Thursday. 25/7/2019

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Jamie Waters

Personal shopper

My WhatsApp feed now contains nearly as many messages from strangers as from friends. And no, these randoms sending me smiling emojis are not potential suitors. They are brand representatives and shop staff addressing my enquiries about items of clothing. The retail industry, much like every other consumer sector, is getting personal, perhaps too personal. Brands want to be seen as our friends. This follows the industry’s general trajectory: customisation, of service and products, we’re told is the future.

While I’m not opposed to the idea – I would far rather deal with a person than fill out an anonymous enquiry form – it’s a tricky thing to get right. First, it’s a little creepy receiving a WhatsApp message (complete with profile pic) from a total stranger. The bigger issue though is logistics. My last three encounters ended in zero purchases: I was passed onto several different people; told, after a lengthy conversation, to ring the shop to get an answer; or informed that the item was now sold out (it wasn’t when our conversation had started).

These were not big shops so news that brands including Burberry and Tamara Mellon are planning to roll out sizeable “conversational commerce” platforms makes me anxious. Is the personalised-communication model scalable? Customisation is a good thing – but only as long as it’s efficient.

Defence / China

Armed and dangerous?

China set the tone yesterday for its defence strategy with its first military white paper since 2015. Beijing has adopted a more hawkish tone after building up its navy and air-force capabilities in the years since. The wording of the paper is rather vague. With talk of “deterring and resisting aggression” China leaves some of its rivals guessing. But there are some subjects on which Beijing is unmistakably explicit. The country will protect its interests in the South China Sea and combat Taiwan’s independence movement. Meanwhile, there are concerns that the Belt and Road Initiative will provide pretext for a bigger Chinese military presence overseas. There is little here that will help US defence chiefs to sleep more soundly.

Diplomacy / UK

Tighter grip

The UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee has published a report calling for a crackdown on people who reveal sensitive information and state secrets. The unambiguously titled Stemming the Flow: an Urgent Look at Tackling a Culture of Leaks proposes that people guilty of such activity should face greater punishments, like losing their pensions or being forced to foot the bill for damages and investigations. The initiative comes after the controversy surrounding Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador to the US, whose private cables to the Foreign Office were intercepted and published earlier this month. The measures proposed by the committee throw up a challenging debate. The UK government would do well to penalise political agitators who imperil diplomatic relations between countries but it would do better to leave whistle-blowers acting out of moral compulsion well alone.

Transport / Italy

Sleeper hit?

The construction of the so-called TAV – a high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon – is one of the longest-running disputes in Franco-Italian infrastructure. Prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s decision earlier this week to give the green light to the project is the culmination of a debate that has been raging for more than two decades. The railway is a point of contention within the governing coalition: far-right Lega want it, the populist Five Star Movement want to stop it in its tracks. In the end economics ruled: Conte claimed that backing out of existing arrangements would be more expensive than carrying on. Environmental activists concerned about the valley the trains would dissect have pledged to resist the plan but many Italians will be relieved to see the project gathering steam.

Urbanism / Thailand

Grub street

Bangkok is in the midst of a rapid modernising effort. Plans to revamp its famously gritty back-packer-filled Khaosan Road show how the city wants to project an air of order and cleanliness. The $1.6m (€1.4m) redevelopment will feature improvements such as granite pavements and approved zones for street-food vendors. The latter is a good touch. Last year, authorities caused uproar by banning food stalls that cluster spontaneously in certain streets. The country's new government convenes this week and discussions to re-establish food vending on the capital’s streets are high up on the agenda. Doing so will preserve one of Bangkok’s more lovable qualities as the march towards gentrification continues.

M24 / The Entrepreneurs

Mark Gainey, Strava

Mark Gainey is the co-founder and chairman of Strava, the rapidly growing social network used by more than 40 million people in 195 countries. From gold-medal efforts to weekend jogs around the park, Strava allows users to share their workouts. Gainey is a Harvard graduate and former venture-capital executive whose earlier venture, Kana Communications, was valued at $10bn and provided a solution to customer-service email in the early days of the internet.

Film / Sweden

The secret to running a restaurant

In the latest edition of our ‘Secret to...’ series, Niklas Ekstedt opens up his acclaimed eatery – Ekstedt – and divulges some insightful tips on how to run a successful restaurant.

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