HOW TO SAVE THE HIGH STREET

Revolution, retail-apocalypse, whatever you call it there’s little doubt our high streets are struggling. Savethehighstreet.org is an organisation, a movement, dedicated to making our local high streets better and stronger. You can join them by clicking here 

In the meantime, here’s the transcript of my interview:

Can you tell us about the work you do as a retail expert?

I designed stores for over twenty-five years. I learnt my trade at one of London’s biggest and best agencies: Fitch. Rodney Fitch was a pioneer of retail design and believed that design was a force to make people’s lives better. I still carry that with me. Today, I travel, write and talk about the future of retail. It’s so important we don’t lose sight of the fact that shops are the foundation of a thriving community. That’s what’s important to me.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the high street today?

A three letter word: tax. It would be amiss of me not to talk about this issue. Business rates have become unsustainable and must be addressed, not just for businesses, but for the sake of our town and city centres. I’m not one of the current voices that believes punishing Amazon will save the high street. It won’t.

What is the biggest issue facing independent business owners today that you feel is not being spoken about, or addressed properly?

A decade ago everyone was bemoaning the ‘cookie cutter’ high street: the same brands, with the same store designs, so that every town looked pretty much identical. Today, many of these brands are dying and there’s a golden opportunity for local independents to show us how clever and creative they are. It’s a process that began in Brooklyn, New York and it’s spreading across the globe. People want their towns to be individual and unique, they want to buy local produce wherever possible, and would love to see local designers and entrepreneurs coming to market. So it’s for all of us to help and encourage the process I call Brooklynization. Governments, local authorities and landlords must cut us some slack. In turn, local retailers need to smarten up and show more enthusiasm. At risk of offending your entire readership, there are an awful lot of scruffy, dirty, lacklustre independent stores out there. Amongst the gems, of course.

What are the most pressing concerns you hear from local retailers?

Well, I guess I hear the same stories as everyone else: Amazon, Brexit, business rates, unresponsive councils, the weather, there are some that probably blame Donald Trump! I believe, if we can get the financial model working properly, the future will be very exciting. Consider how quickly the craft beer industry took off. Within five short years, it’s turned the world of beer upside down and created thousands of new breweries, bars, new jobs, and some much better beer to boot! And exactly as in Brooklyn, there’s no reason we can’t have the same growth in independent bakeries, butchers, florists, delis, barber shops, bicycle specialists and local fashion designers. Now that would bring us all back to town!

How do you think we can attract more footfall to local high streets?

I think I just partly answered that. Predominantly, we have to get away from this notion of the town centre selling us ‘stuff’. We can get ‘stuff’ on the internet. (There’s tons of it on there). High Streets, on the other hand, are our communities. We go into town to meet with friends and family, pick up some essentials, browse a bit, then stop and have a coffee to watch the world go by. Humans have been doing this since Romans gathered in the forum to see what’s new. Amazon won’t change that. We need to get over this current financial hurdle and encourage our towns to be communities again, with buskers and tastings and fairs, and all the weird and wonderful things us humans get up to when we’re not at work.

What is the best bit of advice you could give to someone who is looking to start their first independent retail business?

Be niche and be nice. We are witnessing the death of mediocre, mass market generalists. Stores that stood for nothing in particular, were specialists in nothing in particular and sold much the same stuff as everybody else. I’d say pick a niche area and excel in it. Make the best muffins, skin cream or leather goods the world has ever seen or tasted, but don’t do all three! You will find your locals should be keen to embrace your homegrown star status. And that’s when the rest of the world will want to know about you, online of course. And yes, with the rise of robots and Artificial Intelligence, hospitality will be more important in the future than it is now. So be nice!

When has a local business surprised you in a positive way and how did they do it?

This is a great question, as it gives me the opportunity to mention two personal favourites, from very different ends of the spectrum, as well as the country. First is Webb Bros, a hardware store in my hometown of Woodbridge, Suffolk. It’s a store very clearly from the Arkwright school of design (Open All Hours, Ronnie Barker) This place is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of bits and pieces that we will all need, at some point. But most importantly, at the centre, beneath the hanging brushes and spools of multi-coloured rope, stands Maggie, the oracle of all things that need to be done. Seriously, there is not a task nor job on planet earth that Maggie doesn’t know how to do and what tool you’ll need to do it. Now, what town is there out there that doesn’t need a store like Webb Bros?

Secondly, there are two very good people in the town of Totnes who own and run two fashion stores by the name of Fifty5a. Malin and Aron Hosie visited us in New York and absolutely hoovered up the independent vibe that is Brooklyn, and brought it back to Totnes. They are both creative and endlessly enthusiastic, and as a result, their stores feel alive, charming, personable, elegantly curated and cosy. They really ‘get’ how an independent store can outdo the chains. That’s the key to success.

Where can we find out more about you?

You can read my blogs and rants on all things retail here: www.22and5.com/blog/

Email me here: howard@22and5.com

And follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist

  Howard Saunders   Sep 11, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HI-HO, HI-HO

It must be true. A recent government report has predicted that more than six million workers fear being replaced by machines within the next ten years!

Hang on. Let’s read that again: ‘fear being’…well that’s hardly surprising since we’ve subjected them to daily doom-laden scenarios to contemplate over their cornflakes. And when asked if they thought government was doing enough to prepare for all these lost jobs, guess what they said?

So will this ‘report’ (and the nicely paid commission that follows) be led by a young, forward thinking entrepreneur looking to help maximize the potential of AI and robotics in the workplace? No, I’m afraid it’s Yvette Cooper, the genetically disgruntled former work and pensions secretary. That explains a lot.

Predictably, this report focuses on the 20% that feel technology will make their jobs worse and the 23% that believe their roles won’t be needed at all. But in fact, the figures also show that 73% say they feel pretty confident about new technology and will adapt to changes…just like they always have, presumably.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent ‘Enlightenment Now’ fear-mongering is par for the course in the prediction business. There’s real power in warning the people to ‘follow me, if you wish to be saved’. Conversely, there is no power in telling everyone things are about to get much more exciting.

Yes, the workplace is changing and technology will surely replace many thousands of current jobs. But if past evidence is anything to go by, which it is, then technology opens up many thousands more opportunities at the very same time. Pop into a Soho bar for a beer and a spot of earwigging. West End pub talk today is of app development, payment software widgets and online marketing campaigns, and they use jargon that to anyone over the age of 32 sounds like Klingon. Here, in the centre of Britain’s engine room, it’s barely possible to find anyone whose job wasn’t invented within the last ten years.

Alternatively, and nothing to do with technology, fifty years ago who could have predicted the meteoric rise of the restaurant and hospitality industry, the millions of jobs that have been created in bars, restaurants and hotels that simply never existed before? The world of work is changing fast, but we seem to forget where we came from even faster.

In the future, retailers will bring much more automation into play. The mundane work of ordering, distribution, stock control, logistics and sales analysis will surely be done by robots in the form of AI, rather than the Meccano-esque variety. Slightly scarier looking robots will be busy organizing the warehouse and selecting stock for mass market consumption. And yes, this will mean fewer bored and sweaty warehouse and security staff. But on the front line, where real people enter real branded spaces, there will be a marked shift towards genuine hospitality.

When the dot matrix tickertape thingy welcomes you aboard your train, how many hearts has it lifted, how many smiles have been raised by its digital grace? Answer: none. Put a human conductor at the door with a similar greeting and he might just put a spring in your step, and everyone else he meets, for the entire day. Why? Well, simply put, humans are unique in that they share the secret of their own mortality on this planet. Connections matter to us. Dot matrix boards will never empathize with our condition.

So now imagine receiving a message from a favourite brand inviting you to a product launch and a glass of wine. Precisely on schedule, the autonomous mobile pod-shop arrives at your door blinking with digital messages just for you. Your fingerprint unlocks the door into this tiny branded universe. A HAL-like voice welcomes you and a hatch swishes open to reveal the shoe that’s been designed especially for you, based on things you have previously ‘liked’. All you have to do is to reach out and take it.

Is this a perfect future retail scenario or is there something missing, humanity perhaps? We seem to forget, humans give us the emotional reassurance that what we want is worth wanting. Humans are our audience, our witnesses and the way in which we negotiate our social status. Without them, the retail process becomes a transaction in a vacuum. Efficient, but utterly meaningless. Personalized, yet impersonal.

Genuine hospitality is a rare and delicate balance of polite, respectful distance and emotional warmth. Only humans can fulfill this role. As brands become more emotionally intelligent they will require an army of warm, twinkly eyed brand ambassadors to make us feel connected. This high-level hospitality strategy I call Hi-Ho is fast becoming the new brand battlefield.

So cheer up. Despite all the technological seduction, the predictive algorithms and creative AI experiences retail will no doubt offer us, rest assured that humanity will play a far more critical role tomorrow than it does today.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Aug 20, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

PEAK STUFF?

It’s very fashionable at the moment to suggest we’ve reached peak stuff. The theory is, here in the mature West we no longer need any more things, that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was reached long ago and, frankly, the desire for any more possessions, can be nothing but greed.

One thing we certainly do have a lot more of these days is guilt. Currently, our guilty consciences are focused firmly on plastics, thanks to the rallying cry of David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series. But once this particular frenzy has subsided, all for the better of the planet of course, another is sure to take its place. Will it be the fashion and textile industry, for example, where poisonous waste products and multi billion ton landfill issues will upset us enough to demand action? Or might it be the waste in Hollywood film production, food waste in the restaurant business, or bottled drinks? There is no industry safe from the laser gaze of outrage our new found powers of moral judgment have given us.

It might be worth remembering our agrarian forefathers were dirt poor, hungry, over worked and with zero naval gazing time for any guilt. A hundred thousand years of poverty in preparation for a few decades of prosperity and already we’re complaining we can’t close our bathroom cabinets and have no space left in our crammed wardrobes.

So where has all this guilt and virtue suddenly appeared from? In a word, Sweden. First off we had H&M encouraging us to bring back our used T shirts. Next up we had the ‘climate friendly’ ReTuna shopping centre in Eskilstuna, whose fifteen stores specialize in refurbished second hand products. And now, not wishing to be out-virtued, Ikea is trialling a furniture rental and buy back scheme for our used Billy bookcases and any other Ikea furniture that has passed it useful-by-date. They call it ‘circularity’ and there’s no question it answers a number of difficult questions for a retail industry that is questioning its very existence right now.

Recycling, downcycling and upcycling are having their heyday. Circularity gives us the warm resonance that we’re doing the right thing, helping ease the burden on the planet, allowing us to sleep a little sounder in our beds perhaps. But realistically, the ecological benefit from buying a used coat, for example, as opposed to a new one, must surely be so miniscule as to be irrelevant. Even if we were somehow to persuade everyone in the UK never to buy a new coat ever again, any benefit to the ecosystem would be tiny compared to the loss of the coat making industry and all the jobs that it supports.

Part of the problem is that our guilty consciences have become detached from the process of manufacturing things. For most of us our working lives are spent writing emails. Every day we travel to work on crowded trains to arrive at a centrally located urban building where people busy themselves…writing electronic messages to other people in similar looking buildings across the globe. But however we frame what we do, if you follow an email thread to its logical conclusion, something, somewhere gets built or manufactured. No matter if you work in accounts, or in a public library, we are all complicit in the process of creating more stuff for consumption. And this, my friends, is how we all got so rich, and ultimately so discontented.

The smartphone is often held up as a shining example of technological convergence and a flag-bearer for the less stuff movement. Within barely a decade our little slab of black glass has replaced the: desk phone, diary, record player, camera, rolodex, fax machine, photograph album, tape recorder, encyclopaedia, newspaper, directory, road maps, radio, alarm, clock, stopwatch…the list is ever expanding. That’s an awful lot of plastic, metal, rubber and paper that no longer needs to be pulped, mined, moulded and manufactured at all, and can instead be used, presumably, for making more iPhones. Which we replace annually, by the way.

We are told that the very concept of owning stuff is outdated. As Gen Z enter the workforce they will apparently enlighten us oldies with a fresh approach to renting and sharing the things that furnish our lives.

I just don’t buy it, pun intended. While I’m not denying that Baby-boomers, Millennials and Gen Z are looking to de-clutter and simplify, I refuse to believe the desire for ownership has subsided. Treasuring something we own has been with us for at least a hundred thousand years, and it would be very unlikely indeed that in a period of less than a decade our disruptive youngsters could evolve themselves free of such a primal, territorial human instinct so swiftly. I suggest it’s much more likely to be a reaction to the difficulty in getting on the property ladder, so that in a fit of pique Gen Z have declared they don’t want to own ANYTHING! Throwing their toys out of the fully-paid-for pram, you might say.

Perhaps the dilemma we’re struggling with is partly a rejection of mass production. We don’t need any more stuff because our desires can be fulfilled so easily with cheap and accessible mass produced imports. The gap that’s left is an emotional one: the desire to own products and things with meaning and provenance, at least more meaning than what’s currently out there. Consider that now we have access to the sum of ALL human knowledge at the touch of our smartphone, we can learn about the history of denim, where to find the world’s best bagel, the rarest coffee bean etc (as well as the age, height and weight of the actor we’re watching). Turn away from the phone and how inspiring does your local department store look now? Ten years ago it was still a local mecca for ideas, treats, gifts, inspiration and perhaps a pot of tea. It would be hard to argue that today.

Desiring things may sometimes be greed, but more often than not we buy things that enrich our lives. We make an emotional contract with the products we select to say something about us. Buying something is an expression of commitment, a sign that we value having a product in our lives that says something positive about us. Renting something for show, on the other hand, whether it’s a dress or a Lamborghini, requires zero emotional commitment. If Gen Z simply want things for that Instagram moment, then they’re shallower than I thought.

The human condition will always be to want something better and that’s a good thing as it’s the very fuel of our ingenuity. But today, I believe we want, not just more stuff, but better, more worthy products that much of the high street has failed to deliver. So, let’s stop pretending we’re turning our backs on consumerism, when in reality, just like H&M and Ikea, we’re all in the business of producing more stuff. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact we’ve never had it so good and start producing, selling and, most importantly, demanding better stuff .

When we walk into a fast-fashion superstore and grimace in disgust at the show of blatant consumerism, we are judging others rather than ourselves. As Stephen Pinker says in his powerful new tome ‘Enlightenment Now’, consumerism is the other guy’s consumption.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 10, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More
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