Friday 18 February 2022

Slave to the algorithm


I was a latecomer to Wordle, and snuck in just before the puzzle was taken on by The New York Times. It has kept me amused for a couple of weeks, even if I’ve been kicking myself for breaking my winning streak due to US English spelling (not-twigging-of) a little while ago.

Yesterday, though, I was completely bemused. I put in a five letter word, nothing obscure, and was told that this word was not on Wordle’s list. 

The word in question: “slave.” I genuinely wondered if this was a hiccough in the software, so tried on another device. Same result. Intrigued, I searched for an explanation and found news articles to the effect that there are various words that the new owners of Wordle don’t allow - the word for a female dog, for example, or “words associated with racism” such as “slave”. 

There were, no doubt, words for the idea of “slave” long before the English language evolved. When I think of the word, yes, the Atlantic slave trade comes to mind, but I also have associations with earlier history, Roman times, and the present day - I’ve often been asked to sign documents assuring potential project partners that my little one-woman show does not involve slavery in any part of the value chain.

Then there are the more abstract uses of the word - as in that glorious 1980s anthem by Grace Jones. Metaphorical uses, figures of speech, analogies, word-plays. It’s a word with many uses, meanings, nuanaces, contexts.

I’m a writer, and I’ve commented before about the homogenisation of language, as well as the cultural poverty (am I allowed to say poverty?) society is walking into with predictive text and suggested words and phrases. It’s bad enough when suggestions come as to which words you might like to use, but when words themselves disappear from lists and dictionaries? I know language changes all the time, but I am not talking about weird obscure historical words that have had no application for the last five hundred years here.

It’s just a game. OK, it is. But if it’s a game where I have to question every five-letter word and wonder whether it could offend someone, effectively censoring my own vocabularly, then I think I’d rather go back to the Internot and find my ancient Scrabble board game where I can use whatever words I see fit.

Friday 11 February 2022

Whose money is it anyway?


One of the areas where I’m pretty sure my age is showing is my sadness in the decline of bricks and mortar financial and related services. I’ve written about some of my experiences involving my UK bank here and here, and I fear the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

The pandemic has provided a perfect hatching ground for yet more fraudsters and dodgy schemes intent on getting their grubby mitts on unsuspecting people’s money. I heard recently about an acquaintance who very nearly parted with a huge sum in the direction of fraudsters doing a very good impersonation of the Allianz

The sad fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to trust any organisation when you can’t see their offices, or the people working there. The internet is smoke and mirrors in digital.

The situation in Germany is nearly as bad, although I do at least have an advisor/contact person assigned to my account who I’ve met in person, although I suspect that’s a rare privilege as I’m self-employed. Less cheering is the knowledge that, due to Automatic Exchange of Information, UK institutions are passing all sorts of info about me to to the German tax authorities, which would be all well and good if there was some way of finding out which information was being passed over, and a way of checking if this information was correct and relevant - clue: it isn’t always, as I have found out to my cost. 

I know it’s not easy for the banks. The high street branches are a huge cost drain, and they are kind of trapped between security on the one hand and providing good custmer service on the other. But surely this is the kind of challenge that, if you get it right, you’ll really rise above the others and profit?

My experience of banking is that there are more and more hoops for me to jump through now to get anywhere near my own money, yet it’s also increasingly difficult to get to talk to a human being when I really need to - and no, I don’t want to chat on Facebook about financial matters. With the advances in technology, this makes no sense whatsoever.

I’ve got used to the tangle of user names, passwords and memorable information to get me past Go. I am even coming to accept that every second time I want to bank online I’ll have to utter a four digit code at a machine (and that worryingly often, it’s not accepted). But yesterday, I encountered something new. I wanted to move some money from my bank account to the NS&I, where I have Premium Bonds and a couple of other savings bits and pieces.

As I attempted to do this, a grid with about nine little icons flashed up at me.

"Why are you doing this?” demanded the grid.

I was quite taken aback and had a quick look through the options. “Moving my money” seemed to answer the question. Immediately another pop-up in red told me that the bank would never ask me to move money, which was odd as it was nothing to do with the bank, rather my own free will. But choosing this option resulted in not being able to get any further.

I wish I’d done a screen shot of all this as I can’t remember what else there was, but eventually I picked “Savings and investment” which seemed quite safe, but also came with dire warnings about fraud, and had I checked out the company I was investing with, and so on and so forth. I did think briefly about the guy and the Allianz-masquerade, but really. NS&I?

All in all, what should have taken a few seconds took considerably longer and left me irritated and almost as if I’d tried to do something illegal, or ill-advised, or naughty. 

And, strangely, I wasn’t asked to “rate my experience” on this occasion. I wonder why. 


Thursday 3 February 2022

RETROWURST: Armani meets Aldi February 2005


It’s difficult to believe that the - some would say game-changing -  collaboration between Karl Lagerfeld and H&M was 18 years ago. In February 2005, I wrote about the phenomenon, variously known at the time as “Armani meets Aldi” or “Prada meets Zara” - the growth of luxury and discount at the expense of the poor squeezed middle, be it fashion, retail, cars or even yoghurts.


This month, I’m going to write about a general trend that I’m sure is prevalent in other markets too, but I thought you might like to hear how this is affecting the German market in particular. It’s the trend variously called “Armani meets Aldi” or “Prada and Zara”, which is best symbolized by legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld putting out a collection for H&M last summer. Now, the collection will probably never be repeated (apparently Lagerfeld was upset that H&M produced his designs in sizes a little bit bigger than those to fit the average stick insect, which is rich coming from him as he used to be quite a porker himself!) but what the whole action represented was an important milestone in the development of this trend.


The trend itself is characterized by the growth of the luxury and discount sectors of many markets and the consequent shrinking of the middle. It’s estimated that in 1980, the middle-price segment represented 49% of sales but it is predicted that this will fall to 20% by 2010 at the expense of growth from the luxury and discount sectors. In contrast, discounters are estimated to have accounted for 38% of sales in 2003. Companies such as Porsche and Gucci on the one hand and Aldi and Lidl on the other are enjoying growth, while the traditional middle segment, such as retailer Karstadt-Quelle or car manufacturer Opel is suffering here in Germany.


The consumer behaviour that is fuelling this trend can be variously described as “trading up/trading down” or “mixing”. Instead of spending our cash on the ‘safe’ middle, we are ploughing what we’ve saved at the discounter into the new luxury segment. This behaviour can be traced back to a number of factors in Germany; shopping at the discounter was a necessity for many, including new groups of people hit by the last recession from which we’re just beginning to emerge. Another factor is the new responsibility that people are beginning to take for themselves; instead of relying on the tried and trusted ‘safe’ brand names, I’ll decide for myself in which areas I save and in which I splurge! This feeling has now translated into a perception across all bands of society that it’s no longer prestige just to buy expensive things; those who are really clever and ‘in the know’ can tell you exactly which manufacturer produces which Aldi goods! The discounters have not been slow to pick up on this trend and are broadening their offer accordingly. Aldi, for example, makes €1bn from clothing alone and is the 7th largest textile retailer in Germany.


Within areas other than retail, brands are picking up on the trend. A good example is the Korean car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia. These brands are deliberately attacking the value end of the car market with emphasis on quality and design. Hyundai recently ran advertising under the headline “Es gibt wieder richtige Volkswagen” (“Now there are real Volkswagens (peoples’ cars) again”). Both these Korean brands are enjoying double-figure growth in a stagnating market. In all branches, those that offer design at a good price are winning, from H&M to IKEA.


Part of the problem of the middle market is that the discounter products are, in many cases, as good. It is really not worth paying a little bit more for a brand name, especially when Aldi is a strong brand name in itself these days. The middle-market brands can no longer rely on their brand name; they must find a way upwards to the new luxury market and offer something worth having. The new luxury market is based on the principle of offering ‘specialness’ in fields where the basic price is not so high. In this way, Danone’s Actimel yoghurt can sell quite happily at a price premium of 100-200%. It is expensive (but jusitified, due to the L.Casei bacteria!) but affordable.


Some of the traditional middle-market brands are beginning to incorporate ‘luxury’ elements into their offer or communication in the hope of winning back customers. It is certainly true to say that the boundaries of what is discount, what is mass and what is luxury are becoming more and more blurred but it is questionable whether these actions which are not unique or an integral part of the brand concept will be powerful enough to buck the trend. For example, the mass-market mail-order catalogue Otto now has collections from Heidi Klum and Claudia Schiffer (have they not noticed that the old Supermodel trick has been used to much better effect by H&M for the last ten plus years?). C&A now have TV advertisements with super-high top fashion production values but at the end of the day, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.


Maybe the German middle-market brands should learn from M&S in the UK; increasingly, this is all about personalization, not about buying into a ‘blanket lifestyle’. It is about picking and choosing to suit oneself across categories, styles and price-bands. It is also about substance and attention to detail. A final example of the ‘new luxury’ is the Internet shopping site .Here we see “everyday products but not everyday quality” (the cynical could add something about ‘not everyday prices’, too!).

This has all the elements of specialness, individualism, authenticity and a touch of luxury that I can afford. I imagine that it won’t be long before Aldi offer a similar selection of ‘special everyday’ products to go with the €12.99 champagne!


17 years, a financial crisis or two and a pandemic later, it’s still the same story, although I’m wondering how much of the sad old middle there really is left to squeeze. One thing that’s changed is that all this mixing and matching has become the norm, with luxury and discount hardly seeming such unlikely bedfellows any more. Which makes it perfectly acceptable for Aldi and Lidl  to do their own luxury-style streetwear collections

Hang on. Luxury brands and streetwear? Well, maybe something has changed.

Digitalisation and the move to ecommerce and beyond has been taken up with more aplomb at the two ends of the price spectrum than the slow-moving and more traditional mid-market.

It reminds me in some ways that in the UK, it was always said that the upper and working classes had more in common with each other than with the middle class.