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.

GOOD NEWS! THE FUTURE WILL BE REALLY MESSY

In troubled times the future gets scarier. Understandably, our visions for the rest of this century have recently turned extra-dystopian, having abandoned any attempt to cheer us up with even the faintest flicker of light at the end of the long, long, Covid tunnel. The precedent for this advanced doom-mongery was largely established by George Orwell who, as every pub quizzer knows, wrote 1984 in 1948 in a Britain still littered with smoking piles of rubble. Likewise, Huxley, his equally morose predecessor, envisioned his Brave New World in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression. Apparently though, they were both great fun at parties.

This helps explain why today’s dark projections paint us a picture of climate ravaged city scapes animated by autonomous bubble cars, a Chinese style social credit system, insect rich diets, fleets of robots sanitising the streets, and police surveillance drones whirring overhead.

I can’t wait.

Even our most optimistic visionaries overlooked our messy and unpredictable human nature. With startling accuracy Arthur C Clarke foresaw the internet and the world of social media with his prediction of instant and global communication. But clearly he had no bloody idea whatsoever how divisive and angry Twitter and Facebook would make us. Likewise, Asimov’s 1964 prognostications were absolutely spot on when it comes to video communication, but he couldn’t resist envisioning a future where ordinary people lived in subterranean, suburban homes. Yes folks, Isaac wanted to bury us.

The last time things felt this dismal was just after the second world war. Even though we were almost as broke as we are today, we attempted to build a bold vision for the non-war bit of what was left of the twentieth century. We called it The Festival of Britain, but in reality it was a well meaning but disjointed celebration of atomic research, high rise living and modernist ceramics, alongside a tacky funfair. Schoolchildren flocked to the helter-skelter but largely ignored Skylon and the other grand futuristic indulgences probably because they served no fathomable purpose whatsoever. Even fifties’ kids weren’t stupid.

Architects are the worst. (How to alienate your readership in four words) They love a grand scheme, especially if it sweeps away messy homes and replaces them with something big and ‘iconic’. Every conceptual city masterplan has at its centre a football pitch of a piazza wrapped around a museum of some description. These are visions from professionals that find us ordinary folk a bit too messy for our own good. They wish us to be benign consumers to be managed and educated, to be nudged away from fast food joints and pubs, and towards something more arts related. They also have a peculiar fetish for museums, which speaks volumes in itself. Think about it: the display of inanimate objects in a logical, categorised order, labelled and sorted for posterity. Museums are our tidying, managing mentality given religious significance. There are no kebab shops here.

Now imagine yourself flicking through a holiday brochure (remember those?) in search of your dream vacation. If, as you looked more closely at the couple by the swimming pool bar supping on enormous pineapples, you suddenly recognised your own bloated belly and multiple chins it would put you off holidays for life. Visions of the future rarely include their author. Our own mundanity would puncture the fantasy irreparably. (Btw, is Elon Musk still moving to Mars?)

The truth is, our visions of the future don’t fit us. They are designed for a public that simply doesn’t exist, not for the greedy, narcissistic, competitive, voyeuristic, neurotic, contrarian, argumentative, messy people we really are. Civic visions are so anaemic, so 1951. They stick to a narrative that diminishes humanity in an attempt to iron out all our messy bits. They want us to be compliant consumers, or worse, poets on UBI, frequenting galleries and jotting down notes. 

Surely I’m not alone in thinking the most exciting towns and cities are those that grew organically? Tangled streets bursting with shops and houses and offices concertinaed into inconceivably awkward spaces are much more engaging than the planned ones. These are the places that beg to be explored by visitors, and lived in and loved by locals. One of the reasons shopping centres will never feel authentic is precisely because they are so well thought out, designed, finished and managed.

When eventually the roaring twenties do kick in (and they will) I want our high streets to be an ever-churning parade of messy independents and improbable pop-ups. Our autonomous cabs may well have a cockney robo-voice but they’ll be sharing the road with lots of non-autonomous, privately owned electric cars and internal combustion engined vehicles running on e-fuel. And if I live long enough to visit my local vertical farm I expect it to have a rustic greengrocers underneath, serving exceptional freshly brewed coffee, not a predictive vending bot. It’s the messy bit that will make it human.

So sleep soundly in the knowledge that the future is sure to be a lot messier than these brittle, brutal techno-visions they throw at us. And you can bet your underpants it won’t resemble anything that comes from government diktat or over qualified think-tank.

After all, the high rise living vision left us with little more than lofty slums. The promise of virtually free atomic power, well you know where that got us. I for one, resent and reject this bug eating, drone monitoring, autonomy robbing, robotically sanitised future. Why? Because ultimately, its designers designed it for others. 

Happy 2021 from theretailfuturist.com Follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more daily insights and musings as to how the future is shaping up.

  Howard Saunders   Jan 06, 2021   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS

The Grinch hated Christmas and the whole Christmas season

And this year, especially, he had a good reason

Watching in anger from his room upstairs

Passers by were unawares

“Two metres the man from WHO had said!’

He screamed in frustration, both hands on his head,

“Do they not know that they’ll end up dead?

It’ll serve them right to be dead” he said.

Then he’d roll up tight and play dead on his bed.

“I hate you all!’ He’d whimper as he wept

Sobbing to sleep, he wept as he slept

He slept and he wept and he whimpered galore

Till no weep was left in him, then he wept a bit more.

Not leaving the house unless fully hazmatted

For the health of HIMSELF was all that mattered.

The Grinch was alone in perceiving the threat,

(Though no one that mattered had died of it yet)

In fact, he desperately hoped that it would

Wiping out Whoville would do them all good!

“People in restaurants and pubs are the worst.

They go there for fun, not for hunger or thirst!”

The Grinch hated those who enjoyed their lives

Frequenting bars, having lunch with their wives

“Hadn’t they heard there’s a plague on the loose?

I hope you all choke on your mince pies and goose!”

Over indulgence is now out of bounds

Not Santa, but a killer, is doing the rounds.

“It’s a beautiful thing to forbid such fun,

To see shoulders slump and faces turn glum

At this the most irritating time of the year

I rename it Grinchmas! Do I make myself clear?”

Tis a little known fact Christmas shopping can kill

So say the signs in the town of Whoville.

If it doesn’t kill, it will make you all ill!

And he crossed his Grinch fingers and hoped that it will.

“Shopping for gifts they can’t possibly need

Is nothing short of reckless greed.

Risking their lives for crackers and cake

From greedy stores, all on the make

Laden in tinsel and snow that is fake.

Stay home and bake if you must have a cake.

It’s just another day, for Grinch’s sake!”

Grinch regulations come fully endorsed:

Two households per household, but you must stay indoors

With windows wide open for the passage of air

No mistletoe kisses, seems perfectly fair.

Doom mongers and Grinches, hear what they say:

“Tomorrow will be a gloomier day”

Whoville, once the liveliest of places,

With bustling bars and smiling faces

Succumbed to the mighty fist of the WHO

WHO knows precisely what’s best for you.

For security and safety are top of their list,

No stone unturned, no detail missed.

To keep us all far from harm’s way

By abolishing Christmas and Christmas Day.

Carols are banned for the air that they vent

This invisible killer, it has no scent

Singing’s illegal, well that’s what they meant

For Grinch this virus was heaven sent.

Our new religion is called The Science

And masks the sign of complete compliance 

Voluntary prisoners, what could be worse

For the Maskers of the Universe?

The Science is serious, if somewhat grouchy

Just look at Chris Whitty or Dr Fauci.

Fauci is grouchy and Whitty ain’t pretty 

But Whoville’s not London or New York City.

Grinches are cold, judgemental and mean

And everything bitter in between 

Less buying, less eating, less drinking, less being!

Is it any wonder that Grinches are green?

They do not care one jot for your life

Nor for your uncle, or your uncle’s wife

What gives a grinch its daily thrills

Is revelling in other’s ills

To turn you cold, like the blood in their veins

Their ups are your downs, your losses their gains.

They cannot bear to see joy or success 

All that you own is considered excess.

Fewer humans is what this planet is needing

And we need laws to stop them from breeding!

Grinches should rule, free from distraction

Malthusianism in a chain reaction!

Grinch flu this year is highly contagious 

But enjoying its curse is beyond outrageous 

We can’t beat the virus but surely the cure

Is a Christmassy heart, open and pure

Full of embrace, yes let’s take the risk!

Put that at the top of your Christmas list.

The moral of this tale? I hear you ask

Is to set you a challenge, a Christmas task

Say no to The Grinch in 2020

Our future is strong, our hopes aplenty.

The Grinch is the virus that infects every nation

But Christmas spirit is our vaccination!

Thanks to Dr Seuss for the inspiration. Now follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we’re heading!

  Howard Saunders   Dec 09, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

ARE YOU NON-ESSENTIAL?

I’ve wasted my life. I spent forty years training, learning, practising, reading and ultimately designing stores to revitalise our high streets, and in turn our towns and city centres, only to be told this year that I’m surplus to requirements. I am officially non-essential. The world I once thought of as providing the lifeblood for our communities is, like my very existence, utterly meaningless. But before you crack a schadenfreudian grin my friend, judging by my Google analytics, the same is true of you! 

Yes, you may have spent a lifetime dedicated to marketing food or fashion, giving birth to a small restaurant chain, producing home furnishings or wheeling and dealing in the cut-throat property market, but you have, I’m sorry to say, wasted your entire life. Only a few short months ago I hear you were quite the bon viveur on the dinner party circuit regaling guests with hilarious tales from the world of marketing, but today, unfortunately, you’re completely irrelevant.

Indeed, unless you are currently knelt on the tarmac administering mouth to mouth to a Covid victim it’s very likely you are non-essential too. Those that fed and clothed our heroic life savers, entertained them, built their homes, organised their holidays, cut their hair or sold them the shoes they just scuffed, now know their rightful place on planet Earth: Nowhere.

Since 2020 landed on us from a great height, we’ve all been forced to reprioritise everything we once took for granted. We’ve toppled a few statues, dethroned a swathe of superstars and cancelled a cluster of celebs in order to welcome in our new found world order. So when it comes to the piffling matter of retail and hospitality we must shut up, stand back and make way for the life savers, just like we do for our hero paramedics.

Essential stores are easy to spot as essentially (sorry) they sell food and medicine. On the basis you’ve already got enough stuff, anything that isn’t edible or medicinal is a luxury. So, the stores that sell clothes, shoes, books, homewares, holidays, gifts, cards, electronics, washing machines, mobile phones, second hand goods, furniture and fabric including all department stores, betting shops, car showrooms, car washes, tailors and auction houses must obediently shut up shop. Restaurants, cinemas, theatres, gyms, fitness centres, spas, health clubs, hotels, entertainment venues, casinos, nightclubs, cafes, pubs and bars already know their place in the new hierarchy.

The rules are crystal clear. Soup is essential, but a pan to heat it in is not, as every Boy Scout knows how to boil soup in its tin. Garden centres are obviously essential in order that you can still buy a life saving potted Aspidistra and electric hedge trimmers. For decadent frippery such as clothing for your newborn baby I suggest you buy online and save yourself the worry of shouting the size through your mask when stores do finally reopen. This also saves the retailer the cost of subjecting your chosen bobble hat to seventy two hours of UV treatment after the little tyke has tried it on.

After Lockdown II you will probably notice that most fitting rooms will remain closed for ordinary, non-essential customers. They are, of course, reserved for key workers trying on protective clothing and hazmat suits. (If you don’t believe this please check the government regulations in the link at the bottom) To avoid all this real-world kerfuffle, simply head to wesellabsolutelybloodyeverything.com (cheques should be made out directly to Mr J Bezos).

Eating out in a socially distanced, regularly sanitised restaurant when there’s a perfectly good packet of pasta waiting at home is just showing off.

As all right-minded adults will surely agree, alcohol has become not just essential but absolutely bleeding critical during this pandemic. Thankfully, it can be purchased as normal from the supermarket, but please wait until you get home to consume it. Purchasing alcohol from your usual provider, ie. the local pub, is now an offence and will incur fines of up to £6400 for you, as well as the loss of the landlord’s license.

Food is obviously essential, but only when you eat it at home. Eating out in a socially distanced, regularly sanitised restaurant when there’s a perfectly good packet of pasta waiting at home is just showing off. And showing off is not essential.

If you live on your own and can’t cook (or weren’t in the Boy Scouts) don’t despair. The government has kindly allowed fast food takeaways to open for low life like you, so cheer up! Tucking into a Big Mac as the winter rain lashes against the windscreen of your Corsa 1.2 isn’t such a bad way to spend a Friday night.

This is all very clear and fair, but why are the supermarkets allowed to sell non-essential goods I hear you cry! Well, that’s a little more complicated, but I’m glad you asked. If you’re shopping for your essential bread and soup it would be a tad draconian to ban you from grabbing a magazine on route. However, if that magazine is sold from a shop within a shop (what we in the business call a concession) that aisle must, of course, be tightly bound in hazard tape as if an old lady had just been brutally murdered in the cookery section.

I trust I’ve helped unravel any anomalies or questions you may have had about Lockdown II. Stay safe out there, and remember folks…rules is rules. 

For more information please refer to the the official UK government regulations here. 

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we might be heading.

  Howard Saunders   Nov 12, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More