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.

THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS


Oh dear reader, I know you are a decent and upstanding citizen, that much is unquestionable. You consider yourself honest and good, for you have, these past dozen or so years, served your customers well, with consideration, loyalty and appropriate grace. But this past year has been particularly testing. The twist and turn of events has taken you by surprise and set you somewhat adrift at sea. So much so, it would seem, that fear, it is fair to say, has settled like ash in your heart. Don’t get me wrong, a casual observer or, say, a brief encounter with a would-be client would pass without undue comment or any sense of unease on their part. A prolonged and more intimate social interaction, however, is sure to uncover a whole host of demons that you can no longer conceal.

You did not ask for these demons to visit, but visit they surely did. Each morning, without fail, you awake to the daily news, the doomsayers and gloom-mongers, the relentless hum that, though alluring in its strangely seductive tone, is the unmistakeable voice of impending disaster. If not the promise of immediate calamity, then always the gentle, incremental steps that certify the world is headed toward the fiery gates.

Then, one fateful night as you laid in your bed, covers stretched tight to the moustache, the ghost of Christmas past took you gently by the hand and led you to the window. Whereupon you were whisked away to a snow laden world where grandparents smiled on warmly as you hastily unwrapped wooden puzzles and gender specific dolls. Oh what innocence! And who is this young gun, you enquire, as a tousle-haired youth bounds for the bus, briefcase swinging like a wrecking ball, chest puffed up with crisp winter air? Why, he’s off to change the world for good, of course. Ah yes, for he is the man you left behind. The man you forgot to be.

Ghost number two was very matter of fact showing you, without judgement, exactly what your life has become. There you are at your glowing screen, for twelve hours a day and more, poring over the intricacies of Excel like it’s a medieval tapestry. But it’s clear your eyes have become dulled by the burden of verisimilitude, for only you can fully understand the pressures on contemporary business. Only you can see how stark and stony the road ahead will surely be.

And so you are left to quake in your bed in dread of the third and final visitation: the ghosts of Christmas yet-to come. The room fills with a piercing chill. The shadows on the wall roll like pipesmoke into the form of a hand, its long bony, brexity fingers beckoning you toward the unknown. It’s grotesque and chinless visage made all the more bloodcurdling by the way it chortles as it sups from a ghostly jug of ale. You scream out loud for it to stop but your cries unleash another swirling, more terrifying phantom. Its wrinkled face emits an eery orange glow that lights the room. With its hair piled at an angle like a ghastly golden haystack it shouts in staccato, trumpet-like rhythm in tune to the chants of a baying mob of ne’er-do-wells and deplorables.

As if the nightmare could get no worse our dreadful duo is joined by a host of dancing spectres each bearing a ghoulish gift from the future: individual parcels clearly labelled with ominous monikers: ‘Isis’ ‘Climate’ ‘Amazon’ ‘Railstrike’ ‘Millennial’ ‘AI’ ‘AR’ ‘VR’ and ‘Big Data’. Oh, what a terrible, terrible omen is upon us!

The next morning you forego the news, kick back the covers and tear apart the curtains to flood the room with blinding sunlight. Yes, another day is here and what a wonderful day it is! No mist, no fog. Today you know you’re alive for you can feel the blood pumping through your tangled veins. ‘Today’ you vow ‘I shall eschew the spreadsheet and instead I shall shake the hand of each and every one of my beautiful customers. Yes, that’s what I shall do! I will thank them for everything they have done for me. Nay, I shall hug them, kiss them even!’

And so, dear friends, fear not the future as it will be what we shall make it. Free yourself from the festive fug, shake off the cloak of despair and join me on a whirlwind journey through the very best of Yuletide London. And what better place in the world to soak up the Christmas spirit?

God bless Us, Every One!

If you enjoyed my Christmas tale and shopping trip, please pass the link on to friends and colleagues. Oh yes, and join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

Happy Christmas!

  Howard Saunders   Dec 14, 2016   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

CUBA 2016: VIVA LA REVOLUCION!

Outside the airport a pothole the size of a small village tells you instantly the system here is broken. Sorry, I haven’t yet left. I’ve just arrived at JFK and am heading to Cuba before, as everyone keeps telling me, ‘the Americans ruin it.’

The welcome into Havana is unforgettable. Our pre-booked 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible in harbor blue, backfired away from Havana’s Jose Marti airport full of grins and sunshine, amid a gaggle of iphone wielding photographers. For a moment there I actually felt like a 1950s movie star, until the relentless diesel fumes stifled my fleeting fantasy. The air here is also blue thanks to all the things that keep the city moving: the ‘Nico Lopez’ oil refinery, the 2-stroke MZ motorbikes that wasp their way between the pastel sedans, and not forgetting the haze from the ubiquitous Lucky Strikes. These glorious automobiles don’t belch, but rather projectile vomit thick soot from their five inch exhausts. (The original gas-guzzling engines have been replaced by more economical crude-oil burning versions) Thankfully, those seductive postcard images of Havana we grew up with spared us the stench of outdated technology.


As we lolloped along the broken roads, past the foreboding Ministry of Interior, past the decaying colonial arcades and the blackened skeletons of Neo-Classical villas, past the queues for the payphones and the stray dogs that stand clueless in the middle of the road, it took about a mile and a half to realise that something is seriously awry.

Like proper tourists on our first morning we decided to take a guided tour to get a feel of the place: in a 1953 two-tone Ford Crestline sedan, obviously. Our tour guide, Marcia, was brilliant. In between the history book dates and stories of the revolution, we learnt of her fears for the tsunami of change that is about to hit the troubled tropical island.

The stars are aligning, literally. On Monday March 21st this year President Obama and his family breezed in for a quick tour of Havana in the pouring rain. It was the first presidential visit in nearly a century, but Fidel hid away in his bedroom. That Friday the grand old lizards of rock ‘n’ roll, the Rolling Stones, held an open-air free concert at the Ciudad Deportiva in the city centre. It’s hard to imagine a more painful reminder of all the fun Cubans have missed in half a century, than the leathered, septuagenarian skins of Mick and Keith strutting about in the local park.


As Mick said on the night, ‘Finally, the times are changing.” But ninety year old Fidel did not agree and surprised everyone by coming out of his bedroom, once Obama and the The Stones had left of course, to publicly deny the ‘Cuban thaw’. Fair enough. The Stones and the president must look like young whippersnappers to him.

Let’s be straight about this. In sticking to its admirable principles Cuba has denied itself the best half, the fun half, of the twentieth century. But do not fret, the digital age is here. Nightly television runs a three minute round up of all you need to know from today’s ‘internet’. Ingeniously entitled ‘INTERNET’ the segment is intro’d with a jingle that is a flagrant rip off of the Acorn Antiques theme. They should sue.

TV is hilarious here. It’s not so much from an earlier age as from a parallel universe where obscure 1980’s low budget American TV dramas are interrupted mid sentence to announce a documentary on ancient Tibetan art. Presumably, shows are only deemed acceptable if they don’t reveal anything corrupting about the wicked west. Clearly, this limits the choice somewhat.


Despite Fidel’s assertions Cuba is on the verge of revolution again, although not from bearded romantics. This time the revolution is bubbling up under the city’s green spaces. Head to one of the local parks after sunset and you’ll see groups of youths, their ghostly faces bathed in the light from their LG and Samsung smart-phones. You see! Of course Cuba has the internet. It may be forbidden in the home but all you have to do is queue in town to buy a scratch-card, head to the park’s wifi zone, then enter the sixteen digit code for your designated thirty minutes of the 21st century.

The outside world is, as we speak, seeping into Havana, albeit monitored and restricted by the squeaky valves of the communist party. Surely, the game is all but over. Allowing a little bit of internet, limited glimpses of all that you missed, all that you don’t have, and all that you want, must be seismic enough to signal the end for this life-numbing regime.


Look, we had a great time in this city. We found some cool Paladars to eat and drink in (these are the new, privately owned restaurants) met some wonderful people, visited a couple of lively street markets, drank aged rum and even smoked Montecristos at the Partagas cigar factory. It’s just that it feels a little uncomfortable being a visitor here, like we’ve come to gloat at the last breath of an endangered species. Which of course we have.

Food may be in short supply and household gadgets scarcer than a hen’s incisors, but the real famine has been in information. As Yuval Harari explains in his latest book Homo Deus (which I can’t recommend highly enough) information, or dataism as he calls it, is how mankind dragged itself from the swamp to build this messy, wicked, exciting free world. Cuba’s half century of isolation illustrates his point perfectly. Contrary to popular opinion it won’t be the warming of relations with the US that liberates Cuba, it will be access to the universally engaging, free-flowing, mucky internet. Viva la revolucion!

Postscript: Recent news of Fidel’s death removes an enormous, emotional hurdle in the way of change. However, Raul is seen as weak, so the Cubans right now will be feeling exposed and vulnerable. Even though so many have secretly wished for it, the death of your captor after fifty years can come as a serious shock. Let’s help ease Cuba into the twenty first century.

Join me in the Twittersphere @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Nov 17, 2016   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE BLUES: THE MEANING BEHIND AMERICA’S GREATEST EXPORT

America has one killer export which, in sheer number of units as well as influence, simply dwarfs all others. One that has more customers than Coca-Cola, is more widespread than the English language, has been photographed more than Marilyn Monroe, is more significant than Hollywood and more iconic than Elvis Presley and Madonna. It’s had more column inches written about it than the moon landing and the iPhone combined, and has been embraced by cultures in every obscure corner of the planet.

It’s denim. It broke convention and changed the world forever.

Originally designed as rugged, protective workwear for miners and farmers in the late 19th Century jeans were mainly worn in the Western States until World War II as they were strongly associated with cowboy culture, prairie roaming and a kind of rural, working class freedom. But as soon as Marlon Brando was seen in a pair astride his 650cc Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One (1953) denim’s fate was sealed. The fact that off set Brando wore jeans and rode the same Triumph just added to the authenticity. The Wild One must surely be one of the most culturally influential films of all time. (As an interesting aside, Lee Marvin’s gang in the film was known as ‘The Beetles’ a spooky prophecy if ever there was one.) Hollywood had turned denim in to a symbol of the anti-establishment and once real motorcycle gangs started wearing it, it was soon being banned in schools, bars and clubs right across the United States. To this day it is still forbidden as corporate workwear as well as in certain restaurants and clubs that consider themselves to be ‘upmarket establishments’.

When a restaurant or club introduces denim as part of its staff uniform, whether it’s a pair of jeans or an apron, the message is clear: we like to think of ourselves as a little unconventional, a bit edgier than most but, just like the original miners, we work hard and require practical, rugged workwear.

Denim is ingrained into the fabric of contemporary culture, pun intended. A pair of jeans, unlike any other piece of clothing I can think of, can be read like a book. The cut, the fit, the depth of the dye, the stitching, the wash, the width, the size of the pockets, the turn up, the length and the fit around the waist or hips, each and every detail has been modified, adjusted, ripped apart, bleached or decorated by all, and even opposing, youth cultures to make denim its own. Skinheads, punks, hippies, rockers and rockabillies, gangsters and rap stars wear it because it is the fundamental garment of subculture dress code. Just imagine, if you can, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in a smart pair of trousers.

A pair of jeans speaks a silent, dog-whistle language heard only by those in the know. Tight or fitted, faded on the thigh or shin, torn at the pocket or knee, crossed belt loops at the back or parallel, hemmed or unhemmed, rivetted or rivetless; each detail emits a tribal smoke signal that can strike fear into the heart of the uninitiated. Each tiny modification follows, breaks or rewrites an unwritten rule from an enormous, invisible rule book. And to make matters worse, the rule book is being rewritten weekly.

Denim’s pervasiveness has undoubtedly diluted some of its power since the romantically alluring rebels of post war youth culture paraded it for shock value back in the fifties. A pair of jeans has inevitably become a default item, the thing you turn to when you’re not thinking, or when you simply want to be invisible or fit in. Denim may have gone mainstream but this is precisely because it still represents freedom and democracy. So in spite of its incomparable omnipresence it has somehow managed to retain its symbolism. Denim remains fundamentally anti-establishment and wearing it is an obvious display of freedom.

It is, therefore, impossible for today’s ‘post apocalypse’ culture to ignore denim, or find an alternative fabric that is as elemental or as significant a symbol of subculture. Post Apocalypse Man’s (man as in mankind which includes women) strategy to make denim his own is to follow what has proved so successful with beer, bread and many other daily staples: He turned its manufacture into a craft. And just like all the things we take for granted, PAM stripped denim back to its roots, studying the weave and the weft, the twill, the warp, the slub and the nep. Yes, this is the language of the denim artisan that gives PAM a unique and personal ownership: a denim culture of its very own. PAM is no longer just a consumer, he is a connoisseur. In this way, he instantly, and ingeniously, elevates his ownership of denim high above the noisy chatter of other street cultures concerned only with how their jeans look. Oh wow, PAM is smart.

Having become a connoisseur, the next logical step in the journey to get under the skin of any product is to become the manufacturer, the craftsman. And that’s why we are witnessing the rise of locally made, bespoke denim tailors and mini-factories right across the five boroughs with a fresh batch of denim experts setting up shop every season. From in-house tailors who will customise your jeans through to the full bespoke model, it is clear this is a growth industry that’s set to expand further. In this new age we are more willing than ever before to invest in a pair of jeans that gives us the status we so badly crave: evidence that we are a connoisseur of the cultural icon of freedom. It makes perfect sense. Expensive watches and designer suits were the status symbols of yesterday. In an increasingly casualized world a pair of unique jeans is how we communicate our place within it.

Read more of my blogs here: https://www.22and5.com/blog/

Join me on Twitter: @SaundersHoward

  Howard Saunders   Oct 14, 2016   Brand, Levi's, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BEWARE! SLIPPERY SHOPPING

Retailers are a funny lot. One of the latest buzzwords you hear at conferences and in board rooms around the world is ‘friction’. Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales, so it deserves a little examination.

Perhaps it’s us customers that are the strange species. We will happily browse the magazines or beauty section with no intent of buying or any hint of time pressure. We scan articles on knitting or weddings that we have zero interest in, and we open and sniff bottles of potions we have already decided we can’t buy and wouldn’t want if it was ‘grab a free potion’ day. And yet, faced with a queue that might delay us a couple of minutes we instantly become frustrated. Worse, if a doddery old lady wheels her trolley into our imaginary laser-line to the magazine aisle then we tut silently at the loss of the 0.44 seconds we will never recover. Life’s tiny hurdles are little more than an illusory inconvenience to what are, obviously, our meaningful and purposeful lives.

The love affair with our phones also illustrates how quickly we become bored or frustrated when the world around us refuses to work in perfect, synchronised harmony to our own personal schedule. When driving, every traffic light or junction is another chance to check our phones, so that a miniscule delay becomes useful to us in some small, pathetic way. As we watch the train pull into the station, on time, there are still a handful of microseconds being wasted here: enough time to quickly check our Facebook page.

Now retailers who have studied our peculiar behaviour for many decades have decided to remove as many of these unnecessary micro-hurdles as possible from the in-store shopping experience, lest we give up and go the Amazon way. But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.

Not long ago the slipperiest, most friction-free retail model was the supermarket. Before the age of the smartphone we would venture out in the car, drive to the store, pick up a trolley, push the trolley up and down every aisle, load it up with all our weekly needs, unload it at the checkout, pack it into bags, load it back into the trolley, unload it into the car, return the trolley to the trolley bay, drive home, unload car and then store it all neatly at home…until next week. It couldn’t have been simpler! I can already hear my unborn grandchildren begging me to ‘tell us again how you used to buy food Granddad!’. So, in response to the shift in having stuff delivered, our once easy-to-shop spaces are desperately attempting to lubricate their stores further, concentrating primarily on new payment technologies.

Now the camera, in this little documentary I’m making for you, cuts to a fresh food market. Here in the US, markets have increased threefold in number since the financial crash of 2008, but just watch how ridiculously high friction the shopping experience is. Each stall has a queue, and an undignified one at that. The doddery old lady may not have a trolley but she’s been fumbling in her purse at the front of the line for what must be ten minutes now. Your bags are heavy and awkward but still you manage to smile in response to the cheery verbal arithmetic. What a contrast to the dulcet chime that is ‘unexpected item in the bagging area!’

The problem with the supermarket model, within which I include an entire gamut of mid market self-service brands across category, is that it strips away so much of the social aspect of retail, so that even eye contact in the aisles is deemed unacceptable. Retailers have worked hard honing and polishing the cogs of their machines in order that they shine bright beneath the fluorescent lights, but they overlooked the very key to being human, the bit that makes our three score years and ten worthwhile. We are a deeply and innately social species and when we glance at Facebook while the train doors open it’s because we are desperate to connect. At the traffic lights we click on our email to see if anyone wants us, anyone…an awkward client will do. So, in a space deprived of social contact perhaps it’s the magazine aisle and the beauty section that most engages us and offers a little respite from the drudgery of the weekly trawl. Imagine, if you will, a new fresh food market concept, unmanned and where you can help yourself to everything before you simply ‘tap and go’. It wouldn’t last a fortnight.


Apologies for rambling, but last week I was in Warsaw where I visited Hala Mirowska, the big, central fresh food market. Loitering at the entrance was an old man waving a small bag of runner beans, just enough for a couple of servings at most, which could have been mine for a few measly Zloty. That evening I asked my host if the old are really that poor in Warsaw, and she explained that although they may not have it easy, they ‘hang around the market for something to do, to feel involved.’ After all, the market was the centre of the community for many millennia, until big box retail came along. The good news is that Hala Mirowska is currently undergoing major renovations as they strip out the hideous shop units, remove the supermarket and reopen it as a traditional grand market hall once again.

Surely, the visceral draw to belong to a community is one of the reasons the unemployed visit the doctor so many more times a year than those in work. It’s not that they’re inherently more sick, so it’s more likely they just crave social contact, particularly in a retail landscape made up of discounters and fast food chains.

My warning comes too late, of course. We’ve already arrived at the retail crossroads. If you want stuff then turn left for the internet which is full of it; and what’s more it might well be delivered within the hour. But if you want social contact, proof that you’re not alone on this planet and would perhaps feel reassured by a light, fleeting exchange with a fellow inhabitant, then turn right for the shops. Shops are only for social needs now, everything else is waiting in a brown parcel by your front door. It’s not nuanced, complicated or category specific at all. The brutal, binary simplicity of this can be hard to swallow for professional retailers who have been oiling their machines for half a century, but it’s how it is now. Just ask your grandchildren.

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

  Howard Saunders   Sep 27, 2016   Brand, discount, Food, Retail, shopping, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

THE DEATH OF THE DINOSAURS


We awake to a dose of rotten retail results every morning, and it seems as if the high street (main street) has become one long, painful car crash that we’re watching in slow motion between fingers clasped against our foreheads. Bad results are usually followed by an interview with a cheery CEO who puts the ‘blip’ down to hot weather, cold weather, humidity, the Olympics, Brexit or Donald Trump. (Personally, I think it has to be Trump)

The CEO assures us that these figures were for the last quarter and already out of date, as this was way before they appointed the bright new CMO and launched the funky new range, which incidentally, is going down a storm with millennials.


Bullshit, and we all know it. News that Macy’s plans to close a hundred stores is just the start of it. The list of high street woes just gets longer by the day: Gap Inc, Debenhams, Walmart, Asda, Sears, Nordstrom, Marks & Spencer, JC Penney, Tesco, Morrison’s, Kroger, Target, Kohl’s…isn’t it bleedin’ obvious? We are witnessing the death of the dinosaurs. And while we’re on the subject of dinosaurs, I’d like to put in a good word for Philip Green. He didn’t kill BHS because it was moribund anyway. He just raped it.

Beneath the valiant attempts to brush off the hurricane as a gentle breeze, there’s the chatter as to the cause of retail’s problems being Amazon and those disinterested millennials, who’d rather spend money on experiences, whatever that means. But CEOs aren’t stupid. Just look behind the media smile. They know the ride is coming to an end. They’re simply doing what’s expected of them: positive spin and a brave face. They know they can’t blame Amazon. For all its monster power it actually has the same root problem as BHS: it stands for absolutely nothing. Amazon is fully aware this is its Achillies heel, but is too busy counting money to do much about it. Perhaps Amazon is partly to blame in the sense that it made retailers focus on price and ‘frictionless’ shopping, rather than making their stores nicer places to be.

It’s been eight years since the meteor hit planet earth, or since the financial crash, as it’s more commonly called, and we are only now starting to realise the long term consequences. The truth is, it changed everything: we are all millennials now; we all reach for the phone before our eyelids have properly parted in the morning, lest we missed a life changing Facebook post whilst unconscious. We’ve all become tired of the same old: the same old politics, the same old superhero movies, the same old brands on the high street. Is anyone really that surprised? Is there anyone out there who seriously enjoys the Walmart, Tesco or Sears experience anymore? We’re just bored with you all.

Meanwhile, the retail press on both sides of the Atlantic remains religiously obsessed with supermarkets and out of town sheds as if nothing has changed. They act like tin shed groupies, hanging around in the car park, at some godforsaken place, for a titbit of news. Usually something earth shattering like ‘Doberman’s profits down 15%’ As if anyone other than Mr Doberman gives a shit. Imagine the NME still filling its pages with Genesis and Yes stories week after week. Precisely.

The dinosaurs maybe dying but the planet is still teeming with life. We are at the beginning of a renaissance of street markets, ‘hipster’ food halls and the burgeoning rise of street food generally. There’s a slew of eager beaver entrepreneurs selling artisan everything that could do with a bit of positive press right now. Then there’s the satisfying surge of small, niche food producers; café culture has taken off like a rocket ship recently while bars and small batch breweries are absolutely revelling in their heyday. The lunch time food market is more lively and imaginative than it has ever been, and rich, clever brands such as Samsung, Nike, Adidas, Dyson, Lululemon and even Moleskine are inciting FOMO (fear of missing out…for all you who don’t reach for their phone first thing) with flagship stores that do so much more than just sell stuff.

There are also, I’m pleased to say, two great British dinosaurs that we can all learn from: Selfridges, maybe part of a dying breed but it will continue to thrive because when we spot its fluttering flags at the top of Oxford Street, like a cruise ship waiting for us to board, it lifts our spirits. Its commitment to an innovative and engaging calendar of events makes it our ‘day out’ in the centre of London.

And just down the road there’s John Lewis. Now John may be no party animal but he has spent the last 150 years building unrivalled trust with his customers. He brews a quiet, softly spoken form of FOMO, that is nonetheless just as powerful.

So, whilst most of the dinosaurs are beyond help there are ways to turn things around if they really want to and, I’m sorry to say, toying with a bit of omnichannel ain’t gonna cut it. Department stores and supermarkets need to give us reasons not just to go there, but to be there. Restaurants, bars, events, markets, launches, link-ups, competitions, festivals and exhibitions can ignite FOMO, drag us out and stop us staring at our phones for fifteen minutes. Let’s start with that.

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

  Howard Saunders   Aug 31, 2016   Future, Retail, shopping, smartphone, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More