EUROPEAN GRAFFITI!

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. If you’re a polite, tax paying shopkeeper from Barcelona, Berlin, Milan or Madrid, you’ll have faced this dilemma one sunny morning when you opened your shutters to reveal freshly painted scrawlings up your pilasters and all around your corbels.

In some parts of Europe our major city centres have become little more than concrete sketchbooks for a kind of push-me pull-you politics, where the alt right, the loony left, the disgruntled and the dispossessed each contribute to a multi-layered cacophony of tangled anger.

I grew up at a time when graffiti belonged to very different artistic genre. In my day, walls were decorated with cartoon genitalia, delightfully captured in mid climax. The masterpieces that illustrated my boyhood were the desperate, pubescent cries of unrequited potency. Toilet cubicles became the private venting booths of the permanently pent up, where intense frescoes of either triangular or cylindrical simplicity were created, presumably as some sort of silent warning to the sex they were yet to encounter. Perhaps these explicit diagrams were a contemporary homage to the Da Vinci cartoons, none of which were that funny anyway, as Peter Cook famously observed.

Sadly, since the advent of free online pornography we’ve witnessed the demise of the cartoonist-gynecologist. Today’s vitriolic hieroglyphs have more of a political bent, and whether leftist or rightist they unite in their distrust of authority and so find harmony working together on the smooth render around an innocent shop-front.

In 2018, the shopkeeper’s dilemma is a tricky one. Should he reach for the bleach and expose himself as a defender of ‘the man’ and the likely retribution that may ensue? Or does he leave the solitary scribble alone and risk it spawning a crawling nest of irate expressionism, each vying for the attention of the passing shoppers?

With global politics in such a state of flux, it’s unlikely our rebellious artists will grow tired and head home for a gin and tonic anytime soon. Like ever increasing business rates, it seems graffiti is another tax our retailers will have to pay for access to play on our tough urban streets.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2018   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE NEW PURITANS

The skies are thick with tweet-shaped arrows, raining onto the heads of our once untouchable heroes. Hollywood, Washington, Westminster, nowhere is safe. Politicians, producers, actors, comedians, academics, business leaders, no one can shelter from the Twitter storm. And beware if you find any glee from these sorry tales. Schadenfreude is a fleeting thrill that probably means you’re next. We’re in charge now. We are the New Puritans.

Those toppled are not just the famous, or figures of authority. Hollywood’s finest are our storytellers. Men and women who stage astronomically expensive tales of how we should live. They are the soothsayers that predict how our world will change and, in turn, our politicians and captains of industry attempt to keep us on course. And comedians are not merely clowns. They are our philosophers, who teach us how to think and how to react to life’s vagaries.

That little black slab of glass in our palms, our Great Overlord of Data (GOD) has given us a voice, and oh boy, are we putting it to work. Our vaguest thoughts and randomly vitriolic reactions are instantly published, and carry equal weight and as much momentum as mainstream media’s more traditional commentary. Reactionary homemade Youtube rants, for example, will garner the approval of many millions, whilst The Press struggles to fathom how to pay for content. The battle is won.

One thing is for sure: this is no blip. Social media is relentless. It doesn’t sleep at night and it will interrogate its victims with extraordinary fervor, scratching deep into their digital footprints, reaching back decades if necessary, until it finds something. Stay clean people. Yes, the age that brought us all free porn on tap has turned us into prudes. Until we’re alone, that is.

Once the bolus of lard, that is Weinstein, was flushed into the sewer the torrent of accusation it unleashed has been shocking. The drip, drip, drip of offense taking quickly turned into a downpour so strong that most of us now walk around with our jaws permanently open in outrage. You may tut loudly at the irrelevance of the sacrifice of say, the cartoon-sexy darts and F1 grid girls, but you wait. This is a cultural shift and its effects will become apparent very soon indeed:

Advertising will swiftly tone down the sexist imagery, that’s plain enough. But once this barrier is broken the flood of offence will surely follow. Expect every classic stereotype along with what and why we consume anything to be vigorously challenged at every turn: why are the old often portrayed as frail? And why are they so often white? Why are athletes so often depicted as black? Why are babies shown only with their mothers? Why are those ridiculed as bewildered and hopeless always men? Why should we be told what to aspire to? Surely it can’t be right to advertise provocative images of luxury products that will offend those that can barely afford to eat? And fast food advertising is clearly an affront to our investment in the NHS. When does a foreign holiday become cultural appropriation? And why on earth is advertising allowed for gas guzzling cars? Or high sugar drinks?

Oh yes, sugar taxes are a-coming. For very sound reasons, fizzy drinks will feel the heat first, but wait until you find out what foodstuffs governments are chomping at the bit to tax in the name of our health: yoghurt, all cooking sauces, ketchup, cereals, iced tea, soups, canned fruit, baked beans, and inevitably, wine. Needless to say, this will be on top of VAT and alcohol duty. Salt taxes will swiftly bring up the rear to create the perfect pincer movement. And why wouldn’t they, when the consensus is chanting that something must be done?

Taxes will become bespoke soon too. Just as parking fees spike to punish diesel owners, we can expect more of our choices to be taxed in line with how ‘bad’ they are considered. After all, your phone knows an awful lot more about you than just what car you drive. Oh how we’ll reminisce over the anonymity of cash.

In fashion, expect to see hemlines lowering by the day, and anything revealing or asymmetric to be ousted by long lines of buttons and tailoring of religious symmetry. Colours will shift towards the more subdued and sombre with bright, acrylic colours banished for a decade.

For some strange reason we have a few hypocritical loopholes in our culture that surely must be plugged soon. Rap and pop will have to mind its language in our new era of respect, so we can certainly look forward to the demise of the N and B words over the next couple of years.

And now that we have been fully educated as to the disastrous effects of plastic in the oceans, supermarkets can surely no longer brazenly charge for a bag they’ve just packed with plastic shaped prawn platters and thick plastic avocado holders. Expect to see much more loose product when we go shopping.

In design and architecture, whilst we’re unlikely to see the return of piano leg covers we are perfectly positioned for an aesthetic age of modesty. The trend for ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the form of exposed pipes and conduits, which has become so popular as an expression of function, will probably be seen as somewhat brash and we’ll return to shrouded, concealed and hidden services and mechanics. And as our attitude to car ownership becomes more hardline, cars themselves, electric included, will become demure to the point of embarrassment.

Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, we should prepare ourselves for the insidious march of legislation and censorship across social media, Facebook and Youtube specifically. Free speech is a lovely idea but it’s simply not practical when the public just can’t be trusted.

Remember when tolerance and free speech were the foundations of our society? Yes, so do I.

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

  Howard Saunders   Feb 05, 2018   advertising, city, Future, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SEE LIKE A SIX YEAR OLD

Back at art college, my life drawing tutor was none other than John Constable. I may be old, but this J Constable was the great, great, great grandson of the original, but nonetheless passionate about the world around him. Young JC was a fine draughtsman and appropriately eccentric too, as he paced among the easels in the chilly studio with a small hand towel wrapped around his neck. We never asked as to the reason for the towel, but as impressionable teenage art students I’m sure we all considered adopting it at some point.

Our favourite muse was the mighty Mrs Vincent, who stood no more than four feet something and weighed in at a good two hundred pounds. Her comely curves were indelibly etched onto each of our innocent minds. The shock of seeing a big, fat, naked granny never failed to titillate at first, but eventually JC taught us how to look past our infantile distractions and see what was really there: the shapes, textures and negative spaces that Mrs V created as she posed on her drafty podium.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when a friend called to unleash a tirade about some vile human being who’d apparently dumped an unwanted sofa on the pavement outside his house. In an attempt to ease his apoplexy, I gently asked what his six year old daughter thought of the matter. ‘What the hell are you on about??’ was his considered response, but I persevered to explain that, stripped of all its projected emotion (chain smoking, foul-mouthed, fly-tipping slag etc), all that really existed on the kerbside was a big, bouncy, squishy thing.

This technique, of seeing a problem through a child’s eyes, has been very useful over the years, particularly in retail. Ignore what you know about the brand, forget the footfall figures, the struggles you had with the head of merchandising, convincing the board and the fights with the shop-fitters…and just look. Stand there quietly for a few minutes, in short trousers if you wish, and simply see what your store really is, what it says, what it asks you to do, what it thinks it’s about. Becoming a six year old liberates us from all the warped preconceptions we learnt over the years, the limescale of experience that builds over time.

My final short tale begins at a meeting with a major department store. I arrived early, so decided to wait in their customer café, rather than in their dentist-like reception. With time to kill, I switched into six year old mode, and simply observed. What I saw was a bit of a revelation. This busy café, located alongside a mother & baby department, was a perfect pit stop for stressed mummies juggling push-chairs, shopping bags, screaming kids and social media. An experienced eye, one belonging to the manager for example, would see a bustling café with a healthy queue, a decent stack of pastries and enough free tables if only they could be cleared more swiftly.

But my six year old saw something very different. He saw long lines of agitated mothers balancing trays of boiling water on pram handles above their babies’ heads. He watched the four-point turns the buggies were forced to endure to negotiate the metal balustrade alongside the servery. And worse, he saw an army of staff avoiding eye contact as they lasered in on dirty saucers like robotic magpies.

(I’m pleased to say not long after my meeting, this café was replaced by a very nice restaurant with table service and a pram park)

Six year olds may be cute with button noses, but they are also beautifully equipped with fresh minds, untainted by convention and unburdened by experience. They will ask poignant questions like ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘why did you do that?’ If we can start to address some of these simple issues then we’re really onto something.

High street retail is in a quandary at the moment. It’s not quite sure what it is and where it’s going. So, the new year is the perfect time to slip on those shorts, stand at the entrance to your store for a few minutes, and ask yourself some innocent little questions. You might just get a glimpse of the future.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 11, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

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.

If you liked this, please join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Dec 18, 2017   Food, Future, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More
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