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

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

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 for daily retail rants @retailfuturist 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 @retailfuturist 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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