WE MUST GRAB CHRISTMAS BY THE BAUBLES

Being an Englishman at Christmas gives us a wonderfully warm glow. The Scots have their Hogmanay and haggis throwing, Australians will be busy at the barbie, the Americans have Thanksgiving, but Christmas, a proper chestnut roasting Christmas, is an English affair. At the end of every year we slump onto our Christmas laurels, flatulent with pride that this peculiar hybrid of Victorian invention and Dickensian romance is bloody well ours. And apart from when they replaced baby Jesus with the cheerier Morcecambe & Wise in 1970, an English Christmas remains remarkably unchanged.

But perhaps that’s the problem. England’s Christmas capital has become a party pooper. At the turn of the millennium things perked up a little along the ole charcoal Thames with the launch of the Dome, London Eye, IMAX and the Somerset House ice rink, but since then all we’re left with is a sprinkling of market stalls, the crucifix of illuminations at Oxford Circus, and that boring free pine tree in Trafalgar Square.

So, what’s dampened our festive spirit? Was it the big fiscal fish of sobriety that slapped us across the faces in 2008, or have we simply grown too cool for Christmas?

Some of the blame must surely be laid at the shopfronts of those retailers who stretched the celebrations, like a giant stocking elastic, from the end of August to Boxing Day. Psychologists have proven that listening to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want’ for five months causes early onset dementia, so perhaps it’s a US conspiracy. The Americans themselves cleverly fixed a fat, turkey-sized valve, known as Thanksgiving, at the end of November, which holds back the real festivities until just a month before the big day.

The truth is, the rest of the world has raced past us. The wonderfully crisp and tacky German markets have multiplied like mice across Europe and even into the US: Dresden, Cologne, Vienna, Lille and Helsinki, each put on a far more fabulous display of Yuletide optimism than Londoners could ever dream of, with glowing squares festooned in lights and brimful of markets and fun-fairs. Montreal has a ‘Fire on Ice’ fireworks extravaganza, Brisbane has a series of amazing shows and parades on its south bank; Copenhagen’s Tivoli Garden becomes a winter wonderland with dozens of rides and a cheeky Santa to ho ho ho amongst the revellers and a few miles away in Freetown Christiana the Christmas market is more like an oriental bazaar. In its bid for visitors, Zagreb puts on a magnificent show where inhibitions are kicked into touch to encourage dancing and singing with local beer. Metz has an ice sculpture parade, Christkindlmarkt in Chicago holds a kids’ scavenger hunt and in Philadelphia, their month long Christmas village features a German grill for bratwurst and fries. The list of inspiration is endless.

Meanwhile, back in lacklustre London, even red-pilled Ebeneezer would go back to bed.

So, London, it’s time to bring Christmas home. This isn’t some rose-tinted plea for the good old days. Q4 is how retail pays its rent, so we must step up and unleash all that untapped spirit that currently has nowhere to go.

Please, New West End Company, let’s make sure the (hopefully) newly pedestrianised Oxford Street is the catalyst for bustling street markets, local craft fairs, winter fashion shows, carol karaoke, lantern walks, firework displays and sing-alongs. Yes, Westfield, (Unibail) you must retaliate with street food fairs, celebrity cook-offs, midnight suppers, sleigh rides, light shows, concerts, ice sculptures and treasure hunts.

Sure, retail is going through a tough patch, but it won’t help sobbing into your egg nog. Let’s all pull up our Christmas stockings, shake off our Scrooge and grab Christmas 2018 by the baubles.

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  Howard Saunders   Dec 18, 2017   Food, Future, Uncategorized   1 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.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

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

COPYCAT CEREAL KILLER

Some bright spark came up with the idea. We all read about the ironic trend that turned breakfast cereal into a hipster treat and chances are you saw the pictures of Gary and Alan Keery, the photogenic chuckle brothers, who opened the Cereal Killer Cafe on London’s hip Brick Lane. We now also know that those bowls of puffs, pops, flakes and crunchies we woke up to every morning in the 70s, 80s and 90s were poisoning us of course, but those of us who ventured to the CKC were happy to overlook all that to become children once again. Children with bushy beards, that is.

This is not good news for cereal manufacturers and with sales in steep decline the boardroom at Kellogg’s must have been thick with anxiety. Until that is the bright spark piped up with an idea. Maybe, just maybe he stuttered, Kellogg’s could copy the Leery boys and make cereal cool again?

It probably took a good year to launch Kellogg’s NYC in Times Square so, naturally, I was eager to check it out. It must at least be fun, whacky even…you know how over excited big corporations get with the whole pop up thing.

Sweet Jesus it is piss-poor. It looks like it was built by Snap, Crackle and Pop Associates with a design that’s more prison canteen than concept restaurant. In fact, there is no concept here at all. The logo is painted on the white brick wall in a kind of cornflake beige, with the only colour coming from a row of red, numbered, cubby holes where you collect your bowl at the sound of a buzzer. At the counter the prison vibe continues: on thick aluminium trays, four mock up meals, designed by Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, look so unappetising even Ivan Denisovich would have second thoughts. This place is not just miserable it actually haemorrhages any positive energy there is in there straight back out onto Times Square. And there’s not much: a few lonely souls sup from spoons with their heads bowed low, presumably wondering what they had done to deserve such punishment.

But just imagine what could have been achieved here. Kellogg’s is steeped in a rich, kitsch visual heritage that stretches from Tony the Tiger, Coco the Monkey and The Flintstones through to the iconography of the Corn Flakes packs and Special K logos. Remember the excitement we felt when those assortment fun packs were presented at the breakfast table on special holidays? That’s what Kellogg’s could have recreated at this pop up, but instead they thought eating cereal during the day was ironic enough. Oh dear, oh dear.

The result is a concept, with good intent and considerable investment, that has stripped Kellogg’s of any residue goodwill it might have had left over from its glory years. This place is like watching your depressed uncle pretending to enjoy a kid’s party when you know he just wants to go upstairs and hang himself.

But enough of all this, let’s be helpful. Here are a few tips for next time:

1. Momofuku Milk Bar link up. A terrific brand but no one on Times Square has heard of it. It may have street-cred but not on 42nd Street.

2. Design. Well, there isn’t any. Snap, Crackle and Pop Associates clearly didn’t turn up. Pick a proper creative agency that’s in tune with your bold and colourful heritage.

3. Think big. Understand where the beauty and energy of your brand really lies and have fun with it. Just imagine what Warhol or Koons would have done. You could even afford the latter, although I realise the former is unavailable.

4. Aim for PR shock waves rather than footfall. If you don’t believe me ask Prada. Everyone heard about the Prada store in the Texas desert. Number of visitors? Half a dozen. And that includes the photographer. 

5. Next time ask me. I’ll find you the cleverest, most creative guys in the retail business and together we’ll build you a concept that gives you heaped dessert spoons of cool.

Thanks for listening. Now pass the toast.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 27, 2016   Blog, Brand, Food, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

GATWICK REVISITED: credit where credit’s due


In October last year I had the misfortune to pass through Gatwick South Terminal on route to meet a client in Portugal. I say ‘pass through’ intentionally, as I tried hard not to touch the sides. The signature bar was a hideous, sticky Wetherspoons that looked like it had been shipped in from Blackpool along with the locals, and there was nowhere for a sit down lunch, unless you’re pubescent and still think Nando’s is a treat. How can an international hub so critical to Britain’s growth get away with it, I thought? How can Gatwick seriously lobby government without sniggering into their handkerchiefs at the thought of anyone grown up actually coming to check them out? You can read the original rant here.

Good old England is so open minded and future focussed that we’ve only spent several decades cogitating as to where to put this extra runway we so badly need. And we still haven’t made a decision. Never you mind that China has 66 new airports planned over the next five years (airports not runways, remember) and is currently expanding a further 100 existing airports. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll come up with a plan or something.


So, having recently visited Gatwick again, I have to say that things at South Terminal have much improved. The dreadful British public are still there of course, in their hordes. The dull of eye and loud of mouth clamour over all sorts of pre-flight crap when they’re in holiday mode, so it certainly feels like the place is making money at least. But bang in the middle of the upper concourse there’s a bright new bar exactly where it should be. Lamely titled The London Bar, presumably because it’s in Crawley, it is nonetheless a vast improvement serving contemporary cocktails, in a somewhat surly fashion, as is the wont of the younger generation.


Better still, I’m pleased to say the star of the show is no longer the utterly cynical and fictional Wondertree, it is a real restaurant, from a real living chef. Grain Store is a breath of fresh air and is lifted directly from hip Granary Square in London’s King’s Cross, beneath the glorious new Central St Martin’s College of Art. It claims to source all its meat and veg within a thirty mile radius of the airport, but it’s not until you learn that Chef Bruno Loubet refuses to serve beef (due to the damage beef farming does to the planet) that you realise something new is happening here. Grain Store is all about making vegetables the focus of the plate, not a side dish. And it does so very well indeed. It’s not the organic thing that makes it so appealing, it’s simply the fact that there’s an idea, a point of view, behind the menu. Most airport restaurants are happy to churn out burgers and pizza under the beady eyed gaze of accountants that get over excited by margins and portion control.


Many of the staff here are reassuringly pink and pimply, which is lovely because it means that like the food and the beer they too are home grown and fairly local. And they’re nicely brought up too so they can talk about the provenance of things without getting embarrassed.


I’d like to think that somehow my October rant found its way onto the Gatwick board, where a red faced businessman shook a printout of my words, banged the table and shouted ‘We need to do something…and fast!’ Sadly, I know how long it takes to pull a deal like this together, so credit where credit’s due.

Now that we have a new, energized PM there’s a much better chance we’ll actually get a decision on this damn runway. So good luck Gatwick.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 14, 2016   Food, gourmet, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More

HUMBLELUX and the science of cool

New York is now the home of the hundred dollar doughnut. I’m serious. The Manila Social Club in Brooklyn (where else) tells us it’s made with Cristal Champagne icing (obvs) has a purple yam cream filling and is topped with 24K gold dust and gold leaf. The world has clearly gone mad, so some explanation seems in order.

It’s important to remember our aspirations constantly shift as our relationship with the things around us develops. As we mature we look back and giggle at the things we once thought were desirable or fashionable. And just like individuals, mature democracies also become more sophisticated over time. Here in the aging West the world of white Lamborghini’s, impossible yachts, see-thru watches and silly-star restaurants starts to look a little tacky to anyone with a mental age above fifteen that’s read a couple of books. But recently the lux-lifestyle that used to belong to fat, cigar-smoking tycoons has been hijacked by the celebrity classes: the rich and poorly educated, the bling crowd. We may gawk with relish at the lifestyles of this meniscus of society but we know in our hearts that a life dressed from top to toe in D&G is not cool, it’s ridiculous.

We’ve all witnessed wealthy Chinese tourists stockpiling super-lux goods like kids in a candy store. It’s as if they believe these brands grant them instant status, instant happiness, and at some level of course they do, but ultimately the poor souls have been duped. Eventually they will learn that the lust for luxury is like Cristal Champagne icing and should be used very sparingly indeed.

As a direct reaction to this sequestering of super-lux, here in the dark and cynical West a new democratic form of luxury is emerging: the luxury of ordinary things. I call it Humblelux. Humblelux is the art of taking the ordinary, the everyday and reimagining it for the connoisseur and I have good evidence that it started here in New York. Along with the $100 doughnut there is Andrew Carmellini’s foie gras hot dog, Daniel Boulud’s DBGB dog and burger (served with home made lemonade, another Humblelux contender). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a trendy restaurant in New York that doesn’t have a signature burger on the menu. Denim too may have been mainstream fashion for fifty years but only recently has it become fetishized to the point that shop assistants talk selvedge looms and weft before they mention the fit.

As with all trends, their currents often run much deeper than at first sight. If Humblelux is a backlash against conventional luxury it follows that it’s also a movement to redefine luxury itself, a movement that’s actively, though subconsciously, seeking out new products to enroll into its exclusive yet democratic club. The common man is now at the helm of the super-yacht, taking us to the places and the things that he really loves, showing us his own proud heritage. It’s denim and pizza rather than Dior and Per Se. Listen to any New Yorker enthuse over their favourite pizza. They don’t mention how gooey or delicious it is, they talk oven construction and varieties of flour. Humblelux connoisseurs are into the science, not subjective emotion.

While we’re on the subject, there’s no question to my mind which is New York’s greatest pizza; it’s Roberta’s. It’s also happens to be the answer I give when asked to name New York’s best restaurant. Step inside the scruffy Bushwick shack and watch the future play out in front of you. Nerdy teenagers, beardy hipsters (of course) and families with pushchairs squeeze together with clusters of crisply-shirted businessmen. The servers are equally mismatched being heavily tattooed, well educated, and with manners to make their parents proud. Cultish pizza here is married with salt-baked celery root, grilled sunchoke and asian pear. A relentless, thumping dub soundtrack binds the whole crazy cocktail together, perfectly as it happens. This is democracy in action and very probably the spiritual home of Humblelux.    

Traditional luxury brands now face the very real risk of being ‘Kardashianed’ or ‘Chinezed’. That is not to judge either of these lovely groups of people, I’m simply saying that for all their money, glamour, cosmetic surgery and millions of Instagrammers, they are not cool. And clearly I’m not alone in this assumption. If they were cool, then luxury brands would be leveraging the crap out of their new ambassadors, instead of keeping them at the end of a very long bargepole.

The world has turned. As traditional glam-advertising withers in the shadow of its younger, brighter, more genuine social media sister then the cool factor is sure to become the very nucleus of every luxury brand’s strategy, however humble its origins.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Mar 10, 2016   Brand, Food, Future, gourmet, pizza, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More