Louise Downe

Relative economies of scale II

Without people telling me, I know what they want. The only problem is, when they go away without telling me.

Sue Kirk runs the shop on Eigg - a small island in the inner hebrides.

It has a great selection of local beers, alongside what seems to be a disproportionately vast array of "ambient groceries" (things that don't go off at room temperature) for the size of the island's population - which bottoms out at about 90 permanent residents.

Three types of Tahini, 20 herbs, four types of sausage, five kinds of kitchen roll - all in a shop the size of your average east-end off licence. There are however, only one or two of each item - one packet of pork and apple sausages, two packets of rosemary, and two Jars of dark tahini.

Sue can stock what most people on the island want with a reasonable amount of certainty - so long as their tastes don't change too quickly - but what she doesn't know is how much they'll buy.

People often leave the island, for work, to visit family or to do all the usual things that in a larger community don't have an affect on the shops they use. But with such a small number of people, the affordance for change is small - or as Sue told me "you don't have to lose very much before you're losing" so Sue orders small daily deliveries of a wide number of goods, changing the amount and range whenever she notices a change in buying behaviour.

In theory, the faster the supply, the more it can be scaled up or down as necessary, so alongside this short-order method, Sue uses as much island produce as possible. This too is affected by a relative scale though - with the export of goods off the island not as easy as selling to the shop, Sue has to absorb the unpredictability of supply as well as demand. An imbalance in the ease of import and export means that when "everyones hens are laying like crazy" there's little you can do about it but eat more eggs.

A system never exists in isolation, and with an unbalanced friction in and out of that network, someone has to absorb change, in this case, literally.

This is the second of three short films I made on Eigg as part of Devfort 8. You can read the post I wrote about the first one with Simon Helliwell (the founder of Hebnet, Britain's smallest ISP) here

Up next: Lucy Conway, founder of Eigg Box on building shared, non-specified space in a place that has little room for casual work-based crossover of expertise, knowledge or interest.