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.

Forget the High Street. MICROTOWNS are where the action is


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.


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!”


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


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


I read recently that in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden the US Government offered a reward of twenty five million dollars, to the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for information as to his whereabouts. There were no takers. After months of debate in Congress they finally came up with a solution: to double the reward to fifty million dollars. There were still no takers. It’s clear the US Government needs a lesson in how incentives work.

A thousand years ago, when I was a freckle-faced newbie at my first London design agency, I remember meeting with our in-house copywriter to discuss a client promotion we were working on. Ivan was a gentle and avuncular chain smoker and his rich, filterless Camel voice explained to me that a jackpot of say, one hundred thousand pounds would attract fifty thousand entries, but that a prize of a red convertible sports car (worth less than a quarter of that) could expect to attract twice as many entries. Experience had taught him that incentives are much more powerful when they are tangible, when they light up our imaginations. Numbers alone are never as effective.

Consider the scam emails that offer vast sums of money following the death of someone with a similar family name. If the bait was say, a riverside house overlooking the Niger, then maybe, just maybe, it would be more believable that Uncle Adebambo had bequeathed it as he lay on his death bed. Instead they persist with offers of multi millions of dollars, making it ever more improbable and preposterous. (Perhaps there’s a consultancy role for me here?)

Just as incentives need not be large to shift behaviour then the same is true for disincentives. Over-charge me by one dollar for a bottle of water and I’ll go elsewhere. The hotel mini-bar industry, for example, is a great lesson in how to ensure all your customers leave feeling ripped off. It’s become a cultural joke that we’d have to be crazy drunk before we dared reach into the damn thing. And we mostly are, of course.

Incentivising is a psychological game and discounting, whilst seemingly straightforward, is actually a highly nuanced area. For instance, ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ may work brilliantly for washing powder or baked beans but in fashion it looks like barrel scraping. Two shirts for the price of one suggests these aren’t the shirts you should be wearing. In this post-crash, post-apocalypse climate we want THE product (shirt, coffee, car) not A. We want our shirts to feel special. As we slip it on we need to know that we made the right choice, that we are a truly discerning customer who wears THE shirt, not just any old shirt. We even look for that special THE reassurance when we choose our morning coffee for god’s sake. Most of us are much less vain and demanding when it comes to baked beans.

Accessibility versus inaccessibility is a game of ‘push me, pull you’ to achieve the right balance. Retailers spend millions trying to get us to choose their product over a competitor’s. They invest in flagship stores and window displays to outshine their neighbours. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns to build product awareness and promotions to encourage us to shop with them; they line their walls with beautifully lit displays…and yet the truth is that the more accessible something is, the less we want it. Just imagine that Louis Vuitton strikes a deal with Walmart and starts selling its iconic handbags half price at the checkout. (I know this parallel universe isn’t easy to slip into, but there are brands that have done worse) For the first week or so they would shift an awful lot of handbags, but sooner or later we’d realise that we don’t desire them like we once did and within a matter of a few weeks Louis Vuitton, and all it stood for, would be finished. They’re exactly the same, beautiful bags, remember, but now they are completely drained of the value and respect we projected onto them.

That’s because a product is so much more than just a product. Buy it from a glamorous flagship on a sunny Saturday and it’s imbued with flagship flavour forever. Buy it from a dodgy geezer off the back of a truck on a wet Wednesday in Hull and that too will stay attached to it (even if you do feel savvy that you knew where to find the truck). Every time you open the wardrobe it will remind you of how it came into your life. No one else will know of course and so now it also carries with it an air of deceit!

Discounting too is similarly paradoxical, alluring though it is to both customer and retailer, it can do serious, long term but invisible damage to a brand. When I see something reduced by 50% I instantly feel I want it half as much as I did previously. Even if it was something I’d had my eye on, the thrill of the discount must be offset against the disappointment that it has become that much more accessible. And if it’s a luxury item then it raises lots of questions such as ‘What’s wrong with it? Why can’t they sell it? How much was the original mark up?’ etc etc. In an instant, the unattainable has become attainable, the dream has evaporated and therefore, the product is devalued. It’s like Groucho’s ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me’ conundrum. Tricky things customers.

If brands have achieved anything by investing in the meaning and cache that transforms their products into desirable non-commodities, then surely a sale has to puncture that, temporarily at least. Aspiration, certainly in luxury goods, is a brand’s very essence. To erode that, even gently, is to erode the nucleus of its structure.

That is not to say a sale, a short and finite period of discounting, is not a respectable way of driving sales. Limiting the damage in customers’ minds is the key. End of season sales make perfect sense but sale posters that perennially plaster the windows of furniture stores, for example, simply destroy any credibility that the products were ever meant to be full price. Equally, at sale time customers get into ‘sale mode’ and won’t even consider a store that refuses to join the party. So it does make sense for luxury or premium brands to join the fun… so long as it’s carefully managed in a considered and contained way. And just like the ridiculous multi million dollar offers the email scammers make, discounts of 70% and 80% appear just as ludicrous. It’s advertising that they’re either going bust or have been ripping us off previously; neither of which are particularly strategic messages.

Customers (that’s us by the way) aren’t stupid. We can smell desperation and death within a hundred yards of a shop window and no one wants either of those as a brand value. Talking of which I just popped into see how Hollister on Fifth Avenue was looking these days. Oh dear god!

So, the next time the US Government considers putting a multi million dollar bounty on the head of an international terrorist, maybe it should offer a bright red, convertible Mustang instead.

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

  Howard Saunders   Feb 01, 2016   Brand, discount, incentives, Retail, sales, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE ME AGE (God, mobile phones and reasons to be cheerful)

The future is scary. We have so much to worry about: climate change, terrorism, migration, our diets. It’s a wonder any of us ever sleep at night and now we have the impact of technology to worry about too. Not long ago we dreamt that 2016 would bring us jet packs, hover boards and deep space exploration but now that we’ve arrived it’s far more Orwellian. We have to come to terms with the fact that there’s a giant cloud hanging above our heads that knows everything about us. And If that’s not bad enough we’re regularly being warned we’ll soon be losing our jobs to an army of super-smug robots.

We worry that our children have become addicted to their mobile phones, that their attention spans have plummeted to sub-goldfish levels and their literary skills will not improve beyond the ‘u no wot I meen…obvs!’ school of vernacular. We roll our eyes when we witness a group of teens unable to enjoy just ‘being’ without the grinning selfie-evidence that they were there. We despise our fellow passenger’s loud phone calls home and we worry about the drumming decibels that relentlessly pound our children’s eardrums as the background music to their digital lives. Walking the streets we curse behind clenched teeth at the hoards of phone-zombies that blindly career towards us, heads hunched over the screen that controls them (until we too need to check our location or diary appointment.) We even worry about the time we spend worrying rather than just living and we reminisce about a gentler age before mobile phones and computers arrived to consume us.

I believe history will prove that the birth of the ‘smartphone’ was a defining moment for mankind, no hyperbole. Right now, because we’re busy living, we see the smartphone as the gentle evolution of the mobile phone, but it’s far more significant than that. We know the human brain can apply itself to only one task at a time, so no matter if information is projected onto our spectacles or directly onto the backs of our eyeballs, from now until eternity we are homo-distracted, forever connected elsewhere. This tiny device has revolutionised not just our behaviour but the way we think about our place on the planet. We have entered a new age of enlightenment: the Me Age.

For ten thousand years or so we struggled to come to terms with our place in the Universe. Religions of all flavours attempted to convince us of our importance and promised us the answers in the afterlife. Much use that was. We built structures hundreds of feet high, buildings both religious and secular that stretched to the heavens demanding divine confirmation…but we heard nothing. Then, one morning back in 2007, we awoke to find our mobile phone had metamorphosed into the Universe itself! ‘Smart’ is an understatement, this magical, glowing tablet is all knowing: it knows exactly where we are, our tastes in food, music, film and fashion. It follows our friends, family, finances, our secrets, our hopes and even our dreams. This new god, unlike those that came before, actually answers our questions…and instantly too.

Little wonder then that our children worship him so faithfully, waking in the night to bathe in his glow, checking in at every opportunity with inane selfies that beg for his approval. This is the God that can publish our innermost thought or most trivial snapshot to the entire planet within a few micro-seconds, proving that it wasn’t trivial after all. At last we’ve received the validation we’ve been praying for all these centuries: we ARE at the centre of the Universe! Everything comes directly to us now. No longer do we need to be told what to think at the altar of church or school, what to buy at the altar of television, what to listen to at the altar of the Top 40. The Universe is actually in our hands.

As I’ve said before, the art of prediction often has a natural negative gravity in that we tend to view change as part of an inevitable slide to oblivion. The truth is the future gets the people it needs. If we were able to pluck a few poor, unsuspecting souls from the 18th or 19th Centuries and plonk them in 2016, they would be unemployable. In that respect, any desire to return to old fashioned values is pure folly. Just think, the future president of the United States is currently a spotty teenager, texting friends and posing with a stupid Instagram grin.

My own children were first generation digital natives and like every parent I worried about them endlessly. Once they reached the age of six or so they barely made it into the garden, or joined us for dinner, preferring instead to play violent computer games and surf hardcore pornography. (I’m guessing here, but I’m not a stupid Dad) Thankfully, neither of them have turned into mass murderers, not yet anyway, and both have solid and respectable jobs and social lives.

Surely those born with all knowledge at their fingertips, will, on the whole, be more liberated, empowered and emboldened, no? Is it not exciting that for the first time in history we have a youth that really does have a voice, the influence of which it’s just learning to use?  Will they not have a more rounded, nuanced and informed view of life on this planet than, say, the humble farmer tilling the soil?

Technology can be scary and, sure, there are downsides, but it’s clear to me that we are at the beginning of something very big here. Governments, local authorities, social services, healthcare and, of course, retail brands will very shortly lose the excuse to treat us as ‘the public’, as if we don’t matter, as if they don’t know who we are. They will know, we’ll make sure of that. Imagine an age in which no one can snarl dismissively ‘Join the queue here please.’ or ‘You’re not in the system’; an age that no longer generalises, pigeonholes or makes assumptions about us without the facts.

The technology is already in place to to make this happen. Our magical, glowing tablet already knows who we are and what we get up to and soon it will carry our health and wellbeing status too. It can’t be long before we realise we’re in the middle of the Me Age, where we will be, not just customers, but individuals.

I say bring it on!

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 05, 2016   Brand, Future, image, me, me age, Retail, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   5 Comments   Read More