, we still love you. After all you still make the best pizza in the country.
  • Orange for speedy service in replacing a lost SIM card.
  • Kemanao at the Walmont Ambassador (sorry but it will always be The Grand Palm to many of us) for being helpful, friendly and getting a problem fixed “without a drama”!

Friday, 20 October 2006

Celebrate local produce

Last week I went off the deep end and criticised the latest government intervention into our marketplace. As you may all know now the Government have banned the importation of some pretty risky items into the country. Already on the list of banned things were weapons-grade plutonium, narcotics and pornography but now it seems that our way of life is threatened by some even more dangerous items.

Vegetables.

Yes, instead of banning what I think are real threats to civilisation like third-rate imported soap operas, the intensely condescending Dr Phil and above all, people who can’t or won’t pronounce Gaborone correctly, the Government has decided to ban foreign potatoes, cabbages and onions.

Yet again I need to say that we should all support local produce. Our local growers of food deserve our support, they deserve some assistance from the Government and they deserve lots of publicity. However they ONLY deserve this when what they produce is as good as what we can import. We have shown in Botswana already that we can produce the best beef, some fantastic fruit and vegetables and we make a fine bottle of beer as well. But that doesn’t mean that everything we produce is good enough yet and we certainly don’t seem to be there yet with potatoes.

I really do feel that by banning foreign competition we are not doing the local growers any favours. We’re not helping them, we’re just over-protecting them. Just like a schoolchild who wants someone to do his homework or sit an examination for him it doesn’t actually do him any good in the long run. It’s only by exposing your product to competition that you find out if it’s going to succeed. Competition is the ultimate test. It will test, like evolution tests the genetic suitability of an organism, whether it’s suitable for it’s environment. Curiously it’s often not even the best product that succeeds. It’s just the one that is most suitable to what the market, what the people actually want.

I don’t believe that anyone in their right mind can seriously suggest that Coke is an awesomely good product. It just satisfies a huge demand for hideously over-sweetened, obesity-inducing, tooth-rotting fizzy syrup. The market has a space for such a thing and Coke do an excellent job of filling it.

So what do I think Government should be doing to support local producers? Do I have a better idea? Well, I don’t have any easy solutions but I have a clue where they might lie.

Start by following that old saying about the role Government should play in people’s welfare. People should be given “a leg up, not a hand out”. Instead of over-protecting them, just make life a little easier for them. Take away a few of the real threats to a business during it’s start-up period. For instance, what about exempting citizen-owned farmers from corporation tax for the first two years of business?

What about free evening classes for new farmers on business management, basic accounting and marketing. The channels for this already exist via the Department of Non-Formal Education in the Ministry of Education. Why not make these courses compulsory in order to get the tax breaks?

What about selling them redundant government computers? They won’t be the most up-to-date and high-powered but they will be cheap, perfectly capable of writing letters, running simple accounts programs and producing simple marketing materials.

This is the opposite of what happens now. Instead of giving money to new citizen-owned businesses I think we should just take less of it away from them. Let them keep more of their own hard-earned money to re-invest in equipment and staff. It will help to keep their costs down, their profits higher and above all will allow them to develop real business experience by encouraging them to compete in the open market.

Now THAT would be real empowerment. Remember per ardua ad astra. Through adversity to the stars!

Free advertising

Here’s an offer to local food producers. Something that may help them just a little bit. If you think your produce is as good as or better than foreign imports give us a call. We promise to review it and if we think it’s as good as you say we’ll advertise it in this column, on our radio show and on our web site, entirely free of charge.

This week’s joke

There was once a parastatal company working towards privatisation that placed an advertisement in the national press asking it’s customers to contact them to confirm their telephone numbers. OK, that’s not very funny is it? Is it any funnier if the utility in question is Botswana Telecommunications Corporation?

According to the advertisement they are working hard to develop next year’s telephone directory and are asking customers who want to correct their entries in the current directory to give them a call. Presumably they can’t call us because they are using the old directory? The one full of errors? The one that printed as my home telephone number a number I’d stopped using 2 years ago? Maybe that’s why they can’t call me to check?

Hang on though, can’t they just compare the directory entries with what they have in their billing system? Just a thought.

This week’s stars!

  • Reuben and colleagues from Car World in Gaborone for speedy, responsive and friendly service.
  • Officer Kerekang from Naledi Police Station for friendly service.
  • Shadrack at New Capitol Cinemas at Game City for sorting out a problem with a smile.
  • Botswana Telecommunications Corporation for breaking our record for the longest time taken by a parastatals to respond to a customer complaint, currently 84 days!

Friday, 13 October 2006

You can’t BE empowered

I know that I might be being controversial but I can’t stop myself. I can’t keep quiet any longer.

I think we’ve got citizen empowerment thing all wrong.

I’m not denying that some citizens have benefited from the government’s efforts to “empower” them, I just think that these people probably would have done just as well without government help, they just saw an opportunity to succeed more quickly and easily than they would have done otherwise.

My concern is based on something I believe very strongly. I do not believe that anyone can empower you. You can only empower yourself.

I was thinking about this again recently when I heard that the government, in it’s infinite wisdom, had again decided to step into the marketplace and control what we could buy. No I’m not talking about pornography, addictive drugs or weapons grade plutonium. I’m talking about the really dangerous stuff. I’m talking potatoes.

Yes, it’s official. We are no longer allowed to buy potatoes, cabbages and onions unless they come from Botswana. My issue is that I don’t see how this helps anyone, let alone the local producers of such things.

Now before you think I have some problem with local produce let me set the record straight. Given the choice of identical products I will always choose local ones. I strongly believe that, certainly when it comes to food, the closer the point of production and the point of sale are to each other the better the produce will be. It will be fresher, healthier and less likely to be covered or injected with all sorts of ghastly chemicals to help it survive the journey from it’s origin to my stomach. I also think that we should support our local producers whenever we can. It’s the right thing to do for so many reasons.

However, the key point is that I will choose local produce when it is as good as produce from somewhere else. Most of us do this already with some products. For instance look at the tomatoes on sale in most supermarkets. Hundreds of packets of tomatoes all with a little twist-seal at the top in the colours of our national flag. And they taste great as well. We even have top-quality local cheeses for sale in certain places. And do I have to mention beef? Anyone who chooses foreign beef over our own clearly needs to get new taste buds or go and take a holiday in that fine mental health facility we have in Lobatse.

But critically I think that we choose these products not mainly because they are home grown. We choose them because they are the best and are very reasonably priced.

So who benefits when the government decides that foreign vegetables are no longer allowed? Do we consumers benefit? No. We are deprived of choice, we are treated as if we don’t care about our local producers and the real irony is that we often pay higher prices!

In an article in The Voice last week a major vegetable seller pointed out that before the ban he could buy a bag of potatoes for R21, now he is forced to spend P36 for the local equivalent. Needless to say that increase of almost 100% will actually be paid by you and me.

So we certainly don’t benefit.

So maybe the vegetable grower benefits? Well, yes, perhaps he does, but I think he does only in the very short term. If it costs him twice as much to produce a potato as it does his South African cousin then frankly he’s doing something wrong. Protecting his inefficient business by outlawing his competitor just protects and reinforces his high-cost production techniques and it just makes it harder for him to compete when the trade barriers are eventually lifted.

Perhaps instead of failing to compete he should change direction. Do what the local tomato growers and cheese manufacturers have done. Find something he can produce cheaply or perhaps go into a niche market, something higher cost but that meets an actual demand in our economy. There’s certainly no demand for pricey potatoes here, is there?

It sounds harsh but being over-protective does nobody any good.

I know I keep saying this but I think that running a national economy is a bit like running a school. Yes, the students (and businesses) need to be given some basic rules of conduct and critically an education but we don’t do them any favours by doing their work for them. Should teachers do pupil’s homework for them? Well, they would all get top marks but they wouldn’t actually learn anything, would they?

No, school children, and businesses need education, encouragement, the occasional leg up and lots of praise but they have to do the learning themselves. Only then will their success be worthwhile.

Success in business isn’t a right. It’s something that must be earned and for almost every business person that only comes with hard work, sleepless nights and a product people really want to buy.

Competition is the greatest educator in business. By protecting those elements of our local economy that aren’t competitive we are surely doing a disservice to them, to their now compulsory customers and above all to the future of our nation.

Per ardua, ad astra.

This week’s stars!

  • Minkie from Air Botswana for excellent in flight service
  • Robert from Spur in Francistown for showing how good restaurant management can be.
  • Chezane and the entire cleaning crew at the Metcourt Inn also in Francistown for being wonderful and friendly.

Friday, 6 October 2006

All’s fair in love, war and business

I was reading over the recent long holiday weekend an article in the Sunday Standard about the so-called “war” between Orange and Mascom. According to the article as a result of this “cellular phone war” there is now “blood on the floor”. Dramatic stuff, eh?

The article goes on to discuss the various advertising campaigns that each company has undertaken that, the paper suggests, are clear but subtle attempts to criticise the other party. Most of us have probably seen the advertisements around our towns and highways. Orange is offering “no hidden costs” which is, according to the article, a dig at Mascom. In turn Mascom advertise the fact that their prepaid customers can roam in South Africa which we’re told Orange prepaid customers cannot do. Mmmm, heavy stuff, how will we all survive?

The article also reminds us of a couple of incidents where each of the two cellphone providers have slipped up. The first one, was just after Mascom had introduced GPRS. This service allows fast internet-like access from cellphone devices. Just after Mascom launched this, Orange started advertising “gprs” which the small print disclosed was actually nothing to do with GPRS and instead stood for “great products, rates and services”. Yes, that was sneaky and, in my view at least deceptive. BTA thought so too and Orange was severely and publicly told off like naughty little schoolchildren.

The other incident was when Mascom recently used a number allocated to Orange during a marketing campaign. Orange complained about this to BTA and Mascom had their turn to get a well-deserved spanking.

Now, clearly we shouldn’t approve of this sort of behaviour. Like children (and indeed adults) companies shouldn’t tell lies, shouldn’t steal and should obey the rules established by whoever regulates their industry. Like school children they should obey the head teacher or suffer the consequences.

I think advertising and the business success that can come from it is like the success of children at school. Some children will do better than others. Not every child will get the same examination results. Some will do better because they are naturally more talented, other because they simply work harder and make the most of the skills they were born with. Some kids are just naturally good at sitting exams. It may not seem fair but then life just isn’t sometimes. Some kids are just brighter than others. Should we hold them back so we can achieve uniformity? Should we forbid children from going the extra mile? Of course not.

So why should we try to do the same in business? Let’s face it. Some companies just have a better product than others. Others don’t necessarily have better products but they just market them better than others.

We all know the stories, whether it was VHS vs Betamax, Coke vs Pepsi, Microsoft vs Apple or any of the other legendary business battles it was often the company with the best marketing team who won, not necessarily the one with the best product.

My point is that advertising, marketing and public relations are all ways in which companies can manipulate our buying decisions and gain our business but this is not a bad thing. In fact the more they advertise their “great products, rates and services” the better placed we consumers will be to take the decision that satisfies us.

Isn’t that what advertising is all about? It’s partially to say that my product is the best, the cheapest or the best value for money, but it is also about implying in usually subtle ways that the other guy’s product is more expensive, less good or lower value for money. I’m not exactly the hugest fan of the advertising industry because so much of what they produce I think is infantile, third-rate and often just insulting to our intelligence. So few advertisements are amusing, stimulating or informative. The exceptions are actually those that are out of the ordinary like the Orange and Mascom campaigns.

Sometimes though they are actually not quite even slightly subtle. For instance there’s a well-known spicy chicken chain that has placed a huge advertisement near one of it’s competitors in Gaborone saying “Oil is for your car, not your lunch”. Not exactly subtle but we all forgive this particular chain because they are known for their sense of humour and somewhat eccentric quality.

I don’t think that this business between Orange and Mascom is something we should criticise. On the contrary I think we should be rejoicing. We have a case of genuinely enthusiastic competition. Each of the two companies is desperately trying to get our business. They are each offering us inducements, special offers and new products that may make our customer experience more rewarding.

So my message to Orange and Mascom, and I’m sure they read everything I say and obey my instructions every week, is get fighting! Don’t lie, cheat or steal but get aggressive with each other. Do you very best to sell us the “great products, rates and services” and work even harder to beat your competition.

Oh and when BTC get liberated (or was that meant to be “liberalised”?) perhaps the competition can be even greater? Well, maybe. It will be interesting to see if BTC have any commercial aptitude.

This week’s stars!
The team at Incredible Connection at Riverwalk in Gaborone for their friendliness, particularly Mothibedi, Kebonye and Victor.
Thati at the new Apache Spur at Riverwalk. Although the place was very busy we are told she was exceptionally friendly and helpful – “everything you could want a waitron to be”!
Everyone involved in the production of Annie. The list is too long for everyone to be included but we have to mention Stuart White, Joe Matome, Shombi Ellis, Refilwe Mpai, Maria Kathurima and Janet!