THE BATTLEFIELD

The high street has become a battlefield. Every morning we awake to yet more news of store closures: stores we grew up with and brands we believed would be around forever are shuttering up as the best form of defence against this relentless, yet invisible, onslaught. And now our restaurants, pubs and bars have become infected too. Big name, highly regarded chains such as Byron, Carluccio’s and Jamie’s are buckling under the pressure as their foes advance on all sides. Rent, rates, Amazon, Brexit, Deliveroo and even the weather have joined forces against the very places in which we once sought refuge…and a cold beer.

But on the distant horizon a new technologically advanced force is preparing for battle. Autonomous vehicles, drones and robots armed with artificial intelligence and facial recognition software are plotting the next wave of disruption. The question is, are they friend or foe?

Ok, enough metaphor for one day. You get the picture. There’s no question the shiny new world that beckons will change the way we shop, work and play. Artificial intelligence is sure to iron out most of the irritating niggles we bump across during our working day. It won’t be long before we look back on form filling, applications and buying tickets for travel as the quaint behaviour of a gentler age. Predictive algorithms will eliminate much of the friction and frustration in getting hold of the things we need, because they will know what we need before we do. Our working lives will become ever more digitised as our e-assistants complete tasks and solve mundane problems in nano seconds while we focus on the more creative stuff.

But surely, at the end of a hard day plugged into the electronic universe we will yearn for a bit of human contact, a warm smile and a cold beer? Of course our e-assistant could have one droned in (within three minutes…in its refrigerated drone pod) but wouldn’t you prefer to sit at a real bar for some real life eye contact?

The future may be somewhat daunting, scary even, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ll still be human when it arrives. It’s understandable that in the rush for the future we believe even hospitality will become digitised. I say let’s keep the robots busy in the back office organising the logistics, the stock replenishment and the P&L, and let the humans do what they’re best at.

As AI and robotics lubricate our lives I believe we will seek out, and value, human connection even more. So before you order that row of iPads to speed things up a bit, consider instead investing in a smart, charming, genuinely charismatic human being with an engaging smile.

The future doesn’t just happen, it’s waiting for us to shape it. So let’s at least agree what hospitality is for and why we will always yearn for it.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Nov 06, 2018   Future, smartphone, technology, 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

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

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