A few blogs ago I wrote about the rise of the Mini-Tyrants who’ve been popping up at the entrances to our shops and restaurants, threatening us with their clipboards and house rules and generally making us feel like shit as we queue to give them money. But things have moved on. Far from this species being a Covid anomaly I fear, that like everything else, it’s gone viral. Hundreds of thousands of once relatively cheery shop keepers, bar staff and landlords have clearly succumbed, not to Covid the disease, but to Covid Culture, a much more insidious and pervasive virus. Judging by my day to day poll Covid Culture has an R rating of well over 4.

First signs of infection are a Cheshire cat of a grin and an obsequious tilt of the head. “We’re doing the very best we can under the circumstances…Sir.” The Sir (or Madam) is critical here. It’s a language perfected by our wonderful Police Service as a means of being extra patronising but disguised as politeness. 

As the disease develops a warm glow rushes like iodine through the bloodstream when the sufferer senses unease, pain or discomfort in others. The Schadenfreuder Glow, as it’s called, can also be triggered by talk of pain or penance to society as a whole. So lockdowns, for instance, are welcomed as a means of punishing those they believe are having too much fun, consuming too much or just living a bit too much…even though it punishes the sufferer too, of course. These are the people that not only believe the world will end in nine years (or is it eight now?) but they get a fizzy feeling in their waterworks in the knowledge that if it does it will teach us a bloody good lesson.

As I mentioned, the R rate of Covid Culture is pretty hairy. A CC carrier working in a restaurant, shop or pub, for example, will infect most of the staff within a couple of days. You can spot an infected business a mile off. The entrances are plastered with Do’s and Don’ts, warning signed and hazard taped as if the local vicar had just been bludgeoned to death on their bloody doorstep. You may only want a sliced sourdough but there’s a strict protocol to go through before you’re allowed to take that little parcel of goodness away from this crime scene.

Infected stores actually bristle with an electric charge poised to snap at you like an exposed cable should you put a foot wrong or wander too near a fellow browser. It’s retail Jim, but not as we know it.

Interestingly, the data suggests a particular character type is more prone to infection than others. Loosely described as ‘Weterosexuals’ they tend to be those smiley, smug beta males that nod over emphatically when a female is talking. Physically, they display a slight under development in the bones of both jaw and back. Colloquially known as ‘Hancocks’ they have long believed that there are just too many people on the planet and have become evangelical enthusiasts for all forms of restraint and restriction, including lockdowns, licenses, barriers, yellow tape and even boiler removal.

It’s a perfectly understandable view, I suppose. Down here, in the dirty ruts and furrows of planet earth where we are forced to witness the waste, the litter, the crowds and the hordes of pasty-faced sun-seekers burger-ing and lager-ing up at the airport, the gravity of Malthusianism has a mighty strong pull. It’s so easy to believe that other people are the problem, doing and consuming more than their fair share. Catching a glimpse of one’s own reflection helps, if only temporarily. Seems to me we need a lot more reflection these days.

But the good news is that the future will not look upon them kindly. History doesn’t congratulate those that didn’t, those that hindered and hurdled. Homo-Trepidatious may grimace at the thought but the future will be built by Doers not Don’ters: open minded entrepreneurs that take risks to create things we didn’t even know we wanted. Malthusians will be seen as the dead weights they are, the dead weights every generation carries with it. As the world opens up it should be even clearer now who are the ones we want to take into the future with us, and who should be left whinging in the wings. 

Eventually of course, the threat from Covid will abate as we learn to tiptoe gently back into the world unmasked and un-distanced. Sadly, Covid Culture will live on considerably longer despite the fact we already know the cure: courage.

Now please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily insights and musings.

  Howard Saunders   Jul 01, 2021   Future, Retail, sales, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


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.

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