Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

Monocle: An object lesson in practising what you preach…or not.


In my arena the words premium and luxury get thrown around with an abandon that’s bordering on Wilde-ian in its gayness. Everybody wants a piece of the premium/luxury pie and they’re willing to spend obscene amounts of money trying to convince customers that they have it. Said customers, if the marketing department has done their sums right, will then fork out similarly obscene amounts of money to own their own slice of the premium/luxury pie.

Done right, luxury can be both highly lucrative for the producer and deeply satisfying for the customer.

Yet party as I often am to endless talk – for that’s all it often is – concerning the top end of the market I’ve naturally become a little sceptical whenever the P and L words are bandied about, for it’s rare that the reality even comes close to the hype.

When Monocle magazine came along, however, I put down my guide on How to be an Arch Cynic in 10 Easy Steps and listened to what Tyler Brulé and his team of international taste-shapers had to say on the matter. Brulé, after all, has form in sorting the delicately hand-crafted from the merely “hand finished”; it was he who launched the seminal, luxury-focussed Wallpaper* franchise in the late 90s and executed the relaunch of dowdy old Swissair as the ineffably elegant Swiss.

Having had long-standing relationships with all three Brulé projects I was looking forward to experiencing  his latest venture, the Monocle Shop in London’s Marylebone, and my anticipation was only heightened by the recent Monocle issue examining best practice in the retail sector around the world. Surely the shopping experience would be a distillation of everything great and good the Monocle team had catalogued in their travels.

By way of background, the impetus for my visit was the launch of a limited, cloth-bound and signed edition of Alain de Botton’s latest œvre The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Anxious to secure a copy for an impending jubilee I made contact with the store through the Monocle website to place an order. I was informed by staff that one would be put aside in my name to collect when I was next in London. Not wanting to let the book slip through my fingers, I re-confirmed two weeks ago with a girl named Sophie and was, once again, assured that one would be kept aside.

Returning to the broader picture, Monocle, in their aforementioned retail issue, kindly provided a list of must-haves for any store wanting to compete in the premium/luxury market place. Although I don’t have the pertinent article to hand, suffice it to say that the commandments centred around knowledgeable, amenable staff, an unerring attention to detail and a willingness to go the extra distance for the customer. These, Tyler and team decreed, should form the cornerstone of any retail experience.

Sadly, the Monocle Shop failed on all counts.

After walking in and initially being ignored by the fellow keeping the fort, I finally managed to rouse him into action by letting him know that a copy of Pleasures and Sorrows had been kept aside in my name. Much humming and hawing ensued as he searched high and low for my allotted copy. Desperate to get to a lunch appointment, I was slightly miffed as the search for my book was then postponed as fort-keeper took a long phone call.

After yet another fruitless search, contact was made with Sophie (I imagine the same one who had assured me that all would be well in the first place) who was similarly unable to shed any further light on the whereabouts of my book. Eventually I was offered the display copy which, in the absence of any alternative, I agreed to buy.

Card swiped, book in crummy bag and out the door to lunch. Just another heart-breakingly average retail experience, the likes of which we all have every day. There was not an ounce of Monocle’s professed love of luxury and all things authentically good in sight – or in heart – as I left the store.

The experience was so witheringly lame that I wouldn’t have been compelled to remark on it had the Monocle team not devoted an entire issue of their magazine to righting the wrongs of the retail sector.

Where were the knowledgeable, amenable staff? Apart from his slovenliness, fort keeper didn’t know a great deal about the product he is charged with representing. In response to being asked about who was the designer of the limited-edition Fritz Hansen-produced Monocle table, a snip at £4000, he proffered, after looking at the product image on the wall, “Fritz Hansen”. It was, in fact, Todd Bracher.

The lack of attention to detail was spoken for by the very fact that they lost/sold my book in the first place and there was certainly no going the extra distance to encourage me to walk away a happy camper. Indeed I had a far lovelier experience earlier in the day at Uniqlo while spending far less. Might I ever so humbly suggest that Tyler and the team at Monocle take a look in their own backyard before telling the rest of the retail world how to delight their customers.

To quote Deyan Sudjic in his wonderful little book The Language of Things, “luxury used to be the respite that mankind found for itself from the daily struggle for survival. It was the pleasure to be found in understanding the quality of material things that were thoughtfully and carefully made”. Noting his use of the past tense, I proffer the Monocle shop as prime example of the hollow, marketing spiel that Luxury has now, by and large, become. There was no respite in that little shop, no understanding on behalf of the guardian of the Monocle brand and certainly nothing thoughtful, or carefully made about the experience of shopping there.

Perhaps Tyler might like to take up the relevant back issue of his magazine and brush up on retail 101.

[Picture: Shiner.Clay/Flikr licensed under Creative Commons]


Filed under: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Perceived Quality, Premium, Things I Hate, , , , , , , ,

4 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    You should forward your thoughts onto the store themselves…
    I really hate a poor retail experience, Monocle certainly doesn’t compare to how we were treated when we went to LV in Paris!

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Originally posted by Alain de Botton on the “About Me” page of the site:

    Dear Andrew,

    I was humbled by your entry on the service you received at the Monocle shop.

    For any part I might unwittingly have played, I’m deeply sorry – and thank you so much for investing in the Monocle edition.
    It does seem a huge pity that, despite having their hearts in all the right places, the team from Monocle do sometimes trip up on execution.
    all best


  3. drewpasmith says:

    Originally emailed to Alain in response to his comment:

    Dear Alain,

    Thank you so much for getting in touch regarding my posting on the Monocle Shop.

    I do recognise the general excellence of the Monocle team – god knows I’ve happily invested in all their issues – but as you say they do sometimes trip up on execution, as do we all. To be perfect is to be imperfectly human after all.

    By the same token, having invested so much time in analysing excellence in the retail sector, I had sincerely hoped that the team would ensure their shop would act as a shining beacon for others to follow.

    The book itself is delightful and, although purchased as a 30th birthday gift for my occupational-psychologist partner, I will admit to blazing through 20-odd pages last night and becoming thoroughly engaged by your thinking. I look forward to Fletcher’s finishing it so that I may resume where I left off!

    On a more prosaic note, I see that you placed your comment on the “About Me” page of my blog where there is nothing but a rather inglorious “Coming Soon…maybe”. Would you mind if I copy and pasted your comment to the “Comments” section of the post concerned?

    Once again, thank you for getting in touch and I wish you every success for the new book.

    With kind regards,


  4. […] may recall a recent post in which I mouthed off about my disappointing experience at the Monocle shop in […]

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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