THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist and please read more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

DISCOUNTING, INCENTIVES & THE HUNT FOR BIN LADEN


I read recently that in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden the US Government offered a reward of twenty five million dollars, to the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for information as to his whereabouts. There were no takers. After months of debate in Congress they finally came up with a solution: to double the reward to fifty million dollars. There were still no takers. It’s clear the US Government needs a lesson in how incentives work.

A thousand years ago, when I was a freckle-faced newbie at my first London design agency, I remember meeting with our in-house copywriter to discuss a client promotion we were working on. Ivan was a gentle and avuncular chain smoker and his rich, filterless Camel voice explained to me that a jackpot of say, one hundred thousand pounds would attract fifty thousand entries, but that a prize of a red convertible sports car (worth less than a quarter of that) could expect to attract twice as many entries. Experience had taught him that incentives are much more powerful when they are tangible, when they light up our imaginations. Numbers alone are never as effective.

Consider the scam emails that offer vast sums of money following the death of someone with a similar family name. If the bait was say, a riverside house overlooking the Niger, then maybe, just maybe, it would be more believable that Uncle Adebambo had bequeathed it as he lay on his death bed. Instead they persist with offers of multi millions of dollars, making it ever more improbable and preposterous. (Perhaps there’s a consultancy role for me here?)



Just as incentives need not be large to shift behaviour then the same is true for disincentives. Over-charge me by one dollar for a bottle of water and I’ll go elsewhere. The hotel mini-bar industry, for example, is a great lesson in how to ensure all your customers leave feeling ripped off. It’s become a cultural joke that we’d have to be crazy drunk before we dared reach into the damn thing. And we mostly are, of course.

Incentivising is a psychological game and discounting, whilst seemingly straightforward, is actually a highly nuanced area. For instance, ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ may work brilliantly for washing powder or baked beans but in fashion it looks like barrel scraping. Two shirts for the price of one suggests these aren’t the shirts you should be wearing. In this post-crash, post-apocalypse climate we want THE product (shirt, coffee, car) not A. We want our shirts to feel special. As we slip it on we need to know that we made the right choice, that we are a truly discerning customer who wears THE shirt, not just any old shirt. We even look for that special THE reassurance when we choose our morning coffee for god’s sake. Most of us are much less vain and demanding when it comes to baked beans.


Accessibility versus inaccessibility is a game of ‘push me, pull you’ to achieve the right balance. Retailers spend millions trying to get us to choose their product over a competitor’s. They invest in flagship stores and window displays to outshine their neighbours. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns to build product awareness and promotions to encourage us to shop with them; they line their walls with beautifully lit displays…and yet the truth is that the more accessible something is, the less we want it. Just imagine that Louis Vuitton strikes a deal with Walmart and starts selling its iconic handbags half price at the checkout. (I know this parallel universe isn’t easy to slip into, but there are brands that have done worse) For the first week or so they would shift an awful lot of handbags, but sooner or later we’d realise that we don’t desire them like we once did and within a matter of a few weeks Louis Vuitton, and all it stood for, would be finished. They’re exactly the same, beautiful bags, remember, but now they are completely drained of the value and respect we projected onto them.

That’s because a product is so much more than just a product. Buy it from a glamorous flagship on a sunny Saturday and it’s imbued with flagship flavour forever. Buy it from a dodgy geezer off the back of a truck on a wet Wednesday in Hull and that too will stay attached to it (even if you do feel savvy that you knew where to find the truck). Every time you open the wardrobe it will remind you of how it came into your life. No one else will know of course and so now it also carries with it an air of deceit!


Discounting too is similarly paradoxical, alluring though it is to both customer and retailer, it can do serious, long term but invisible damage to a brand. When I see something reduced by 50% I instantly feel I want it half as much as I did previously. Even if it was something I’d had my eye on, the thrill of the discount must be offset against the disappointment that it has become that much more accessible. And if it’s a luxury item then it raises lots of questions such as ‘What’s wrong with it? Why can’t they sell it? How much was the original mark up?’ etc etc. In an instant, the unattainable has become attainable, the dream has evaporated and therefore, the product is devalued. It’s like Groucho’s ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me’ conundrum. Tricky things customers.

If brands have achieved anything by investing in the meaning and cache that transforms their products into desirable non-commodities, then surely a sale has to puncture that, temporarily at least. Aspiration, certainly in luxury goods, is a brand’s very essence. To erode that, even gently, is to erode the nucleus of its structure.

That is not to say a sale, a short and finite period of discounting, is not a respectable way of driving sales. Limiting the damage in customers’ minds is the key. End of season sales make perfect sense but sale posters that perennially plaster the windows of furniture stores, for example, simply destroy any credibility that the products were ever meant to be full price. Equally, at sale time customers get into ‘sale mode’ and won’t even consider a store that refuses to join the party. So it does make sense for luxury or premium brands to join the fun… so long as it’s carefully managed in a considered and contained way. And just like the ridiculous multi million dollar offers the email scammers make, discounts of 70% and 80% appear just as ludicrous. It’s advertising that they’re either going bust or have been ripping us off previously; neither of which are particularly strategic messages.

Customers (that’s us by the way) aren’t stupid. We can smell desperation and death within a hundred yards of a shop window and no one wants either of those as a brand value. Talking of which I just popped into see how Hollister on Fifth Avenue was looking these days. Oh dear god!

So, the next time the US Government considers putting a multi million dollar bounty on the head of an international terrorist, maybe it should offer a bright red, convertible Mustang instead.


Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Feb 01, 2016   Brand, discount, incentives, Retail, sales, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More