About Howard Saunders

Howard has worked in retail design for over twenty five years. As a former Creative Director of Fitch, based in London, he was responsible for retail design and branding and for creating multi-disciplinary teams of architects, graphic designers, product designers and copywriters and making them work together! As an independent consultant Howard has worked closely with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Westfield, for over a decade, helping them develop new store designs and keeping them informed of the latest retail innovations and shifts in customer expectations. His work with Westfield, for example, culminated in the creation of the artisan Great Eastern Market at Westfield Stratford, Europe’s largest shopping centre, which opened in 2011 on London’s Olympic Park. Now based in New York, Howard’s current clients include CBRE, Claire’s Accessories, Consumer Goods Forum, Ebay, Johnson & Johnson, L’Occitane, Magento, Mothercare, Permira and Westfield World Trade Center. As an international speaker Howard’s talks are big, visual journeys across the world of retail. Provocative, challenging, brutally honest, evidence based and thoroughly entertaining.

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

Stand barefoot in the middle of Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue and if you don’t get hit by a red Routemaster or a yellow cab you’ll surely feel the ground rumble beneath you. You are smack-bang in the middle of the retail revolution and it’s gathering momentum at a spine-tingling pace. Look up from your iPhone for a minute and you can watch the tsunami crashing down the street towards you. It’s already washed away the likes of BHS, Austin Reed and Joe Fresh, and there are plenty more in its path. Watch in horror as the waves smash into the windows of Gap, Old Navy, Next, Accessorize, J Crew, Macy’s, Sears, Banana Republic, Sports Authority, American Apparel and Ben Sherman, leaving long term, if not fatal damage.

But the rumblings of change are not really out there as much as they are in here of course, inside us. We expect more than the mainstream and the mediocre now. These days we hold our money tighter and consider things more carefully. Perhaps that’s why the first wave of change came from food. We have a very personal relationship with the stuff we put in our bodies, for obvious reasons, and since we eat three times a day, food was the fastest to offer us alternatives.

Hot on the heels of food, the latest market to react, surprisingly, is not fashion but home. Put it down to cocooning, home-peacocking or simply the reaction to fifty years of polyester sofas and avocado bathrooms, we are willing to invest in our homes like never before. As The Home Depot, B&Q and Homebase struggle to cling on to a dying market, the new wave of home improvement stores has a radical idea: Instead of selling us the ingredients, they sell the whole damn meal. And what’s more, they’ll come and cook it for us too. Suddenly the sorts of bathrooms you thought were the preserve of spa resorts can be yours, assuming you have the cash. Kitchens that out-Kardashian the Kardashians can now be bought and installed by the new Lowe’s, for example, the DIY chain that realised telling busy Manhattanites to ‘do it yourself’ is impossible as well as downright rude.

There’s an audible whir of activity in the home space in New York at the moment. Earlier this year Kate Spade launched her signature cutesy home concept. Then trend-setting Restoration Hardware, which became the RH Gallery a year ago, surprised the market again recently with the launch of its RH Modern collection, and impressive it is too. Madura the French decor brand has a stylish new store on Broadway alongside Ethan Allen which is due to open an 8000 square feet flagship very soon. Italian furniture designer Poliform will also shortly open a 10,000 square feet store with design studio a few blocks north on Madison Avenue next to Roche Bobois, Minotti and Natuzzi. And Spanish kitchen and bath shop Porcelanosa recently opened a $40 million Sir Norman Foster designed showroom at the crux of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Even the groundbreaking Samsung 837 store has a home section showcasing smart fridges and robot vacuum cleaners alongside its virtual reality playground.

But the biggest fanfare recently was reserved for the opening of the much heralded Pirch, a brand with a serious reputation to maintain, especially when landing in busy, cynical Manhattan. It does not disappoint. Three floors of home glamour that border on the pornographic. Mixer taps the size of cherry-pickers, showers and steam rooms you can actually shower in, refrigerators only slightly smaller than a terraced house, barbecue grills so beautiful you could never possibly scrunch newspaper into them, ovens seemingly hewn from from one solid lump of iron that are so sexy you feel your underwear tighten. Yes, all the rooms are ball-achingly seductive, but the focus is not the space. It’s us. Really. From the coffee bar at the entrance through to the consultation rooms and the five full-time chefs whose job is both to entertain and educate, their philosophy is to make you feel worthy of a Pirch interior. I guarantee not a single customer ever leaves this store saying ‘Yeah, it’s ok, but I’ll stick with my squeaky Melamine.’ The only obstacle between you and a Pirch life is the greenback, and in a market that has been so stale, for so long, that alone is quite some achievement.

Pirch is sure to go down a storm here in New York. Previously, if you wanted a Sub-Zero fridge you could stroke one at a showroom on 58th Street, but you’d have to buy it through PC Richards. That’s like watching your Fortnum & Mason hamper being delivered from a Tesco van.

If you think my Pirch enthusiasm is tad over excited then let me explain. By way of contrast, when I visited Sir Norm’s beautiful Porcelanosa flagship, the security guard/doorman (certainly no greeter) scowled as if to warn me not to try shoplifting a bathtub. Porcelanosa obviously considers itself terribly posh, but we Brits are more familiar with its store on The Purley Way in Croydon. Enough said.

The bar has been raised and the front door is wide open. We have given up doing it ourselves because we were crap at it and it made our houses look ordinary. Now we want our homes to reflect the way we think we should feel about ourselves. The death of mediocrity just took another step forward.

To better understand the implications of all this on your own business email me: howard@22and5.com

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jun 02, 2016   Future, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HOW TO MAKE THE SUN SHINE ONLINE

When did retail turn into a science? Browse the list of upcoming trade conferences and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a branch of physics. It’s even worse when you look at the pseudo scientific jargon they use at ‘digital commerce’ seminars. It’s all algorithmic disruption, omni-channel touch-points, digital footprints, universal wallets, shopping funnels, micro-conversions, journey maps, crypto-currencies, connected spaces, content silos, click-throughs, and cyborg face-wash. I made that last one up, but it’s only a matter of time. We don’t sell stuff any more, we trigger conversion with the help of beacon technology in order to reduce friction. Marketeers were always jargon-junkies but things have become much worse recently.

It’s as if at some point in the last three years or so, the old guard of retail, the battered, the bruised and the bewildered, slid slowly down the wall weeping as he handed over the keys of the store to the nerdy millennial in the white lab coat.

For despite its impressive vocabulary, most of this pseudo-science just seems too linear, too simplistic, as if the ultimate aim of data analysis is to predict exactly what the consumer is thinking before she does. In an ideal world I’d imagine these retail nerds would have each of us followed by a personal drone that maps our every eye movement as we open our wardrobe in the morning or scan the kitchen cupboard in the hope of inspiration for dinner. Presumably, this data is then sent back to Nerdist HQ where giant matrix diagrams are decoded. ‘SOUP!’ The humanoid voice eventually utters. ‘She wants soup!’

Surely we can do better than this pointless quest to crack the enigma code of retail? Shopping is not a science but an emotional dance, a nuanced game of aspiration, respect, reward and relevance: emotional needs, not practical. There’s no code to be cracked here, anymore than there is in our personal relationships.

Since science is front of mind, here’s an experiment: Take two identical universes, A&B. In Universe A it’s a sunny day. You meet a good friend in town for coffee and after you say goodbye, you wander into the department store before heading home. As you browse the watches/jewellery/bags the assistant catches your eye and greets you with a warm smile. She keeps a polite distance until you start to show more interest. She wanders over and gently, but enthusiastically, tells you that they’ve only just received that particular model. She shows a genuine knowledge and passion for the brand, and as you chat you end up comparing notes on earlier models you both liked. She opens the cabinet to give you a closer look and lovingly points out some of the features. She’s not pushy, and as she goes to put it back you stop her and try it on. It looks good in the light and you have been promising yourself a reward for a few weeks now. Sold.

In Universe B it’s not quite so sunny. The same girl is there, only this time she’s slightly distracted, though she still smiles as she clocks you lingering. She finishes with her customer and walks briskly over. She asks if you’re interested in seeing anything and you straighten up to reply ‘It’s fine thanks, I’m just browsing.’ No sale.

The differences between the two scenarios are subtle, very subtle but nonetheless crucial. The question I’m interested in then, is how do we build that emotional connection for digital commerce? Put simply, how do we make the sun shine online?

The pinnacle of retail intelligence is not prediction, the assumption that every purchase has an invisible trolley wire stretched taut from brand awareness all the way to the checkout, ticking all the boxes along the route: Availability? Check. Colour? Check. Price? Check. Add to cart. This digital route to the checkout has clearly modelled itself on the supermarket, a format which, ironically, is in decline in the real world. In digital supermarkets you can be sure that everything is neatly laid out in order of price, or colour, or size: an endless aisle of stuff. Far too many brands have simply thrown us the keys to the warehouse, and all we can do is wander back and forth, up and down the aisles until we have seen absolutely everything. That’s no way to shop.

If we dissect the retail process too much we’re in danger of watching it disintegrate before our eyes. Reward, surprise, emotional connection, desire, spontaneity, elation and relevance are far too wriggly and intangible to be pinned to a cutting board like a dead frog. Understanding shopper behaviour should not be about predicting the inevitable (soup!) it should be inspiring us to venture into new territory, showing us things we hadn’t planned to see, didn’t know about, things that weren’t on our radar.

They’re very busy in the backroom right now with all their algorithms, plug-ins, bots and beacons…but it’s still the backroom. Whatever new channels of brand awareness emerge, whether it’s personally interactive billboards or pop-up chatbots, it still comes down to three things: original visuals, engaging copy and emotive sound. Millennials and Gen Z’ers may flit across devices like a bi-polar grasshopper but that doesn’t mean they’ll be seduced by equally frenetic snippets of communication.     

Building a more emotional connection online is what the cleverest brands are already learning to do: online communities that make you feel you’re a part of something, instead of just being told ‘what’s new’. Shouty pop-up intrusions are being replaced by powerful, warm, engaging stories that keep a respectful distance before inviting you in. And then once inside, the online world can offer so much more than the offline: meet our designers, visit our factory, ask us questions, hear our philosophy, see our plans for the future, tell us your own opinions and ideas.   

After all, retail is not rocket science. In fact, it’s not science at all. Like anything that answers human, emotional needs, it’s an art. 

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 27, 2016   Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More

Forget the High Street. MICROTOWNS are where the action is

microtown

It begins over a beer. A couple of guys agree to try brewing their own and when that goes well they want their own brewery. They settle on a silly name, rent a warehouse on a disused industrial estate and within a couple of years have opened a shop, a bar and been joined by an arty florist, a trendy barber, a funky fashion designer and a gourmet hot dog stand. And so a Microtown is born, and despite a decade of urban doom and gloom these hipstery green shoots are popping up right across the planet, as an alternative to the homogenised high street.

Governments of all shades, local authorities, as well as private landlords, have failed our communities. They continue to milk retail for every last drop in spite of the biggest global financial crisis in history. They act as if nothing has changed and that eventually everything will return to how it once was. It won’t. Relentless rents, rates, taxes and parking penalties are how they pay respect to those that fed them when times were good. Worse, they refuse to acknowledge that this is a new age, the digital age, where the gentlest swipe of a thumb sees your groceries delivered, your washing machine replaced. Even our richest, busiest town centres are locked in a state of stasis, where only ubiquitous chain-stores are willing to invest. And too many of these are clinging on simply because they must be seen to be there.

microtown

If you were lucky your urban regeneration was taken care of by Westfield, Land Securities or Lendlease who stitched your town centre together with their polished marble and glazed roofs. But even here, with all this shiny shopping centre packaging it’s hard to attract independent brands that might bring something fresh to the mix. So, with some notable exceptions, an enormous number of our city centres are either decimated, dying or just plain dull.

Thankfully nature has a way of responding to disaster. Razed forests become fertile ground for new shrubs, not quite the ancient old oaks we grew up with and believed were immortal, but new plants that bring fresh colour for a different age.

The term Microtown was originally coined to describe a place that had bled to near-death because its citizens abandoned it to work elsewhere, so that it became a tiny, broken version of its former self; a kind of pre-ghost town. I’ve hijacked the term to describe something far more significant: the nuclei that is the genesis of new communities. Those edge of town micro-brewers and their chums are actually pioneers building our future, re-awakening our shopping streets, and in the process, redefining retail itself. They have already shifted the centre of gravity away from the mediocrity at the heart of so many towns, and rest assured the Microtown movement will gather momentum as other young, retail enthusiasts join the fun.

Let me take to you half a dozen of my favourite Microtowns that I visited in the last year.

City Works Depot, Auckland, New Zealand

Despite being surrounded by Hobbitesque hills and lakes, Auckland city centre is a pitiful mess, a tatty selection of bewildered brands and 1980s fascias, huddled around a mundane and moribund department store. But a few hundred yards from the centre, City Works Depot is a desperately needed breath of fresh air.

The old Auckland Council Workshops are now home to microbrewery and bar, Brothers Beer with 18 beers on tap, a pizza oven and a big squishy sofa, Foodtruck Garage which began life as a TV series peddling healthier fast food, the fabulous Odettes where I had one of the best meals in a very long time straight from their wood-fired oven, the Botanist cafe and florist, Scratch Bakers, Three Beans Roastery coffee and Best Ugly for Montreal style, wood-fired bagels. This scruffy little industrial estate puts the town centre to shame.


Raleigh Warehouse District, Raleigh, North Carolina

Similar to CWD above, Raleigh’s Warehouse District is an insignificant row of industrial sheds and old railway depots alongside a rather useful car park (shock horror) that’s become the coolest spot in town. The stars here are the Videri Chocolate factory for tours and tastings, the Raleigh Denim factory (watch your jeans being made) Tasty Beverage, a craft beer general store & bar, Crank Arm Brewery, The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (there’s a theme emerging) and The Pit Authentic Barbecue. And before you think there’s a gender bias here, all the customers I saw at the bar in Tasty were female, millennials too for that matter. These girls clearly have a thing for ‘authentic’ beer and have left the Miller Lite to the middle aged men. (Miller has targeted men for fifty years and must feel they’re missing out now)


Cass Corridor, Detroit

Although it’s now being marketed as Woodward Square (sounds too posh, will never catch on) the vibe here is still punk-bohemian even though in 2013 Shinola landed right opposite the Motor City Brewing Works to help smarten things up. In 2015 in a move that comes directly from cool heaven, Detroit born Jack White (of the White Stripes) set up shop next door. And guess what his Third Man Records label is doing here? Pressing vinyl. I know, you couldn’t make it up. Read more about my thoughts on Detroit here: www.22and5.com/made-in-detroit


Mission, San Francisco

With a long and rich history of art, music and food, Mission’s rebirth is much more mature than the other districts I visited. Many would say that gentrification has gone a step too far, bringing high rents and the wrong sorts to the neighbourhood. But what impressed me so much was the beautifully elegant retail eco-system that has emerged. The hipster baker, Craftsman & Wolves, bakes bread for Mission Cheese, the cheese and wine bar next door. Dandelion Chocolate, the small batch factory, sells coffee from beans supplied by Four Barrels just up the road. In turn, Four Barrels uses Dandelion chocolate. Several of the stores run their deliveries on bikes built by Mission Bike. If you haven’t heard of Trumpton, Google it. The collaborative culture here is a heartwarming reminder that good retail is all about community.


Schanze, Hamburg

Hamburg is such an elegant city. I spent three days walking it and I can honestly say that every square meter has been thoroughly thought through and precisely planned; every facade elegantly up-lit, every sign hangs squarely in an appropriately tasteful font. The problem is, it’s boring. The city centre has no nooks and crannies, no quirky coffee bars or cafes hidden down lanes asking to be explored. Presumably this is why celebrity chef Tim Malzer set up his Bullerei restaurant on the edge of town, to escape the tidiness. It’s not like he couldn’t afford a flash restaurant with a lovely up-lit stone facade overlooking one of the canals, but it’s just not hip hanging out with Hugo Boss and Massimo Dutti. Sometimes it takes a single entrepreneur to kickstart an alternative town centre, and thank ‘Gott’ he did. As soon as I stepped into his converted abattoir (yes, really) I could see this was where all the beautiful people had been hiding. (I’d wondered why I hadn’t seen any) The Bullerei restaurant is clearly the main attraction but the area is developing fast and there are plenty of other things to enjoy, like the Spanish wine store, The Burger Lab, Cafe Elbgold with its coffee roastery and shop, and of course, Altes Madchen, a glorious brewhouse and beerhall inside an old warehouse, serving burgers, brisket and, yes, craft beer.


The Funk Zone, Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara isn’t a place that looks like it’s struggling. No this is not an Auckland or a Detroit. The streets here are lined with palm trees and giant magenta flowers that make a pretty poor attempt at screening the sprawling haciendas that oversee the ocean. Like Hamburg, the town centre is almost perfect. In fact, the architecture is so ridiculously cute that walking up State Street feels like you’re in an outdoor shopping mall, safe in the ubiquity you’d expect from a glamorous holiday spot. But if you want somewhere a little edgier head just east of State Street to what is cringingly known as the Funk Zone. The heart of the zone is The Lark, a signature restaurant in a disused fish market, serving ultra trendy local dishes on long communal tables raised from the stone floor by rusty reclaimed radiators. Peek through the window behind the bar for a glimpse of the stunning Wine Collective rooms, for tasting and celebrating an endless range of local wines. Across the yard is a hip pizza place, Lucky Penny, as well as Le Marchands, the wine bar and merchant. Helena Avenue, a trendy artisan bakery is opening soon too. All of the above were created by Acme Ventures, a clever bunch of Barbarians who know what people want, and that they won’t find it on State Street. Alongside the Acme brands there are other restaurants, coffee shops, the Surf Museum (I have no idea) and enough galleries to satiate the most pretentiously arty appetite. Most memorable of all is the magnificent Guitar Bar where they actually encourage you just to hang out. It’s so obvious this is where the action is and, by contrast, how staid and stuck in the nineties the town centre has become.


Central Park, Sydney

Look, Sydney is a beautiful city. The setting, the climate and the relentless optimism all make for a world class city, no doubt. But the retail? Well, most of it feels like 1980’s Birmingham, lots of cheesy shoe shops and ‘boutiques’ with dated mannequins in the window. Ok, so I’m being cruel, but until Westfield rebuilt its epicentre in 2010 they’d never seen a contemporary shop-fit or a sign that wasn’t back illuminated. That’s why the new Central Park development, just ten minutes south of the city centre, is so uplifting. Far from being the creation of a beardy, beer-entrepreneur, this is a big money scheme from Greencliff, Frasers Property and Sekisui House. Last September, on opening day, I was privileged enough to be taken on a personal tour by the top man, Dr Stanley Quek. A gentle soul, he proudly showed me the new park, Halo, its giant kinetic sculpture, the beautiful Jean Nouvel designed apartments behind a living wall, the cantilevered sun-reflector or ‘heliostat’ that directs light into the atrium of the shopping centre, the reborn pub and brewery that’s become The Old Clare Hotel with rooftop lido, Jason Atherton’s gorgeous new restaurant Kensington Street Social (his first Sydney foray) and perhaps best of all, the tiny, one-up, one-down, workmen’s cottages that he’s turned into galleries, independent shops and cafes. Here is a developer who understands what it takes to build a community, a man who knows that authentic retail must always be at its heart.

So you see, you can’t kill community, though local government has done a decent job in trying. As I’ve said a thousand times, retail is the lifeblood of our communities and if town centres remain frigid to the oxygen of innovation, then bright young retail entrepreneurs will set up shop elsewhere.

This blog is a summary of a series of talks Howard has given recently on retail’s role in urban regeneration. If you’d like him to inspire your team with the world’s most cutting edge retail email: howard@22and5.com

“Since publishing this blog I’ve received dozens of emails telling me of other Microtowns that are springing up around the world. I’m now building a list of them all, so please email me with any other suggestions. Thanks!”

Howard

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 07, 2016   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HUMBLELUX and the science of cool

New York is now the home of the hundred dollar doughnut. I’m serious. The Manila Social Club in Brooklyn (where else) tells us it’s made with Cristal Champagne icing (obvs) has a purple yam cream filling and is topped with 24K gold dust and gold leaf. The world has clearly gone mad, so some explanation seems in order.

It’s important to remember our aspirations constantly shift as our relationship with the things around us develops. As we mature we look back and giggle at the things we once thought were desirable or fashionable. And just like individuals, mature democracies also become more sophisticated over time. Here in the aging West the world of white Lamborghini’s, impossible yachts, see-thru watches and silly-star restaurants starts to look a little tacky to anyone with a mental age above fifteen that’s read a couple of books. But recently the lux-lifestyle that used to belong to fat, cigar-smoking tycoons has been hijacked by the celebrity classes: the rich and poorly educated, the bling crowd. We may gawk with relish at the lifestyles of this meniscus of society but we know in our hearts that a life dressed from top to toe in D&G is not cool, it’s ridiculous.

We’ve all witnessed wealthy Chinese tourists stockpiling super-lux goods like kids in a candy store. It’s as if they believe these brands grant them instant status, instant happiness, and at some level of course they do, but ultimately the poor souls have been duped. Eventually they will learn that the lust for luxury is like Cristal Champagne icing and should be used very sparingly indeed.

As a direct reaction to this sequestering of super-lux, here in the dark and cynical West a new democratic form of luxury is emerging: the luxury of ordinary things. I call it Humblelux. Humblelux is the art of taking the ordinary, the everyday and reimagining it for the connoisseur and I have good evidence that it started here in New York. Along with the $100 doughnut there is Andrew Carmellini’s foie gras hot dog, Daniel Boulud’s DBGB dog and burger (served with home made lemonade, another Humblelux contender). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a trendy restaurant in New York that doesn’t have a signature burger on the menu. Denim too may have been mainstream fashion for fifty years but only recently has it become fetishized to the point that shop assistants talk selvedge looms and weft before they mention the fit.

As with all trends, their currents often run much deeper than at first sight. If Humblelux is a backlash against conventional luxury it follows that it’s also a movement to redefine luxury itself, a movement that’s actively, though subconsciously, seeking out new products to enroll into its exclusive yet democratic club. The common man is now at the helm of the super-yacht, taking us to the places and the things that he really loves, showing us his own proud heritage. It’s denim and pizza rather than Dior and Per Se. Listen to any New Yorker enthuse over their favourite pizza. They don’t mention how gooey or delicious it is, they talk oven construction and varieties of flour. Humblelux connoisseurs are into the science, not subjective emotion.

While we’re on the subject, there’s no question to my mind which is New York’s greatest pizza; it’s Roberta’s. It’s also happens to be the answer I give when asked to name New York’s best restaurant. Step inside the scruffy Bushwick shack and watch the future play out in front of you. Nerdy teenagers, beardy hipsters (of course) and families with pushchairs squeeze together with clusters of crisply-shirted businessmen. The servers are equally mismatched being heavily tattooed, well educated, and with manners to make their parents proud. Cultish pizza here is married with salt-baked celery root, grilled sunchoke and asian pear. A relentless, thumping dub soundtrack binds the whole crazy cocktail together, perfectly as it happens. This is democracy in action and very probably the spiritual home of Humblelux.    

Traditional luxury brands now face the very real risk of being ‘Kardashianed’ or ‘Chinezed’. That is not to judge either of these lovely groups of people, I’m simply saying that for all their money, glamour, cosmetic surgery and millions of Instagrammers, they are not cool. And clearly I’m not alone in this assumption. If they were cool, then luxury brands would be leveraging the crap out of their new ambassadors, instead of keeping them at the end of a very long bargepole.

The world has turned. As traditional glam-advertising withers in the shadow of its younger, brighter, more genuine social media sister then the cool factor is sure to become the very nucleus of every luxury brand’s strategy, however humble its origins.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Mar 10, 2016   Brand, Food, Future, gourmet, pizza, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

FACE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE: ACTIVATE!


A couple of years ago I had dinner with a memory man. I forget his name but we were both speaking at a retail conference somewhere that’s slipped my mind now, but he was very entertaining. He’d just completed his ‘pick any name from the telephone book’ routine, followed by a quick-fire round where in return for our date of birth he’d shout out the day of the week we were born. He seemed a friendly sort, so over a glass of red I dared ask him the elephant in the room ‘how do you do it?’ question.

Taking a simple example he explained how the common excuse for not remembering names, ie. ‘I’m much better with faces’ is utter nonsense. ‘Everyone remembers faces!’ he scoffed, ‘You have to work at the names.’ His trick was to turn every name into an image, so that when you are introduced to say, Mark Butters you picture a huge melting block of butter on his head with a giant M marked onto it. The sillier the better, apparently.


This is an important lesson for retail because names are the currency of hospitality and using someone’s name in a social situation is like a very personal gift. The smartest retailers are already training their staff to use the customer’s name once they get sight of the credit card, to the point now that it feels rude when stores hand back your card with no acknowledgement!

Things are about to get a lot more complex with the advent of new technologies. Face recognition software is already being used by many retailers, including Walmart, to enhance their security systems. And how do you think Google and Facebook are able to tag your photos?

A few clever types are currently attempting to make our digital companions more emotionally intelligent too. Ted Women recently published a talk by the persuasive Rana el Kaliouby who’s developing an app that recognises how happy, sad or bored we are. By analysing thousands of tiny eye movements and the way our mouths react it can tell how we’re feeling. This is all very advanced and well meaning but it worries me. As I’ve said before, the problem with nerd valley, sorry Silicone Valley, is that it gets over excited with nerdist things. If you proposed an app that would have Sunday lunch with your parents to save you turning up, they would make it happen.

Predicting the impact of new technologies means looking beyond the techno-frenzy, sifting out the absurd and focussing on things that really can improve the quality of our lives. The tidal wave of big data that’s heading our way will bring us more information about the people and things around us than we can imagine but it is wrong to assume that we humans will be forced to take a backseat. The opposite will be the case. I believe that as machines get smarter they will free us up to do the things we’re good at: the hospitality, the persuasion, the charm, intuition, social etiquette, emotionally intelligent communication…the humanity! Every store, every bar, every hospital we enter will know everything they need to know about us. It will be our job as humans to make customers feel welcome and respected. It’s anonymity that causes problems; whether it’s trolling on Twitter, vandalizing bus shelters or the virtual violent crime we commit playing Grand Theft Auto, when we’re anonymous we’re willing to do terrible things. Expose our identities, and backstories and it’s much harder for us to be mean or treat others badly.

Retail technology should give us identity, not make us anonymous. Last weekend, when delayed at LaGuardia airport I came across a new bar concept. There was actually a very nice selection of beers, some local to New York, which always puts a smile on my face but punctuated along the bar in front of the taps was an avenue of iPads. When I asked what the deal was, I was told to order and pay via the tablet, the bar staff would then bring the beer. ‘Do you actually like this system?’ I dared to ask the girl. An eye roll and an abrupt ‘No’ was all she needed to say. Having punctured this little bubble of nonsense allowed the other customers to join in with noises of exasperation as to how ridiculous the whole thing was. Strange how intelligent humans, clever enough to invest in bars and pay extortionate rents, can so misunderstand our culture and the way we want to live.

It’s very easy to get over excited at the thought of an army of robots coming to take our jobs and for sure, humdrum work that can be replaced by an algorithm will be. Accountants, I’d have thought, are first in line and I’m sorry if you detect a wry smile here but they never seemed a happy bunch in the first place. The techno-revolution won’t just eliminate mundane jobs, it will demand a huge increase in intelligent hospitality. Working alongside the robots we will need an army of emotionally intelligent humans to welcome and seduce us in their branded spaces. This is the real revolution that we’re not prepared for, as it will need a massive investment in training if we are to even get close to our customer’s demanding expectations.

So, before we rush to invest in face recognition software that knows we’re having a bad day, how about first we train our staff to remember a few names?

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Feb 26, 2016   big data, Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More