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Regulating in the face of digital disruption

April 30, 2014 1 comment

peter-c-vey--these-new-regulations-will-fundamentally-change-the-way-we-get-around-the…-new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6596-IDO2100ZHaving studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).

Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.

Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.

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East and West shook up a regulatory framework with the recent release of “300: Rise of an Empire” via China’s Tencent website

Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,

“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”

Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,

“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”

While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.

The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.

Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

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Monetising the Arts – Fundraising and cultural collisions

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A promotional still for The Met Opera’s season opener, ‘Eugene Onegin’, which debuted to a blizzard of protest and outrage.

Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:

“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”

In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?

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In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.

The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,

“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”

Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.

It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.

The Sharing Economy meets the Internet of Things

September 29, 2013 3 comments

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This post has been reblogged by IBM and is reproduced on their Tumblr sites. The original is available below in its entirety.

Noise over what has been called Collaborative Consumption – and elsewhere The Sharing Economy – has been increasing in volume for some months now. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding business that exists to let people from anywhere in the world donate to singular projects, is a great example of this new philosophy. The company has played roles in funding films, games consoles and civic projects like the construction of bridges. Zeitgeist has made use of sites likes AirBnB and Housetrip to stay in lovely, very affordable apartments in places like Paris and New York. These diverse businesses aren’t necessarily united in a single cause to drive the sharing economy, but they are all trying to make use of what some economies, particularly in the West, excel at producing: surplus.

It’s an acknowledgment that there are physical items we own that we don’t actually need, which are eminently transferable – for a certain period of time – to others, with the market more or less dictating price (it’s this last point that removes any assertions or complaints of the idea being some sort of socialist utopia). At its root, the idea has been seen in media consumption for several years now; we’ve written often about the new customer mantra of ‘access trumps ownership’, where people prefer to stream their content rather than have it on a shelf. This is a bit of a sea-change in how we view ourselves. As a very astute article in The New Yorker pointed out earlier this month, we have often defined ourselves by what we own,

“For most of the past century, Americans have been the world’s greatest consumers. And usually consumption has meant ownership: just before the Great Recession, the average American household owned 2.28 cars, and had more television sets than people. But these days a host of new companies are trying to disrupt the paradigm… beneath all the hype is a sensible idea: there are a lot of slack resources in the economy. Assets sit idle—the average car is driven just an hour a day—and workers have time and skills that go unused. If you can connect the people who have the assets to people who are willing to pay to rent them, you reduce waste and end up with a more efficient system.

Zeitgeist believes that the increasing popularity of another evolution in business – that of connected devices – will dovetail nicely with the sharing economy. The widespread use of connected devices, known as the Internet of Things, is broadly based on the idea of having products that are intelligent enough to know what they are being used for, when they are being used, and how to make sure the user gets the most productivity out them. Connecting said product to the Internet is usually a pretty good way of doing this. At its simplest, it is the much-ballyhooed Smart Fridge, that knows when it’s running out of milk and orders more for you online without having to bother asking you. In reality, it is things like the Nest device, a (very) smart and (very) beautiful thermostat device.

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Zeitgeist was at London’s Bloomberg HQ earlier this week for Social Media Week, a series of events usually dominated by a great deal of hot air. Fortunately this was not the case with the Internet of Things event. It quickly became clear that without the Internet of Things, collaborative consumption would plateau very quickly. There were fascinating projects like Pachube, which relied on crowdsourcing data in real-time via Twitter from an aggregation of sensors, allowing them to communicate with one another and at the same time. This information is not only not proprietary, it is meant to be built upon. It was used during Japan’s Fukushima disaster for crowdsourcing radiation data. 2000 feeds were set up after 10 days; Android apps, SMS alerts were built, all by different people, a great example of product and information being shared and being improved by being open to collaboration. On a more humorous level, Zeitgeist was also privy to hearing about Addicted Toasters, where the toaster is not just connected to the owner’s smartphone, or to the Internet, but also to other toaster’s in the network. If it sees that others are toasting more bread, it gets ‘jealous’. By which we mean of course that if it decides it is being under-utilised, it will decide it is time to go to the next person on the waiting list who wants to use a toaster. It does this by dialling into the FedEx API and getting itself shipped to that next person in line. The speakers, Usman Haque, said this was not just about “remote monitoring or control, but participation with others in how people make sense of local environments and how products are shared”. While the Addicted Toaster may be smart, and ostensibly aware of a network of other toasters, many aren’t holistically connected with a wider infrastructure. The driverless car, which companies like Tesla and Google are road-testing as I type, is set to bring about this next evolution, as described last week in an excellent article in the Financial Times. If we do come to a time when – as was suggested at the Bloomberg event – every product has its own IP address, then it means that every product is a lot more easy to track, and necessarily a lot more easy to lend to others. For, if a device is unique and ‘intelligent’, it should hypothetically recognise your own needs when you need it, and another’s when someone else has need of it. A world with fewer items can be pretty cool, too, if pretty small, as entrepreneur Graham Hill demonstrates with his New York apartment that is one room, or eight, depending on how you look at it.

All this sharing undoubtedly has positive implications for sustainability; a lot less produced means a lot less waste. There are potentially huge lifestyle impacts as well, which may not be as comforting. The New Yorker, again:

“It isn’t just companies and regulators who will have to be flexible, though. Workers will, too, since the sharing economy requires people to function as micro-entrepreneurs… They are all independent contractors, working for themselves and giving the companies a cut of the action. This has certain attractions: no boss, the ability to set your own hours, control over working conditions. It also means no benefits, no steady paycheck, and the need to always be hustling; in that sense, it fits all too well with the free-agent nation we’re increasingly becoming. Sharing, it turns out, is often a hell of a lot of work.”

The New Normal of the Internet of Things

August 30, 2013 1 comment
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The subtle alternative to the tin foil hat

In the wake of PRISM, New York Times takedowns and spying London rubbish bins, people on the Internet don’t feel that secure any more… at all. Business Insider published an article recently saying the days of truly private email conversations are over. A new trend in “countersurveillance fashion” has sprung up (see above image), and New York’s New Museum is opening a ‘privacy gift shop’ for September.

One of the clients Zeitgeist works for is about to get heavily involved in Machine to Machine (M2M) communication, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Intel were making themselves heard last month at an event in London’s Spitalfields Market on the subject. And earlier this month, the exemplary blog GigaOm published an article entitled “How can we design an internet of things for everyone (not just alpha geeks)?”. This new development, which includes self-driving cars, fridges ordering milk for you when you run out without being asked, potentially brings with it ideas of a utopian world of interconnected devices that do your bidding.

But such potential is now seen in a different light, post-PRISM. The first two user comments, screengrabbed below, were a grim reminder of the new normal, where such a utopian future has already been tarnished by abuses before it even arrives.

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The likes of PRISM and xKeystroke have arguably completely reversed the libertarian premise of the Internet

Before and after Prism – On liberty in a digital age

First aired on PBS in 1985, filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary on the Statue of Liberty was on Zeitgeist’s TiVo watch list this weekend. It’s really quite staggering to note how issues being discussed then are even more relevant three decades on.

It goes back to an article we wrote recently on the US government’s more legitimate efforts to collect data. These myriad agencies are working so fast to see whether it’s possible to collect this or that piece of data on someone, they are not stopping to think whether they should, and what the long-term implications are. By long-term, we mean what such a “Faustian bargain” means for the civil rights of citizens – particularly of course in the relation of the right to privacy – and what such machinations do to the long-term standing of the country as a whole – particularly from the outside looking in.

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How certain is our moral footing on criticising Chinese cyber-attacks when we are hacking ourselves?

“Spying in a democracy depends for its legitimacy on informed consent, not blind trust”, wrote The Economist in this week’s lead article. Not so anymore, seemingly. The recent revelations that the NSA have been collecting masses of data from Facebook, Twitter, Google et al., with little thought for due process and with a focus on communications outside the US, and that at least one telco, Verizon, was ordered to provide significant amounts of user data to the government, is disconcerting to say the least. Zeitgeist wrote a letter, recently published in the Financial Times, before this story broke, that attempted to convey that the true worry for those opposed to such overreach is the high possibility of neglect or abuse, rather than intentional Machiavellian manipulation. Government ineptitude is more likely, and far more dangerous. Clarity and transparency are the enemies of such ineptitude.

As former New York governor Mario Cuomo admits in the clip at the beginning of this post, it can be very tempting to squash a little liberty here and there in return for added security. The situation, which arises at a time when the US is supposed to be taking China to task over its own extensive cyber-espionage (see above graphic), where we are, as one CNBC commentator described recently “hacking ourselves”, must give us pause, and begs us to re-examine what our notions of liberty are in an age of digital disruption.

The Big Data Fallacy

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The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features the cover article “The Rise of Big Data” by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenburger, which mostly details some of the incredible ways companies like UPS, Google and Apple have come to rely on vast arrays of numbers in order to run their businesses better. But data has always provided a problem in that it gives a substantive assurance of certainty that has a propensity to foster overconfidence in those relying on it. The article attempts to address this:

“[K]nowing the causes behind things is desirable. The problem is that causes are often extremely hard to figure out… Behavioural economics has shown that humans are conditioned to see causes even where none exist. So we need to be particularly on guard to prevent our cognitive biases from deluding us; sometimes, we just have to let the data speak.”

The sentiment here is admirable, and the context perceptive. But the final part of the quotation (my emphasis) assumes wrongly that data can speak objectively, that there is a fundamental ‘truth’ in a number. All too often though the wrong things are measured, or not all variables are measured. What data does not record, or worse, cannot record, can often be overlooked. While ostensibly data is there to provide assistance with building models and predicting future trends and movements, it sometimes leads to a very narrow view of one particular future, and fails to account for possibilities, that, though while unlikely, could potentially be devastating. This is what Nicholas Taleb writes about in his by turns unreadable but seminal work, Black Swan. The fictional, paranoid loner Fox Mulder of the hit series The X-Files had it right fifteen years ago when he lamented “in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorised or easily referenced”. The financial system before 2008 was a victim of such narrow thinking. 

Hendrik Hertzberg, in his Talk of the Town column “Preventive Measures” in this week’s The New Yorker, made the adroit analogy with the 2002 film Minority Report in our quest to categorise and predict acts of crime. Hertzberg points out that in reality this “turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs”. Indeed, such prediction methods are being implemented, just with somewhat less efficacy than in the Tom Cruise movie. The stop-and-frisk procedure currently employed by the New York Police Department points to a sustained effort to engage in preventative measures to reduce crime, effectively what Cruise and his myrmidons were doing, albeit without the help of psychic imagery as in the film. While the psychic “Pre-Cogs” turned out to occasionally disagree, the success rate with stop-and-frisk is even less attractive. “In the final months of 2012″, writes the New York Times, only 4% of stops resulted in an arrest. But what is this low figure telling us…?

Hertzberg also alludes to the dilemma of mountains of data, produced without concern for oversight or management; producing more just because it’s possible to produce it, rather than thinking about the implications:

“This fall, the National Security Agency, the largest and most opaque component of the counter-terrorism behemoth, will [open] a billion-dollar facility [analysing] intercepted telecommunications… each of the Utah Data Center’s two hundred (at most) professionals will be responsible for reviewing five hundred billion terabytes of information each year, the equivalent of twenty-three million years’ worth of Blu-ray DVDs… that’s a lot of overtime.”

The other problem this data poses – and increasingly this goes for many industries that are jumping on the Big Data bandwagon – is that intelligence departments and businesses alike are now technically able to put quantifiable targets and figures to what they want to achieve, without considering whether such targets are actually applicable. Police claim the low stop-to-arrest ratio implies that they are preventing crimes by stopping someone before they act. There is nothing to argue otherwise. The New York Times article alludes to the debate over what ratio or percentage the Supreme Court would be comfortable with under the tenet of “reasonable suspicion”. This leads down a dangerous path where we treat data as an answer to a question, rather than as supporting evidence to an answer.

Taking flight – Opportunities and obstacles in democratising luxury

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I don’t think democratic luxury exists. I don’t believe in something for everyone… How can we possibly put these products on the Web site without the tactile experience of luxury?”

- Brunello Cucinelli

The democratisation of fashion took a beating this past week as news reached Zeitgeist that Fashion’s Night Out was to be no more. Spearheaded by Anna Wintour at the height of the global recession, the idea was for a curated evening; a chance for stores to open their doors late, inviting a party atmosphere and focussing spend on a calendar event. The Wall Street Journal wrote that last year, “Michael Kors judged a karaoke competition at his store on Madison Avenue, rapper Azealia Banks performed at the MAC store in Soho and a game night was held at a Kate Spade store.” The evening festivities were replicated across New York, London and other cities.
Zeitgeist happened to be on Manahattan’s Spring Street last September when the most recent FNO was held, waiting patiently for a perenially-late friend who works next door to Mulberry. While waiting, it was absolutely fascinating to see the sheer of variety of people out on the street. While the crowds were mostly composed of women, the groups ranged from college-aged JAPs and the avant-garde to hipsters and stay-at-home mothers. Most gawped excitedly as they beheld the Mulberry boutique, enticed by the glimpses of free food and drink, as well the sultry bass tones of some cool track. One elegantly dressed fashionista strode hurriedly past Zeitgeist, lamenting to her cellphone “Oh God, it’s Fashion’s Night Out tonight”.
Ultimately perhaps it was such feelings among the fashion set that caused FNO to come to an abrupt end. But Zeitgeist got the sense that, while undeniably a celebration of fashion and an opportunity for brands to showcase their attractively experiential side – particularly to those who might usually be deterred by luxury brands and their perceived sense of formality – there weren’t a great deal of people actually buying things. It’s quite possible that the whole strategy of attracting a crowd who would not otherwise frequent such stores backfired; they turned up, sampled the free booze, felt what it must be like to shop at such-and-such a label, then moved on to the next faux-glitzy event with thumping music. This then was a failed attempt to bring luxury to the masses.

On a macro scale, the cause for democratisation is hardly helped by the global financial crisis. Although over four years old, the ramifications and scarring done to the economy are still sorely felt. This is illustrated in the unemployment figures around the world, tumultuous elections and anecdotal tales of hardship. More starkly, they are being backed up by solid quantitative research that proves we as a world are less connected now than we were in 2007. In December last year, The Economist reported on the DHL Global Connectedness Index, which concluded that connections between countries in 2012 were shallower (meaning less of the nation’s economy is internationalised) and narrower (meaning it connects with fewer countries) than before the recession. Meanwhile, just this past week, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report showing financial capital flows between countries were still 60% below their pre-recession high. This kind of business environment hardly fosters egalitarian conduct, and indeed such isolationist thinking was on show at Paris Fashion Week recently, where designers clung to their French heritage as a badge of honour. Exactly at the time when art needs to be leading the way in cultural integration, as emerging markets not only continue to make up a larger part of the customer base, but also develop their own powerful brands, it seemed that designers, like the financial markets, retreated to what they knew and found safe.

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The world is less connected today than in 2007

Where the ideology of democratising fashion has seen more success is of course online. We’ve written before about how luxury is struggling with the extent to which they invest in e-commerce. One of the principle hurdles is that the nature of luxury – elite, arcane, exclusive – is more or less diametrically opposed to the nature of the Internet – open, borderless, democratic.
Yet the story of Yoox – the popular and, in online terms, long-lasting fashion ecommerce platform – and its founder is one of just such democratisation. (It is particularly stunning to read of the difficulties the founder, a Columbia MBA graduate, Lehman Brothers and Bain & Co. alum, had in attracting VC funding). It also, crucially, points to the importance of recognizing multiple audiences, and how they like to shop differently depending on context. John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, reports that when Federico Marchetti set up Yoox in 2000, the world of ecommerce for fashion was regarded as a not particularly salubrious environment. Rather, the magazine compares it to outlet stores like Woodbury Common, fifty miles north of New York. Luxury brands like Prada and Marni could be found there, offering deep discounts on their wares, and it was for that reason – and the lack of control over their own brand – that they didn’t like much to talk about such places. This, despite the fact that they attracted 12 million people in 2011, “almost twice the number of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum”. Yoox was likewise greeted with much trepidation by fashion retailers. The article quotes an analyst from Forrester Research:

“It was a matter of principle with luxury brands that only people who shop on eBay use the internet – and their only interest was in getting a low price.”

Marchetti’s only available source of designer clothing was from last season and beyond, as no brand would sell their current collection. He curried favour with some of them though by advertising the prices without noting the discount customers were getting. Other than that, luxury brands took little or no notice.

Online shopping though would prove to be “one of the largest disruptions of the luxury-goods industry since the birth of the department store”. There are three kinds of online store today; those that sell deep-discounted goods on end-of-season wear, those that sell in-season clothing, and those that have flash sales of small numbers of clothing or accessories. It turned out there was an audience for all of these types of website. Bridget Foley, executive editor of WWD is quoted in the article saying “[T]here has been a sea change in attitude… I think [it] surprised the fashion industry… Just because you love clothes doesn’t mean you love shopping“. This struck Zeitgeist as one of the more important insights in the lengthy article. Though retailers often harp on about the importance of the retail environment, the need to touch the product, to be in an atmosphere where everything has been curated down to the finest detail, online neutralises all of that. This idea threatens those in the luxury sector, as the thinking goes that any such premium on products may seem less justifiable away from a Peter Marino-designed armchair and a nice glass of champagne. Such ideas are being challenged though. Not only is the nature of the store changing – from robotic sales staff to customers as models on the catwalk – but so is the view of the luxury customer as a homogenous, static group, devoid of context. Zeitgeist was at a Future of Media summit at the Broadcast Video Expo last week, where, as behavioural economics suggest, MD of Commercial, Online and Interactive for ITV Fru Hazlitt insisted that consumers had to be targeted in ways that were pertinent to them, not only as demographic groups, but in ways that recognised the context of how approachable they were likely to be at the time, given the programming they were watching. Fru admitted that in years past, broadcasters like ITV had seen advertising as “space to rent out”. Now they were thinking deeply about how and when is the right moment to reach their target consumer. It is the same in fashion. There is not one single way to reach the consumer; buyers of luxury goods do not want to be solely restricted to being able to buy your wares in a physical store.

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Chanel are one of the few remaining luxury brands to resist fully integrating online

Behavioural economics played a role in Marchetti’s initial framing of the audience for the website as well. He hired pedigreed fashion writers, as well as artists, architects and designers to make special projects that lent the website an air of curation, of something more special and rarefied that what one might find – or more importantly the way one might feel – at an outlet mall. Marchetti wanted the customers “to see themselves as connoisseurs, even if they were really just hunting for bargains”. The New Yorker article goes into some anecdotal detail about the way people shop on Yoox, which crucially differs not only from the way they would shop in-store, but also from other e-tailers. For online shopping in general, the experience is one where you can purchase ten items, and return nine of them with very little hassle, with credit for multiple rather than a single brand, and certainly no raised eyebrow from a pretentious shop assistant. Regarding specific sites, Yoox, unlike Net a Porter, for example, does not try to force a set of looks onto the user. Behavioural economics tell us that people irrationally value something more when they’ve been made to work a bit to get it. Such is the case now shopping for luxury items, which makes clothing not in-season (i.e. not currently in every shop window), both cooler and cheaper. It’s an act not to be discouraged. A Saks representative says customers who shop online as well as in store buy four times as much merchandise as customers who shop only in the store. What will worry retailers though is that the convenience of the online store outweighs the experience of the physical boutique. The New Yorker quotes a shopper: “I’ll never buy a dress at the Prada boutique again after getting these really amazing ones on Yoox.”

As well as setting up the Yoox website, Marchetti’s company now also powers the online stores of more than thirty fashion houses, including Armani and Jil Sander. Last summer, PPR joined in too, after conceding that their in-house expertise was not up to snuff. The latest development is making designs available to any customer as soon as it hits the runway. Burberry, as well as separate sites like Moda Operandi, have spearheaded this innovative change, which is effecting editorial as well as buying methods previously seen as unshakeable. The demand for this type of instant purchasing seems to be fueled by a niche – albeit a sizable one – that is not representative of the majority of luxury shoppers. The accessibility of a brand and its products is a tricky one to tread, one which Zeitgeist has written about several times before. Tom Ford performed a volte-face this year, after debuting his womenswear collection with no press and VIPs only, relented this year at London Fashion Week by letting bloggers write about the show. Chanel still steadfastly refuses to fully engage with online shopping. The tension is keenly felt in the New Yorker article, where Amazon’s new entry into the world of fashion is referenced. The CEO of Valentino is unconvinced: “Valentino is high luxury… People going to Amazon are not going to Valentino“. This smacks a little of pride and ignorance, for they most assuredly are, though perhaps not with luxury purchases in mind… yet.

It comes back to the idea that there are myriad types of luxury consumer. The industry has not fully acknowledged as of yet that the buying behaviour of a descendant of the ancien regime in Paris is unlikely to buy in the same way as a newly-minted businessman in Shenzhen. They may know that these types of buyers exist, and they may even create different products for each. Importantly though, they are not recognising that these people may go about purchasing in a different way. It’s not just a purchase journey that has changed massively in recent years, as McKinsey’s consumer decision journey illustrates above. It’s also, as ITV’s Fru Hazlitt insists, about recognising that different people shop in different ways, wholly dependent on context. Though Fashion’s Night Out may be on permanent hiatus, and though the global economy may be sputtering along in second gear, the opportunities to leverage deep insights into consumer purchase preferences are there for the taking. Yoox, along with a deeply complicated algorithm, are trying to tap into just this. But the process must start with realising that yes, actually, someone might want to pick up that Valentino dress while surfing on Amazon.

Selling the extraordinary

February 4, 2013 5 comments

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“Everything has become more experiential”

- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino

It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.

The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.

The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.

Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 7 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

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