MASTER-PLAN: MOSCOW

Moscow is a giant experiment: keep a city under a thick, dark blanket for seventy years, and then whip it away suddenly to see how it reacts to the daylight. That was almost thirty years ago, and the green shoots from the West have certainly found the Muscovite soil fertile. The whole gang is here, from H&M and McDonald’s through to Gucci, Prada and Chanel. The restaurants are appropriately dark and contemporary, with low-slung Tom Dixon lights or exposed Edison lamps. Furniture is on trend too, with plenty of jaunty 70s shapes, as if they watched MASH and Columbo like the rest of us. Except, of course, they didn’t. 1970s Moscow was a cold, grey silhouette of a city, illuminated by little more than a few fluorescent pharmacies and the erratic red trails of Lada tail lights.

Today, it’s a very different picture. Glass towers have snuggled next to the concrete ones. Citibank, BMW, Ford, Adidas, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and many of their contemporaries now have tall, black glass HQs here. Clustered around the feet of these giants, the swish restaurants congregate in anticipation of clocking off time. Each one is of such immaculate international style, you could pick it up and drop it into London, Los Angeles or Sydney without anyone noticing. Perhaps only the background rattle of Robbie Williams and George Michael hints at their slightly ‘wannabe’ status.

One aspect of urban life that’s unusual here, is that it is clearly a furiously female-first culture. Ambitious millennials, who grew up never knowing the iron curtain, hold down high-powered jobs, speak a handful of languages, and fill the fancy restaurants most evenings. I did my own, anecdotal, survey across the week, and I would say women make up 60-70% of the customers.

Yet there’s something missing, and its absence is a lesson for us in the entitled West. It’s hospitality. It’s here alright, but if you want it you’ll have to dig for it yourself. The default face for all taxi drivers, receptionists, concierges, greeters and shop assistants is deadpan zero. In the UK and US, we’re used to the eye-averter, the sulker and the utterly disengaged, but ours are born of discontent and cynicism. There are enough smilers in our day for us to surf across the lows and avoid getting dragged down. In Moscow, the blank expressions are born from innocence. They simply haven’t realised how vital hospitality is to city life.

Moscow has rushed headfirst into the 21st century, equipped with a master-plan, and the money, to double in size. Already a city of 11 million people, everywhere you look work is underway to improve, expand and refurbish: Renzo Piano is converting a power station into a cultural centre and art gallery, Rem Koolhaas has finished his polycarbonate clad art gallery in Gorky Park, and there are shiny new trams, a pedestrianised waterfront, ribbons of cycle lanes and a handful of new Metro stations. The early signs of hipsterdom have already introduced craft ale, which is doing a decent job of denting vodka sales for the first time in history. Everything is in place now for Moscow the Megacity, and mightily impressive it will surely be.

In this city, as in many others, ‘starchitects’ and designers are creating jaw-slackening spaces to lift our spirits and open our eyes to the glories humanity can achieve. Every tiny detail, every curve and juxtaposition will be prototyped, tested, argued over and redesigned, so that the spatial acoustics and sense of touch live in harmony with the overall vision. And then, at the front desk, at the very first point of customer contact, they place a young girl, vacuous and indifferent. All the uplifting design and intellectual intent comes crashing down in an instant.

For cities to function smoothly they need the lubricant of hospitality. The eye contact, the affirmation, empathy and human connection that turns the functional into the pleasurable. A happy city sees guests, visitors and customers as its lifeblood. Moscow has yet to notice the invisible mesh that binds everything together is missing from its master-plan, but it will.

There is an almighty untapped resource rumbling beneath Moscow, and it isn’t oil. For the time being, the milk of human kindness just lies in wait.

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

  Howard Saunders   Oct 04, 2017   Future, Retail, shopping, 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

RETAIL TURNS 180º

You remember how we used to get ‘stuff’ back in the day? We’d head out in the car, drive to the supermarket or shopping centre, park the car, pick up a trolley or a basket, walk up and down every aisle in every department, find the stuff we wanted, queue at the checkout, pay, then take the stuff to the car, not forgetting to return the trolley and pay the parking fees before heading home. Doddle.

Today, of course, we chortle at the ridiculousness of the weekly shop, as we open our front doors to the Amazon delivery it predicted we would want at precisely this hour. So, two thousand years of mankind venturing out in the quest for stuff has come to an abrupt end.

Except, as we now know, shopping was never just about accessing stuff. This may be blindingly obvious to those of you reading this, but believe me, there are plenty of retailers out there who are still obsessed with sales per square foot and in lubricating real world shopping to replicate the efficiency of the online experience.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the retailers who believe that everything must be ‘experiential’ and that ultimately customers are children that demand constant entertainment. Well, maybe we are, but the thought of the high street slowly morphing into one giant theme park makes my back teeth itch.

In the 90s and 2000s the term ‘retail theatre’ was similarly embraced and then misinterpreted to become little more than layers of cut-out cardboard stuck to a gondola end. Please god, let’s not go there again.

The problem with the term ‘experiential’ is that everything is an experience. Queuing for forty five minutes at the Post Office is an experience, and a memorable one to boot, but it’s probably not something to be held up as an example of best practice. I prefer to use the term ‘brand playground’ and this, let’s say, more immersive, route is perfect for a Samsung, Adidas or a Nike that wants to show off how clever and wealthy it is. But surely, shoppers want engaging spaces that they can relate to, that make them feel a part of a community, that show them some respect…and that may well be a convenience store or a local hair salon. Genuine hospitality you might call it, and it should certainly be at the very top of every retailer’s list of priorities.

Robots may be whirring away frantically in the back office, working on logistics, accounts and stock control but it will be a fair while before we actually want to connect emotionally with a machine. For some reason it seems that COOs are happier to talk of investing in an army of human replacements than in training real humans already armed with natural charisma, charm and social appeal.

Today’s retail landscape has an enormous, all encompassing, ever-expanding web of data laid across it like a giant digital blanket. Stores have been turned from isolated boxes of goodies into brands that extend from our mobiles into the store and beyond. Everyone with a smartphone in their pocket understands this and the dialogue between customer and brand has been fully embraced and has become wholly expected these days. Whether we like it or not, as we head out every day we are wading through an invisible blanket of data that ripples and twists in response to each of our turns and choices.

Retail brands are desperate to get involved in our leisure lives and this is already bubbling up from beneath the surface with Samsung’s fitness programs, Lululemon’s Sweatlife Festivals and Nike’s running clubs. The next genesis of this, however, is likely to be game changing. When brands work together to manage and curate our lives, things are set to get truly exciting. The technology is already in place and it’s only a matter of time before a Westfield or a Visa or an independent start up uses algorithms creatively, stitching together concepts and brands and firing off amazing, bespoke offers to each of us that weave together products with community events and leisure activities that include our friends and our families.

Poor, inundated, bombarded customers will need filtering systems that help manage this but don’t fret, that’s happening too. As machine learning gets smarter Alexa, Siri, Echo, Cortana and the AI gang will begin to negotiate on our behalf. Imagine, just like the stock exchange, billions of incremental negotiations will ping-pong away as we sleep to bring us more exciting, personally tailored, better value deals than ever before when we click on our phones first thing in the morning. In an instant, the retail contract will have been reversed. Brands that hold their exclusivity dear will be sorely tempted to cut a few dollars off the price to complete the deal for Fear Of Missing Out. That’s role reversal and, ultimately, real consumer power.

Join me in the Twittersphere @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  22and5.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jun 20, 2017   big data, Future, Retail, shopping, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More
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