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

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

MEET THE WALL DOGS (How advertising became street art)

At first everything seems to be exactly as you’d expect. New York is plastered with commercial images at every turn: on the sides of buses, in the subway, on cab doors and high up on the sides of buildings. But one advertising hoarding catches your eye. At first glance nothing looks unusual, but as you wait to cross the street you ponder it for a few seconds. Something about it has grabbed your attention and you’re not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s the gentle sheen or the way in which the image fits around the window frames? And then it dawns on you: it’s hand painted.

Sky High Murals has turned the everyday advertising hoarding into an art form. Not just by showcasing their tremendous skills as artists, but also as performers: sky high abseiling artists. Sky High HQs in Williamsburg, a couple of doors down from the Brooklyn Brewery, is where our band of artist-abseilers plan their attack before jumping astride their motorcycles. They are the special forces of the advertising world, an urban gang of artistic Navy Seals in paint spattered hoodies. They call themselves ‘wall dogs’ as they spend their working lives chained to a wall. This is not a job for artists of faint heart or delicate disposition. Walldogs endure long hours, high above the city streets in sub zero New York winters and crazy hot summers. But they love it. It’s clear by their swagger, as they head out to another big project, that they feel like an elite squadron of highly sought after soldiers. On the website their list of things ‘you’ll need to become a walldog’ includes ‘strength, positive attitude’ and a ‘good alarm clock’.

In an age where large scale digital printing has never been easier or cheaper it’s clear that picking up the phone to Sky High Murals must offer a brand some serious added value. The obvious answer is that it brings an extra artistic depth to an otherwise everyday image. A global Nike campaign, for example, will see its images reproduced in thousands of cities across the planet, translated into hundreds of languages, in different formats and across all types of media. And yet, Nike will happily invest in the skills of a small band of abseiling street artists because of the extra dimension it brings to the campaign. Hand painted images add artistic value, of course, and street cred, definitely, but there is a more powerful message that sings out behind every individual brushstroke. Namely, time.

I believe the real message is that our advertising images took extra time, dedication and phenomenal skill to come to your street, so please take time to appreciate them. Our message is not the background noise to your city or yet another thin layer of visual clutter spewed from an uncaring and cynical global corporation. Our images, as well as being art, clearly produced by artists, are integral to the city itself.

Yet again Brooklyn has soaked up contemporary culture and regurgitated it in its own likeness. Just like Brooklyn’s take on fast food it has slowed down the things we take for granted and made them more locally relevant, more considered. Like its take on everyday objects it has transformed the ordinary into the artisan. Like its take on all things retail it attempts to integrate it into the community and the fabric of the city, as opposed to simply landing on it from the great corporate heights of commercialism. Even advertising can be Brooklynized.

This article is an extract from the recently published Brooklynization. Click here for a preview.

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

  Howard Saunders   Mar 02, 2018   Brand, city, Retail, 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

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
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