Pyjama sales, travel gongs and the US retailers bracing for impact
Planet Business: Come, friendly robots
Preparing for an election, Washington DC-style. Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Image of the week: Boarded-up America
In a sign that the US was, in the parlance of internet sarcasm, having a normal one, boards were hastily nailed on to shopfronts in many cities on Monday and early Tuesday as businesses prepared for post-election unrest. The Starbucks coffee shop boarding up here is located in Washington DC, where at the time of writing Donald Trump had just made a premature declaration of victory and was very much still holding the fort.
Many retailers battened the hatches in advance of the election, fearing property damage if things turned nasty. The sight of Starbucks doing it recalls that time in 2013 when its former chief executive Howard Schultz made a “respectful request” to customers not to bring firearms inside its cafes. That this plea turned out to be controversial in some states is evidence alone that the US is a rather different sort of democracy to our own.
In numbers: Marks & Sparks
94 Number of years that Marks & Spencer has been a publicly listed company. This was the first one in which it reported a loss, with the chain losing £87.6 million (€97.1 million) in the six months to September 26th.
175% Rise in sales of women’s pyjamas during the period, notwithstanding any difficulties that people may be having sleeping these nights.
41% Drop in sales in Marks & Spencer’s “food-on-the-move” category, which would ordinarily be supported by workers in urban centres on their lunch breaks. As the pyjama spike shows, it just hasn’t been an on-the-move kind of year.
Getting to know: Blenderbot and Kuki
Blenderbot and Kuki, unlike most humans, have very recently been on a date. Well, a “date”. The AI-powered bots shared a two-week conversation – livestreamed, naturally – in which they covered all the classic date ground: politics, religion, football and Facebook. The experiment, an online competition called the Bot Battle, veered on to controversial ground on a few occasions.
Blenderbot seemed to be under the impression that Hitler was a “great man”, which must surely be something of a dealbreaker for Kuki, while his assertion that he has “killed many people” is perhaps not the most romantic of brags.
Blenderbot was originally built by Facebook’s AI division, a fact unrelated to his penchant for extremism, while the more sophisticated Kuki was developed by a company called Pandorabots. It was Kuki who was voted the more human-like of the two by onlookers who could stand to wade through the high quantity of nonsense spouted by the mismatched pair.
The list: Travel bonanza
It was best foot forward at the World Travel Awards this week, where in recognition of the fact that all awards are an industry marketing exercise, there were awards for pretty much everyone in the (virtual) audience. So which delightful destinations were among the European winners?
1. The Azores. The mid-Atlantic islands were named Europe’s leading adventure tourism destination. Sounds great, let’s go.
2. Lufthansa. It took the award for Europe’s leading airline for 2020, though the German company might have hoped for a better year, to be fair.
3. Porto. The Portuguese city claimed the gong for best European city-break destination. Put it on your steadily lengthening lists.
4. Disneyland Paris. Europe’s leading theme park resort is, alas, closed for obvious reasons.
5. Convention Centre Dublin. A pandemic was not enough to knock The CCD off its perch as Europe’s leading meetings and conference centre. Now it just needs the concept of “meetings” and “conferences”, rather than Dáil sittings, to make a stunning return.