THE DARK SIDE OF THE ME AGE

The heavenly choirs were at full pitch as the fallout from the global financial crisis became apparent. Suddenly, the sky parted and we were handed a slim, black, slab of glass and told we were now in charge, we were in control. No longer would we need to wait to see what the mainstream media had prepared for us at six o’clock every evening. No longer would we need to press our ears to the radio to discover which twenty tunes they’d lined up for us. The dawning of the ME Age really was this biblical. At precisely the time we lost our faith in governments, banks and authorities of all kinds, the smart-phone arrived to grant us uncharted access to anything and everything the planet has to offer. Little wonder it’s had such seismic impact on our high streets.

But there’s a dark and murky side to all this democracy. ME Agers have evolved into an army of super-entitled consumers, brimful with great expectations. Any semi-literate teen is a potential vlogging evangelist now, preaching how we should live, how we must better our lives. It’s not the porn you need to worry about. It’s the feeding frenzy of entitlement your children are locked into that will distort their view of life on earth. Remember, they are all beautiful now, no matter what, and all deserving of our undying respect, as well as a flawless complexion, of course.

The entitled generation is already percolating into our shopping centres, and you can expect them to become ever more demanding as they grow in number. Every mundane thing you take for granted, or haven’t thought much about, they will have an opinion on, passed to them, no doubt, by one of their teenage life coaches. Toothpaste, toilet paper, washing-up liquid, fruit juice, shampoo, aspirin…they’ll be keen to enlighten you as to how deadly these seemingly innocent products are to the health of you and the planet. Clearly, we must prepare for a mighty surge in demand for products and services that are specifically tailored to their highly individual tastes. And delivered within the hour, preferably. The ‘twas ever thus’ brigade won’t know what’s hit it.

It’s worth noting that ME culture is more bubble-up than trickle-down. The contemporary signals that scream desperately ‘I’M AN INDIVIDUAL!’ are sought much harder by those further down the socio-economic scale, perhaps for obvious reasons.

The rise in the number of obscure intolerances is also a by-product of the ME Age. What better way to signal our specialness than to decline an unsuspecting food type while eating amongst friends or colleagues? To date, brands have adapted pretty quickly to our mushrooming pickiness, but they will have to keep on their toes, as it’s unlikely the esteem, with which we now hold ourselves, will dampen anytime soon.

The current ‘pestminster’ scandal can be put down, in part, to our new-found self worth. Victimology, the science of actively seeking out victim status, is clearly on the rise as more of us feel special enough to demand retribution for every awkward, inappropriate sexual advance, or ham-fisted flirtation, dating back decades. Once upon a time, crude or tacky behavior would have been shrugged off as merely that. But today, our egos demand vengeance. No need for expensive lawyers or painful post-mortems. One tiny tweet can be quickly fashioned into an ugly-man destroying missile, and launched with the lightest index finger.

We are in the midst of a cultural upheaval. Back on the high street we are watching the demise of mass market generalists, mid market supermarkets and department stores, largely because they sell the same stuff as everyone else, to absolutely anyone. But very soon, we’ll arrive in a retail wonderland where artificial intelligence will tailor anything our little hearts desire (as well as plenty they had never even considered). In the meantime, we are fast approaching a clash of cultures that could destroy the traditional retail contract: great expectations vs commercial pragmatism. Whether it’s tinned soup or handmade shoes, retail’s unspoken trick is to sell us mass produced merchandise as if it were specially designed for us. As the ME Age gathers momentum, this may well be our biggest challenge yet.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Nov 14, 2017   big data, Brand, me, me age, Retail, smartphone, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE DEATH OF NUANCE

The good, the bad, and the nothing in between

Futurists and soothsayers of all varieties predict so many deaths of cultures, eras and fashions that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Death makes a much more striking headline than to warn of demise, so I make no apology here for announcing the death of subtlety and adding another corpse to our ever expanding cultural obituary.

I blame politics. Nuance has been looking sickly for a number of years but rigor mortis really set in some time mid 2016, just before the dreaded elections. Over the course of the summer and pushing into late Autumn the western world turned fully binary. You were either in or out, either on the left or the right, there was no in between. Politics has always been adversarial, with its two party bias whipped up by the media, but something was different this time. Each of us set up camp firmly in one territory or the other and hunkered down, right through into the new year…and there’s no sign of things easing yet.

I blame the media. The BBC and CNN, in fact all of them, talk to us like Blue Peter presenters. In gently lilting tones they simplify things for us to digest, like Mummy cutting up our food. The relentless drip, drip, drip of reassuring reasonableness has taken its toll. We have become infantilized. Everyone is either a goodie or a baddie.

If you are good you vote left. That’s the caring, sharing thing to do. You distrust big business, love the European Union and relish every dystopian warning on climate change you read. If you are bad you vote right. You love big business (since it probably made you rich) hate foreigners and believe climate change is a conspiracy. Surely, even the oikiest of oiks amongst us knows these polar positions could not bear the gentlest scrutiny, and yet this is precisely where we increasingly feel most comfortable.

I blame Facebook. It’s the most powerful forum ever invented but it’s no place for nuance. Our silly social avatars must only be seen faking the thrill of being alive, clinking glasses, peace-signing and mugging to camera. Every tiny, insignificant event in our friends’ lives is offered up as something we must like, heart or cry over. If we fail to decorate our page with the flag of the nation of the latest victim of terrorism, we may ourselves slip into the bad category, amongst the ‘friends’ best avoided. And when they poke fun at a ‘bad’ politician or celebrity we have a thumbprint’s chance to join them and show the world that we are good, not bad like the bad man. This isn’t debate, it’s whack-a-mole politics. We’ve become babies.

I blame Twitter. How can an argument be constructed in 140 little letters? It’s a terrific tool for missile shaped comment and observation but these staccato sound bites can hardly be expected to encourage fluid debate. They merely offer themselves up for us to love or ignore. You’re either with me or against me. Snap decisions force us to go binary and sucker us into joining the consensus. After all, it saves so much time.

But we’ve recently entered a much more dangerous binary phase. In the rush to be outraged and signal our universal goodness we are picking on dull, bird shit spattered statues and demanding they be removed for representing bad deeds. Even lonely old Nelson high above Trafalgar Square, who hasn’t been bothered for 180 years (unless you include John Noakes in 1977) has suddenly become a target.

This binary frenzy threatens our biggest brands too: Secretive Apple, censorious Google and tax dodging Amazon must learn to live on a cliff’s edge, knowing that at any minute the tide may turn against them. These three money making monsters are not just big business, they supply us with the tools for modern life and yet, as crucial as they are, they are more vulnerable than perhaps any of us realize. If, say, we turn against Google for being too manipulative, it might just find itself in the bad column. If it does, it will surely crash to earth as swiftly and as heavily as General Robert E Lee bit the Virginia dust.

Even lower profile brands cannot hide from the Outrage Hunters. Let’s scan a few high street names: Tesco, Sports Direct, John Lewis, Rapha, Walmart. Lululemon, JC Penney, Burger King, T Mobile….don’t be shy. You know which camps they fall into.

I am not normally one to fret over the domination of social media. I believe the planet has just opened up for all of us and the benefits of the digital age are only just becoming clear. I do hope, however, that the fashion for binary opinion on everything and anything is just that, a fashion.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2017   Apple, Brand, Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BOTS CAN’T DANCE

It’s official. 2017 is the year we went mad. All of us here in the UK, anyway. On the one hand we are resigned to the fact it will probably take twenty years to unravel a few trade agreements with the EU, and yet, on the other hand, we fully expect a driverless car to be whisking us off to work within a few months. We mutter endlessly about the naivety of our political leaders, but will happily recount the news that Elon Musk and Matt Damon will shortly be starting a colony on Mars. And in the pub on a Friday night we can be heard thanking god for the robots that will replace us at work, so that finally we’ll have the time to make home-brew, do the gardening and enjoy life on the UBI (Universal Basic Income).

We’re told that shopping will radically change too, when the supermarket shelf stackers are replaced by little Star Wars droids that work through the night, at considerably less than the minimum wage. During the day, of course, those shelves will sing with Minority Report style promotions, designed especially for us.

Dinner party conversation is of home-robot chefs, exactly as predicted by the Jetsons in the sixties. Sillier still, we grin like schoolchildren at talk of sex bots with hyper-realistic latex skin and randomly blinking eyes, that will keep us company and a lot more besides.

The future has never looked so puffed up and swaggeringly arrogant as it does right now. Drone deliveries, telepathically controlled computers, flying cars, homes that talk back to us, 3D printed organs, lab grown meat and brands that know what we want before we do. It’s all very scary.

Oh come on. The future may be racing towards us faster than ever but it’s probably not a bad idea to hang on to some sense of reality a tad longer. It’s as if the mundanity of ordinary life has become so mind-numbing that we reserve our optimism exclusively for fantastical visions of the future, the ones that will probably never happen. Call me Mr D. Squib if you must, but a little injection of practical, down to earth common sense may help put things into some sort of context, so that we’re not so desperately disappointed when the future finally arrives. Which, of course, it never does.

Firstly, we will not be washing our driverless cars on a Sunday morning. A vehicle that can take us to work as we read our tablets already exists. It’s called a train. Or a bus, for that matter. Our roads are clogged already thanks, and they’re unlikely to free up when we each own an autonomous vehicle. And what does it do once it’s deposited us at work? There won’t be room for it to park up and wait for us to finish. No, what our techno-boffins are promising here is a sophisticated new mode of public transport, charged by the mile no doubt.

Drones are more than ready and able to deliver to your door, but reality will kick in when drone delivery goes mass market. There is no way governments will allow swarms of electronic bats to hover above our homes all hours of the day and night, awaiting a thumbprint signature. Not least because they’ll get in the way of their own surveillance drones. Oh yes, that’s sure to happen.

Connected home technology has already become mainstream, if not mass market, but the benefits are limited, simply because our homes are old, often very old, stock. Besides, the opportunity to control the heating remotely was solved decades ago by a simple timer.

The exhilarating vision of talking shelves and shelf-stacking bots can be crushed in one fell swoop, I’m afraid. Supermarkets are already being replaced by local, smaller, more artisan producers. We won’t be wheeling our trolleys past holographic shelf ads because we won’t be wheeling trolleys, full stop. Not because the technology isn’t ready.

Home robots that do the cooking and cleaning are still a very long way off, simply because comprehensive, sensory dexterity is bloody difficult, as well as ridiculously expensive. Rest assured that by the time they’re available you certainly won’t be able to afford one. Not on your UBI anyway! And for the record, Universal Basic Income will be a disaster: another debilitating measure to make us even more state dependent…and utterly useless for the economy.

And saving the juiciest until last, I mean, really? You think a sex bot will ever replace human intimacy? Maybe for a few psychopaths it will, but it’s worth remembering that bots can’t dance yet. And when they do, it just won’t be sexy.

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 19, 2017   Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   1 Comment   Read More

THE BLUES: THE MEANING BEHIND AMERICA’S GREATEST EXPORT

America has one killer export which, in sheer number of units as well as influence, simply dwarfs all others. One that has more customers than Coca-Cola, is more widespread than the English language, has been photographed more than Marilyn Monroe, is more significant than Hollywood and more iconic than Elvis Presley and Madonna. It’s had more column inches written about it than the moon landing and the iPhone combined, and has been embraced by cultures in every obscure corner of the planet.

It’s denim. It broke convention and changed the world forever.

Originally designed as rugged, protective workwear for miners and farmers in the late 19th Century jeans were mainly worn in the Western States until World War II as they were strongly associated with cowboy culture, prairie roaming and a kind of rural, working class freedom. But as soon as Marlon Brando was seen in a pair astride his 650cc Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One (1953) denim’s fate was sealed. The fact that off set Brando wore jeans and rode the same Triumph just added to the authenticity. The Wild One must surely be one of the most culturally influential films of all time. (As an interesting aside, Lee Marvin’s gang in the film was known as ‘The Beetles’ a spooky prophecy if ever there was one.) Hollywood had turned denim in to a symbol of the anti-establishment and once real motorcycle gangs started wearing it, it was soon being banned in schools, bars and clubs right across the United States. To this day it is still forbidden as corporate workwear as well as in certain restaurants and clubs that consider themselves to be ‘upmarket establishments’.

When a restaurant or club introduces denim as part of its staff uniform, whether it’s a pair of jeans or an apron, the message is clear: we like to think of ourselves as a little unconventional, a bit edgier than most but, just like the original miners, we work hard and require practical, rugged workwear.

Denim is ingrained into the fabric of contemporary culture, pun intended. A pair of jeans, unlike any other piece of clothing I can think of, can be read like a book. The cut, the fit, the depth of the dye, the stitching, the wash, the width, the size of the pockets, the turn up, the length and the fit around the waist or hips, each and every detail has been modified, adjusted, ripped apart, bleached or decorated by all, and even opposing, youth cultures to make denim its own. Skinheads, punks, hippies, rockers and rockabillies, gangsters and rap stars wear it because it is the fundamental garment of subculture dress code. Just imagine, if you can, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in a smart pair of trousers.

A pair of jeans speaks a silent, dog-whistle language heard only by those in the know. Tight or fitted, faded on the thigh or shin, torn at the pocket or knee, crossed belt loops at the back or parallel, hemmed or unhemmed, rivetted or rivetless; each detail emits a tribal smoke signal that can strike fear into the heart of the uninitiated. Each tiny modification follows, breaks or rewrites an unwritten rule from an enormous, invisible rule book. And to make matters worse, the rule book is being rewritten weekly.

Denim’s pervasiveness has undoubtedly diluted some of its power since the romantically alluring rebels of post war youth culture paraded it for shock value back in the fifties. A pair of jeans has inevitably become a default item, the thing you turn to when you’re not thinking, or when you simply want to be invisible or fit in. Denim may have gone mainstream but this is precisely because it still represents freedom and democracy. So in spite of its incomparable omnipresence it has somehow managed to retain its symbolism. Denim remains fundamentally anti-establishment and wearing it is an obvious display of freedom.

It is, therefore, impossible for today’s ‘post apocalypse’ culture to ignore denim, or find an alternative fabric that is as elemental or as significant a symbol of subculture. Post Apocalypse Man’s (man as in mankind which includes women) strategy to make denim his own is to follow what has proved so successful with beer, bread and many other daily staples: He turned its manufacture into a craft. And just like all the things we take for granted, PAM stripped denim back to its roots, studying the weave and the weft, the twill, the warp, the slub and the nep. Yes, this is the language of the denim artisan that gives PAM a unique and personal ownership: a denim culture of its very own. PAM is no longer just a consumer, he is a connoisseur. In this way, he instantly, and ingeniously, elevates his ownership of denim high above the noisy chatter of other street cultures concerned only with how their jeans look. Oh wow, PAM is smart.

Having become a connoisseur, the next logical step in the journey to get under the skin of any product is to become the manufacturer, the craftsman. And that’s why we are witnessing the rise of locally made, bespoke denim tailors and mini-factories right across the five boroughs with a fresh batch of denim experts setting up shop every season. From in-house tailors who will customise your jeans through to the full bespoke model, it is clear this is a growth industry that’s set to expand further. In this new age we are more willing than ever before to invest in a pair of jeans that gives us the status we so badly crave: evidence that we are a connoisseur of the cultural icon of freedom. It makes perfect sense. Expensive watches and designer suits were the status symbols of yesterday. In an increasingly casualized world a pair of unique jeans is how we communicate our place within it.

Read more of my blogs here: http://www.22and5.com/blog/

Join me on Twitter: @SaundersHoward

  Howard Saunders   Oct 14, 2016   Brand, Levi's, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BEWARE! SLIPPERY SHOPPING

Retailers are a funny lot. One of the latest buzzwords you hear at conferences and in board rooms around the world is ‘friction’. Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales, so it deserves a little examination.

Perhaps it’s us customers that are the strange species. We will happily browse the magazines or beauty section with no intent of buying or any hint of time pressure. We scan articles on knitting or weddings that we have zero interest in, and we open and sniff bottles of potions we have already decided we can’t buy and wouldn’t want if it was ‘grab a free potion’ day. And yet, faced with a queue that might delay us a couple of minutes we instantly become frustrated. Worse, if a doddery old lady wheels her trolley into our imaginary laser-line to the magazine aisle then we tut silently at the loss of the 0.44 seconds we will never recover. Life’s tiny hurdles are little more than an illusory inconvenience to what are, obviously, our meaningful and purposeful lives.

The love affair with our phones also illustrates how quickly we become bored or frustrated when the world around us refuses to work in perfect, synchronised harmony to our own personal schedule. When driving, every traffic light or junction is another chance to check our phones, so that a miniscule delay becomes useful to us in some small, pathetic way. As we watch the train pull into the station, on time, there are still a handful of microseconds being wasted here: enough time to quickly check our Facebook page.

Now retailers who have studied our peculiar behaviour for many decades have decided to remove as many of these unnecessary micro-hurdles as possible from the in-store shopping experience, lest we give up and go the Amazon way. But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.

Not long ago the slipperiest, most friction-free retail model was the supermarket. Before the age of the smartphone we would venture out in the car, drive to the store, pick up a trolley, push the trolley up and down every aisle, load it up with all our weekly needs, unload it at the checkout, pack it into bags, load it back into the trolley, unload it into the car, return the trolley to the trolley bay, drive home, unload car and then store it all neatly at home…until next week. It couldn’t have been simpler! I can already hear my unborn grandchildren begging me to ‘tell us again how you used to buy food Granddad!’. So, in response to the shift in having stuff delivered, our once easy-to-shop spaces are desperately attempting to lubricate their stores further, concentrating primarily on new payment technologies.

Now the camera, in this little documentary I’m making for you, cuts to a fresh food market. Here in the US, markets have increased threefold in number since the financial crash of 2008, but just watch how ridiculously high friction the shopping experience is. Each stall has a queue, and an undignified one at that. The doddery old lady may not have a trolley but she’s been fumbling in her purse at the front of the line for what must be ten minutes now. Your bags are heavy and awkward but still you manage to smile in response to the cheery verbal arithmetic. What a contrast to the dulcet chime that is ‘unexpected item in the bagging area!’

The problem with the supermarket model, within which I include an entire gamut of mid market self-service brands across category, is that it strips away so much of the social aspect of retail, so that even eye contact in the aisles is deemed unacceptable. Retailers have worked hard honing and polishing the cogs of their machines in order that they shine bright beneath the fluorescent lights, but they overlooked the very key to being human, the bit that makes our three score years and ten worthwhile. We are a deeply and innately social species and when we glance at Facebook while the train doors open it’s because we are desperate to connect. At the traffic lights we click on our email to see if anyone wants us, anyone…an awkward client will do. So, in a space deprived of social contact perhaps it’s the magazine aisle and the beauty section that most engages us and offers a little respite from the drudgery of the weekly trawl. Imagine, if you will, a new fresh food market concept, unmanned and where you can help yourself to everything before you simply ‘tap and go’. It wouldn’t last a fortnight.


Apologies for rambling, but last week I was in Warsaw where I visited Hala Mirowska, the big, central fresh food market. Loitering at the entrance was an old man waving a small bag of runner beans, just enough for a couple of servings at most, which could have been mine for a few measly Zloty. That evening I asked my host if the old are really that poor in Warsaw, and she explained that although they may not have it easy, they ‘hang around the market for something to do, to feel involved.’ After all, the market was the centre of the community for many millennia, until big box retail came along. The good news is that Hala Mirowska is currently undergoing major renovations as they strip out the hideous shop units, remove the supermarket and reopen it as a traditional grand market hall once again.

Surely, the visceral draw to belong to a community is one of the reasons the unemployed visit the doctor so many more times a year than those in work. It’s not that they’re inherently more sick, so it’s more likely they just crave social contact, particularly in a retail landscape made up of discounters and fast food chains.

My warning comes too late, of course. We’ve already arrived at the retail crossroads. If you want stuff then turn left for the internet which is full of it; and what’s more it might well be delivered within the hour. But if you want social contact, proof that you’re not alone on this planet and would perhaps feel reassured by a light, fleeting exchange with a fellow inhabitant, then turn right for the shops. Shops are only for social needs now, everything else is waiting in a brown parcel by your front door. It’s not nuanced, complicated or category specific at all. The brutal, binary simplicity of this can be hard to swallow for professional retailers who have been oiling their machines for half a century, but it’s how it is now. Just ask your grandchildren.

Read more of my blogs here: http://www.22and5.com/blog/

Join me on Twitter: @SaundersHoward

  Howard Saunders   Sep 27, 2016   Brand, discount, Food, Retail, shopping, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More
Page 1 of 512345