About Howard Saunders

The Retail Futurist, otherwise known as Howard Saunders, is a writer and speaker whose job it is to see beyond retail’s currently choppy waters. Howard spent the first twenty five years of his career at some of London’s most renowned retail design agencies, including Fitch & Company, where he created concepts, strategies and identities for dozens of British high street brands. In 2003 he founded trend-hunting agency, Echochamber, inspiring his clients with new and innovative store designs from across the globe. Howard relocated to New York in 2012 where the energetic regeneration of Brooklyn inspired his book, Brooklynization, published in 2017. His newfound role as champion for retail’s future in our town and city centres gave rise to the title The Retail Futurist. Howard has been interviewed on numerous television and radio programs and podcasts for BBC Radio 4, BBC Scotland, the British Retail Consortium, Sky News Australia and TVNZ, New Zealand. His talks are hi-energy, jargon-free journeys that explore the exciting, if not terrifying, retail landscape that lies ahead. When not in retail mode, Howard has recorded, literally, thousands of digital music masterpieces, most of which remain, thankfully, unheard.


I’ve been having so much fun in the last few months I thought I’d better share it with you. I must’ve dabbled, downloaded or signed up to over fifty different AI programs in order to get some sort of a handle on the revolution that is currently engulfing is. So, this is a kind of beginner’s guide to the creative AI tools which really can build stunningly beautiful, utterly believable, mind blowing content out of thin air…for (almost) zero cost.

I’ll include all the links so that you can play with them yourselves, because, frankly, if you have the tiniest creative bone in your body you will be dying to have a go. Genuinely, I’ve been waking up like an excited nine year old desperate to get back to the AI world.


Right now the top two contenders for creating photo realistic images of people that never existed are Leonardo and Midjourney. There are a thousand others but these two seem to be battling it out for the most lifelike detail, and they’re both improving week on week. The more detailed the prompts the better, although, like most artists, they’ll both completely ignore you at times. Specify the lighting (dappled or light leak for example), the blurriness of the background (or not) the texture and the depth of colour and you cannot be disappointed. You can even upload a reference image and specify the percentage of artistic license you want it to have. And now, with the new ‘consistency’ feature you can create a character and store it in its memory so that you can come back to it later. This means that you’re rugged cowboy on a ranch, looking pensively into the sunset can also be pictured dressed as a giant tortoise pushing a trolley around a supermarket… if that’s what floats your boat. Of course, both these ingenious platforms will also produce any illustration style you can imagine, so the possibilities are endless.


For instant creative illustration with terrific fantasy interpretation skills Dalle or Bing (which uses Dalle) are hard to beat. Looking for a 1940s style pen and ink drawing of King Kong smoking a cigarette atop the Empire State Building? This is your platform. Other contenders, equally capable, are Ideogram, Tengr and Openart.


Funny how things pan out. Adobe’s Creative Suite (which includes Photoshop) has recently become prohibitively expensive for anyone other than a full time professional. If you’re a dabbler or just like to enhance your personal photos occasionally, like Kate Middleton for example, thirty quid a month is a bit rich. On top of that, Adobe has sparked some controversy recently with new terms and conditions that give it access to your private images. Seriously worrying. But fret no longer because as Adobe slowly commits suicide an army of AI photo-fiddling substitutes is coming over the hill to the rescue. There’s Vivid, Bria RMBG (simple background removal) and fun programs like Akool for face swapping, or PhotoDirector and YouCam Perfect, to name a handful I’ve tried. It really depends on what you use Photoshop for, but surely the monthly subscription to Adobe’s Creative Suite must’ve taken an almighty hit.


Oh boy, I’ve had so much fun making music I can’t tell you. I’ve ‘written’ songs in Suno for a couple of my talks (ok, you can roll your eyes) including two Ibiza style dance trance tracks for a conference in, yes, Ibiza. In a slightly less embarrassing fashion I’ve created an album of AA Milne poems set to music of various genres. You can find them here. There’s a dancy, chill-wave one, an Andrew Lloyd Webbery style thing, a Gen Zeddish moody ballad and a couple of heavy delta blues numbers. I think they’re all amazing, of course. But that’s because, whether AI did it or not, none of these songs would exist had I not conceived of them. That’s art as far as I’m concerned. Suno’s big competitor is currently Udio which I’ve tried but found a tad limiting, but there are many more to choose from including Soundraw, Beatoven and Soundful, each of which will be great for specific genres as well as having different price structures for various levels of access. Suno cost me just short of seventy quid for a year’s subscription btw, so it really isn’t an expensive hobby. And the latest feature allows you to upload a sound or music loop so that you really can control the output. Serious fun.

Clones and Avatars

I’m currently working on creating a clone of myself. Sounds horrific, right? Well, it’s only a bit of fun. With a platform called Delphi you feed it everything that exists of you online: every article, blog or video, so that eventually it will know precisely how you think and how you tend to phrase things. Combine this with a lip-syncing avatar and you have a mini-me (or you) that can answer questions vocally, on your website, for example. I’m halfway there but I don’t think Delphi is quite as ready to roll as it pretends it is. We’ll surely get there though. Of that I have no doubt. In the meantime both Hallo and Hedra can create convincing, speaking avatars from any image you upload.

Text to Video

This is the Holy Grail for AI enthusiasts at the moment. Type in what you want to see and AI will deliver a video almost instantly. You can see the Sora showcase here and it is truly mind blowing. It hints at a future where we will create our own ‘movies’ with friends each contributing to the storyline, adding characters and dialogue as we explore the universe that opens up before us. This will happen, but for now Sora, Pika and Kling are battling it out behind the scenes with only a privileged few being allowed in on the fun. In the meantime, Dream Machine by Lumalabs is available, free and pretty damn impressive. 

Truth is, things are moving so fast that in a couple of weeks I’ll need to update all this info, but the point is that right now, today, is the perfect time to start playing around with these incredible tools as they develop and mature. After all, if AI will ultimately rule the world and turn us all into slaves we may as well have some creative fun with it in the meantime.

Howard Saunders is a writer, speaker, Retail Futurist (and AI enthusiast)


Join me on X  @retailfuturist  for proof that we’re all going to hell in a handcart, but having fun on route.

  Howard Saunders   Jun 27, 2024   AI, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


No photography, no actors, no scenery, no cameras, no musicians, no production company…just me and a keyboard. Text to video is in its infancy but text to image gets better by the week, literally. When I started playing around with some of these programs a few months ago I was pretty impressed, but there was nothing like the level of texture and detail you can achieve now.

I’ve spent my entire working life in the creative industry. My memory is hazy at the best of times but I do know that a good few years of my professional life was pre-computer. It was all cutting boards, scalpels, Letraset and spray mount. Computers landed at the end of the eighties and suddenly we could produce instant designs without the need to stay up all night slicing letters out of Pantone film. All those years ago the threat was that computers would take our jobs and we’d end up packing bags at the Tesco checkout. Thankfully, Tesco never had to deal with an influx of entitled designers from Soho.

But the arrival of AI is sure to change everything: these creative tools are beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. And remember, it’s only week one. I’ve already been challenged by designers who say, ‘Yeah, but the copyright’ or ‘Yeah, but there’s no soul’. I just smile knowingly at the smell of clever people pooping themselves.

Sure, the hands can go a bit weird and the eyes wobble like a demented rattlesnake, but how many weeks will it be before they fix that? Basically folks, content is now free. No need to fret over finding the right actor or model. AI will fill the role instantly with a perfect, racially non-specific person without the need for any agency, fees or royalties.

And Suno will write you a nice little ditty as the background music. No need for any grumpy old failed rock star to feign interest in your ‘exciting new product’ as he takes the brief for another ‘something upbeat with a catchy refrain’.

So. Will AI take all our jobs and ultimately destroy the planet? Quite probably. But seriously, I won’t get into all that here. Maybe next time. In the meantime, can I suggest we loosen up and enjoy these fantastic new creative tools. After all, as Spaceboy says, ‘life is an adventure’.

Join me on X  @retailfuturist  for proof that we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

  Howard Saunders   May 17, 2024   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


About twenty years ago roadworks at a roundabout in my hometown forced traffic to drive anti-clockwise around it for a few days. Everything was clearly signed and managed so although it felt a bit weird, actually it was all very straightforward. Now, maybe I’ve got some mental health issues but I swear every time I use that roundabout, to this very day, I have to think twice about which way round I should go. My point is that seemingly insignificant disruptions in our daily routines can have a long, long lasting effect.

Is it any wonder then, that having forced people to stay in their homes, on and off for two years whilst paying them from the public purse for the occasional Zoom call, has created a culture of malaise. The western world has surely succumbed to a brain virus that whispers ‘why bother?’ at the very prospect of commuting back to the office. 

Normally experiments are conducted with a handful of guinea pigs, the results then extrapolated across the entire population. The WFH experiment, by contrast, was conducted the other way around by locking down the entire population of planet Earth and then waiting to see the effects. Well, the results are in and few could argue there’s been a rush to peak productivity. On the contrary, productivity has slumped since we were all taught how little our personal contribution makes to the economy, or even our own personal wealth for that matter, and is crawling along on its knees at levels much lower than pre 2008. Clearly, a kind of entitled malaise has seeped its way through our veins and up into our brains: an opiate that has turned us into rudderless drones for whom work is little more than an irritant that interferes with our busy lives on social media.

At a conference recently I listened to a high profile architect explain how personality and DNA tests could help sculpt the working environment of the future by adapting the room temperature, the colour of the walls, the lighting and the type of office plants for each employee’s individual requirements. My response was a tiny puke at the back of my throat. The thought that this level of corporate pampering and pandering is the future of work can only be a red flag for managed decline. Of course the working environment should be comfortable, but when mollycoddling culture gets to the point we have to bring in aspidistras for the new intern perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far.

More to the point, have you noticed how the super-nice guy who makes a beeline for you on your first day always turns out to be the Judas? Interior design is just the same. Virtue signalling brands with bouncy castles in reception are often the most toxic places to work. (Ask anyone who works at Google). Colourful, cuddly receptions are sure to be hiding something deeply sinister, I reckon.

Take a poll of a thousand WFHers and I’m sure they’ll confirm that they’re even more productive than when they were made to turn up. But how many of us truly believe that the cogs are whirring away super-efficiently at the DVLA, the passport office or our local council now that they’re balancing work with Netflix?

Here’s an experiment that won’t happen: Take two creative agencies, Red and Green, then set them the same brief. Red agency staff are allowed to WFH as much as their little hearts desire. Green agency members, on the other hand, must turn up to the office on time every day, with team meetings, creative brainstorms, team lunches and evenings in the pub with all the argument, laughter, piss-taking and drama-queening you’d expect from a creative agency. Which agency will come up with the most inspiring solution?

We’ll never know, but my money is on the company that gets along socially, can have a laugh together and, more crucially, compete with each other for the most inspiring ideas. The adrenalin of competition drains away when you’re not in the same room. My experience in the agency world convinces me that I’m right of course, but hey, you guys go have your polite little ‘any other business?’ Zoom call and let’s see what you’ve come up with.

As a kind of corporate nomad I get to witness a fair few companies in office mode and it seems to me that contemporary culture has eroded many of the fundamental principles that once underpinned the modern workplace. Teamwork shouldn’t be all smiles, hugs and compliments. Productive teamwork demands a certain level of ribbing, sarcasm and healthy derision in order that everyone ups their game. People seem scared to speak up today. A polite round table with everyone on tenterhooks waiting to be offended is an NUT meeting not a brainstorm. The rough and tumble of office politics is absolutely central to its creativity. 

I had thought that clipped, overly cautious speech, laden with jargonese and void of any actual meaning had died along with bowler hatted civil servants back in the fifties. I fear I’m witnessing its rebirth only in modern garb. Tentative, tight lipped, vanilla soliloquies that dip into the buzzword lexicon like a chimp with a bag of candy are the order of the day: ‘inclusivity, diversity and sustainability’ literally litter every brainstorm I’ve been unlucky enough to be a part of recently, so help me god.

Those that constantly ask themselves if they’re happy at work are the same people who constantly ask themselves whether they’re happy in life. But the pursuit of perpetual happiness is for stupid people. Happiness is the fleeting dopamine tingle you feel when you receive unexpected good news, or when you get better exam grades than your best friend. If you have conventional body chemistry the feeling will subside as quickly as it arose. People who feel a constant sense of elation are called drug addicts. In reality, what most people are seeking is fulfilment and that’s the polar opposite of fleeting. Fulfilment is a slow process of fermentation which may take decades and is probably impossible for the Insta-gratification generation.

Since we abandoned the office, designers and architects have been tasked to come up with, what seem to me, desperate new ‘concepts’ to attract us back for more than a day a week. But hey, I’ve got an idea. How about just telling us? At my first job if I rolled up at three minutes past nine the boss would shout ‘thanks for coming in’ from his glass office. Today, of course, I could sue him for bullying and harassment due to the fact my tardiness is a symptom of acute TBS (time blindness syndrome) and ADHD. Such is progress.

Look, isn’t it obvious? Ships need engines, rudders and captains. Ships aren’t easy to control when powered, steered or captained remotely. Why do we even have to argue this?

Anyway, you don’t need a futurist to tell you that as AI takes over the mundane, the menial and a fair bit of the creative output, workspaces will morph into social hubs built for community, collaboration and competition. This way we’ll get FOMO if we’re not on board the ship.

Join me on X  @retailfuturist  for cherry picked proof that we’ve all lost the plot.

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2024   culture, Future, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More