‘TIS THE SEASON

Tis the season for doom-mongery, that’s for sure. What with the whole B-word debacle, chirpy Mr Carney’s cheery forecasts and parliament’s miserable vision on all sides, 2018 was perfectly topped off with the gravelly wisdom of nonagenarian national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, declaring the end of the world is nigh. Very nigh indeed, apparently.

And if anybody wants a touch more gloom to help thicken the December fug, they need look no further than the UK high street, which is desperately gasping for oxygen right now. Over the course of this year, I thought I’d made my views pretty clear on where this is all heading via numerous blogs, conference rants, podcasts, press quotes and radio interviews. But it became clear at a couple of drinky events recently, that I haven’t quite explained myself fully. So, I thought I’d pull together a handful of my little nuggets of wisdom to make a big, brownish plasticine ball of prediction, as a kind of misshapen full-stop at the year’s end. Here goes:

Let’s be honest, 2018 was peak doggy-do for retail. If there was any previous doubt, this year slapped that down pretty pronto. As spring sprang into life, news of M&S closures quickly quashed any uplifting spirits with the unmistakable resonance of a proper death knell. Instantly, we saw a picture of our own high street without a beloved M&S at its centre. The news of Maplin, Poundworld, Carpetright and Toys r Us had earned a mere eye-roll, but M&S is Mummy for god’s sake! (great at cooking, not so fashionable). This is serious.

Mike Ashley’s Trumpish rant at that recent government committee was actually rather illuminating, as well as entertaining. He shook his puffy red cheeks in disbelief at every line of his lacklustre grilling. His interrogators were little more than a rag tag horseshoe of poorly dressed, wannabe librarians with as firm a grasp on commerce as I have on football. With these guys in charge, what hope have we got?

Ultimately, it’s obvious. Left to market forces, our high streets will continue to collapse in upon themselves, helped along by big name closures such as HOF, Debenhams and M&S. But once we have the optics of M&S boarded up for a year or two (surely optics must be the word of 2018?) rents and rates will plummet so that clever, hungry young independents might actually get a chance to kick-start a revival of our beleaguered towns. After all, we were bemoaning the cookie-cutter high street a few years ago. Now that it’s dying all this panic seems a bit disingenuous.

If we cannot wait for market forces to take their toll then government action on rents and rates might catalyse things. Ashley’s 20% online tax would certainly drive us away from Amazon, but added to VAT, are we really encouraging the government to tax us 40%? We would certainly live to regret that.

The good news is coming, but not for a few years yet. The digital age has taught us what we want from the real world, and however dreadful things look at the moment I’m convinced the market square, and all that brings with it, will be back with a vengeance. This time the authorities will understand they must massage and manage their high streets just like a successful shopping centre: taxing profits when times are good, supporting with investment and marketing when times are bad, sculpting their spaces with brands that work in harmony with each other (rather than plonking down the first shop that offers the most rent) encouraging start ups and quirky one-offs because they add to the overall mix and the vision of what we want from our town centres. Yes, retail is a full time job.

And imagine how powerful it will be if our children, and children’s children, know they can bring their own ideas and products to market, instead of assuming it’s in lock down with Debenhams and WH Smith. Imagine the innovation and energy we’ve seen in the craft beer market being encouraged across other retail categories. There is a slew of independent butchers, bakers and yes, candle-makers that currently can only dream of having their own shop in town. So much of the future will cherry-pick the best of the past to bring us what we really want.

Believe me, the future will be rich in innovation and inspiration. Alternatively, believe Sir David and start saving for that ticket to Elon Musk’s Mars. But act quickly if you want to avoid the 40% online tax.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Dec 06, 2018   Retail, shopping, 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

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

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

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
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