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.

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

WFH? WTF!

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

THE REVELATION

True story. While on my ‘tapas tour’ of Andalusia last summer I wandered into a church in the heart of Seville. It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy church in that it didn’t appear in the tourist guides or anything, but the doors were open and it certainly looked gloriously alluring.

The place was empty so I settled on a pew right at the front in order to take in the ridiculously Baroque splendour of the golden arches, (very much not McDonald’s) the intricate frescoes, elaborate carvings and pale marble statues. Talk about immersive, I was utterly dumbstruck by the overwhelming, majestic symmetry of it all. That’s when it happened.

Maybe I’m a late developer, but in an instant everything became crystal clear: I saw the locals from 1460 or 1580 or whenever bent low in prayer, barefoot with ragged clothes wrapped around themselves respectfully. I saw the priest in his gleaming white robes wielding a golden staff. I could hear the Latin incantations as they reverberated off the holy relics amid the cries of babies and the barking coughs of the sick and elderly. Eventually, the bone shaking crescendo from the gilded organ pipes brought the spectacle to a climax as the humble congregation fumbled in sackcloth purses to pay their dues. And as they shuffled off to their damp, draughty mud-brick dwellings they knew that god would take care of them, both in this life and the next. After a show like that, who could doubt it?

But this was not the revelation. My revelation was that this is precisely what we’re witnessing today. Our high priests may not dress in robes or wear the Mitre, or mutter their warnings in classical tongues, but the message is exactly the same: “follow us and you will be saved. Give us just a little more of your earnings and we will make things right. Can you not see? We are the great and the good. We are here to help you. Do not be distracted by our possessions or our wealth. We have the ear of God. We know what is best for you. Do the right thing. It’s for the greater good.”

Don’t get me wrong. Those chisel featured priests may not have been the life of the party but they weren’t evil. They believed they were saving our souls and controlling our aspirations for the greater good. You can’t have poor people running around doing their own thing for god’s sake! Today’s high priests are no different. They wield their power because, like the golden staff, they hold it. It’s one of our inherent failings: give a man the power to decide who should be allowed to drink lemonade and he will use it.

We instinctively know this and yet still we remain silent. They threaten to take our boilers, our gas hobs and our log burners and we do little but shrug. They tell us to travel less, drink less and not to enjoy ourselves too much. They tell us we have too many possessions, to lower our aspirations and to cut our cloth accordingly…while they drive us relentlessly to the cliff edge of eternal debt. They tell us our long held values are irrelevant, our families outdated, our logic skewed and our anger misplaced. They tell us to shower less, turn down the thermostat, switch the tap off whilst brushing our teeth and not to forget to wash our yoghurt pots before they’re carted to landfill. Banqueting billionaires beg us to eat fake meat as they gorge themselves on bloody venison. Inveterate corruptocrats lecture us on the importance of kindness and charity whilst lining their pockets with our taxes. The elites lie to us about absolutely everything because they do not trust us with the truth and silence those that dare question their narrative. They crow about how much they help us and censor how much they hurt us. But in spite of all this, I do not blame the ‘nanny state’, for like our Sevillian priests they believe they act for a higher authority. No, we are to blame for deriving comfort from our own infantilisation. Shame on us.

Yes, this blog may be nothing but a personal rant about the state we’re currently in but I’m convinced things have shifted dramatically post Covid. The mainstream narrative is crumbling and you can smell it on the streets; in bars, pubs and coffee shops, on the bus, anywhere that people gather the conversation quickly turns to the visceral distrust of all the bigs: big state, big pharma, big finance, big science, big government and big media. 

Yesterday’s churches have, of course, been usurped by contemporary colossal structures. Today’s banks and insurance companies reach much further to the heavens, to make you feel even smaller than that old lady from Seville back in 1620. But just like the church the job of big finance is not to make you richer…just happier with your lot. Stay down there they say. Oh, and we’re increasing your premium to help gold plate the clock in our lobby. I do hope you do the right thing. Your custom is important to us.

Perhaps because we’re distracted or guilty or both we’ve allowed the elite class to convince us that the future will be a place of penitence, sacrifice and contrition. These prohibition fanatics have sold us what is clearly a religious doctrine, but one that has, most disturbingly, completely captivated our children. But if we have even the tiniest fragment of optimism left within us we must know that the future can never be about diminishment.

The next time you spot the levies on your gas bill know that you are just another poor churchgoer rummaging for coppers to pay for extra gilding. Never let the diminishers diminish you for they do not have your best interests at heart. So, hang on tight to your boiler and stand firm against your gas hob. 

Preferably with a big fat Cuban cigar clenched between your teeth.

Join me on X  @retailfuturist  for cherry picked proof that we’re all going mental.

  Howard Saunders   Mar 19, 2024   Future   0 Comment   Read More