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.


Cultural shifts in attitude have a habit of creeping up on us gently and spinning us around in the opposite direction. In less than a decade our attitudes to the environment, smoking in public places, and same sex marriage have shifted dramatically so we have reached a kind of public consensus, as if we had always held these views.

Exactly the same can be said of the supermarkets. Not very long ago we used them as regularly as our washing machines, but something has changed. The tide is turning.

Every morning we wake up to yet another juicy slice of bad news for the big supermarket brands. They are bleeding customers and, it appears, are unclear why.

The big, hairy Goliaths are losing their grip slowly but surely every week. And what a grip it was. They thought the world was theirs forever and suddenly it seems it’s not. They are currently in a state of panic, making desperate daily announcements, promising to be good in the future. So what happened?

The weekly mega-shop became a routine for billions of western families. Every weekend, right across the planet well meaning parents would pile their kids into the car and head to the seedier edge of town where sixty thousand square feet of hell awaited them. If the kids were lucky there might be some sort of play area for them; probably a grimacing fibreglass menagerie of sorts, or a ball park where children could learn to drown each other in ping-pong balls.

For any normal, reasonably well balanced child this weekend nightmare was even worse than church! At least church was spookily weird and didn’t last very long. The supermarket shop seemed to have no natural end.  Once the trolleys were full there was always some pharmacy shopping to do or a dry cleaner to visit.

It wasn’t exactly fun for us either. There was no restaurant as we know it, not if you were a semi intelligent biped. The eating area was usually a school canteen type of affair where screaming kids had been replaced by slavering octogenarians, endlessly masticating their two dollar fry ups. It was all about price back then. You could fill your belly for a couple of dollars (pounds or euros) and then save money on the weekly provisions. The meat was a tad tough, sure, but it was half the price of the local butcher. Every little helps, why pay more? saving you money everyday, live well for less. We were so grateful!

That’s why we drove twelve miles to get there: so we could save ten cents on a can of beans. The journey paid for itself, sort of, but we never actually worked it out. It’s just what everyone did, so it made sense. Every family had its preferred supermarket and your choice announced to the world exactly how poor or posh you were. That way, the supermarkets became a rich source of school bullying too.

Sometimes we’d sneakily snack in the aisles and hand the kids treats to stop them moaning. We’d guiltily present the empty wrappers at the checkout though, to prove that we may be greedy, but at least we were honest. We certainly weren’t going to use the restaurant: that was obviously for the poor and downtrodden. Occasionally we’d daydream that one day they’d have a bar like in some of those big Spanish supermarkets, but it never happened of course. Probably some health & safety law that prevents serving alcohol in a place we drive to. Nothing like a pub, of course.

For a good long decade we’d carry a fistful of loyalty cards in our wallets like top trumps, as if we were outwitting them somehow. Mustn’t put all your eggs in one wire basket, we thought to ourselves. They would send us statements every so often, on a kind of invoice looking thing, that showed we’d accumulated over four hundred thousand loyalty points and were now entitled to ten percent off Rice Krispies. Oh the excitement!

This, of course, was part of a massive programme by all the major supermarkets. It would, culminate in the term ‘big data’. They had files on every one of us and we imagined that somewhere deep inside head office there was a room filled with James Bond style computers, where six foot diameter spools whirred gently and made pleasant bleeping sounds. They knew everything about us: where we lived (of course) our ages, whether we preferred custard creams to garibaldi, how much we spent at Christmas and how many times a year we went on holiday. Then, every so often, an alarm would go off and the giant computer would spit out a length of ticker-tape: a voucher especially for us! It was usually something uplifting and glamorous like a discount on bulk dog food. For years we wished we’d had a dog so that we could cash in on all this generosity.

Then, after the 2008 crash, the GFC, the apocalypse as I call it, we began to question things. We started to realise that we were spending more on fuel getting there than we could ever save on groceries. We also began to notice how much we were throwing away. Those big bags of salad were like soggy underpants by the time we’d pulled up to the house and all the well intentioned, shiny fruit and veg (the stuff that makes us look like good parents as we push our trolleys around) that too mostly ended up in the bin. The oversized flagon of milk had always turned to yoghurt by the middle of the week and we’d have to venture to the petrol station to top up anyway. Curiously, we always had to eat the jumbo pack of fresh cream eclairs in one sitting, lest they passed their sell by date. This was no way to eat, no way to live, in fact. The kids were miserable, obese of course, and to be honest, when we went food shopping and fought over what we each wanted, we ended up hating our own family as much as the dead eyed neighbours we’d pass in the aisles.

It was about this time that we rediscovered our local deli and butcher where we would top up the mega shop as the weekend loomed. We found that it made sense to buy fresh meat each day, instead of having to tentatively sniff the poly-tray and meat tampon. We actually enjoyed choosing our protein each night and it felt good to be investing in local stores, in our own community. We shook things up a bit with a takeaway on a Thursday.

Everyone was happy with that, and we were spending less money and throwing much less away. Then we got really smart. We ordered the big, bulky, boring things online to be delivered once a fortnight: the toilet rolls and cleaning stuff, basically. They were even cheaper than at the supermarket and it saved us lugging it all home. This was when we realised we didn’t need the supermarkets as much anymore.

On top of this, we found out some of the things they were up to, like using horsemeat instead of beef. We also watched videos on the internet showing how they keep chickens and how they make that processed ham we put in the kids’ pack lunches. Yuck! Then we learned how they bully their suppliers into selling things less than it costs to produce! Well that can’t be right, not in anybody’s book. Oh yes, and some of them were fiddling the books too, making out they were doing better than they were. If we did that they’d send us to prison.

We never liked them that much in the first place but now we’re starting to hate them.

Supermarkets must now choose what they want to be: nice or nasty, basically. Do they invest in their stores to make them appealing? (with proper restaurants serving freshly cooked healthy food, together with an engaging events calendar) or do they go nasty and strip out any niceties to compete with the discounters who consider even shelves to be luxury furniture?

They may be dying but they ain’t dead yet. They still have time to change if they really want to but it will need a massive cultural shift and tankers rarely move like speedboats. In fairness, one or two are already showing signs of adapting, promising us better looking stores with decent restaurants and ethical business practices. Who knows, we may even get to like them again.

In the meantime, we are quite enjoying ourselves, using the corner shop and getting to know the fat, flirtatious butcher. (We never really chatted to the supermarket butcher, but then again, he is about sixteen). We’ve learned that stores are exactly what they say they are: giant warehouses where things are neatly stored. They’re not really for us. We now know we want our shops to be engaging, friendly places where they actually really remember us and don’t just pretend. We’ve learned to like food shopping again and we love it when a shop, or a brand, asks us to sample something or wants feedback on a new range. It’s like they actually value our opinion! And we love just popping in to say hello and find out what’s new.

I guess it’s a funny, old fashioned thing called community.

  Howard Saunders   Feb 05, 2015   Blog, Future, Retail, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More


I’ve just received the coolest gift. A box, one metre long, heavy and wooden: inside a limited edition, numbered, hand-painted, hickory-handled, American felling axe. Yes, an axe. In another box, a cream enamelled ‘axe care kit’ complete with a sharpening stone and some serious looking G clamps that I wouldn’t know where to start with. The whole thing is so exciting. I mean, what else can you get a cynical city dweller of my advanced years other than some professional lumberjacking equipment? What’s more, my girlfriend is just as thrilled. She loves to feel the reassuring heft of the four pound, leather-sheathed axehead as it falls into her palm. No, I’m not being rude…this is serious. There is certainly something immensely powerful about an axe. Let me explain.

I recently took a small group of professional guys from Sydney around New York for a bit of a retail safari. They were a mix of well travelled developers and lawyers, so a clever bunch. They were interested in seeing a few cool brands so at the end of our afternoon walking Manhattan I took them to Tribeca to visit one of the coolest: Best Made. Now, I’ve brought people in here before and the reaction can be somewhat mixed. The entrance is hard to find with an appropriately tiny logo on the glass and inside you are greeted by a wall of logs, on sale for a dollar each. This is a clue.

Best Made is urban man’s last hope:it sells us the dream of those that built this city, chopped down the forests and replaced them with skyscrapers. It reminds us that not far from this little granite island there is countryside, and a lot of it, and if you want to explore then you’d better be prepared. You’d better man up!

Basically, Best Made sells everything you need to survive in the wilderness after the apocalypse: nicely branded and stylishly over priced enamel ware, waxed canvas jackets as thick as doormats,chunky duffel bags, maps and atlases and lots of very cool camping gear…but their signature product is the axe. Hold an axe in your hands and you are transported to a simpler world, one where you had to kill things for dinner and chop things to stay warm.

Hold an axe and you forget your daily commute, all the office politics and gripes about your expense account. This is the real you, the adventurer, the pioneer, the man they will turn to after the apocalypse: the man with the axe. The axe tells us that our crazy urban lives are meaningless. It reminds us that we can leave our stupid jobs and head for the woods to start a new life living in a shelter we built with our own blistered hands. (Until, that is, we get cold and lonely and want to go home)

So, Best Made are selling us a beautiful handmade icon of the primeval masculinity that we thought we had lost forever. The axe is the first and most important tool man ever created. It gave us wood, fire, food, shelter and power. A limited, numbered, hand painted axe can be yours for about $300. How can so much meaning come so cheap?

I love the fact that as our aspirations shift as times change, the retail space responds with tangible products that answer what are, ultimately, emotional needs. Here is a brand that understands we really don’t need any more stuff. It also understands that in a world where we have most of what we need, we still desperately search for things with real meaning. Oh yes, I love my axe.

  Howard Saunders   Jan 11, 2015   Blog, Brand, image, Retail   8 Comments   Read More


No city drinks in the festive spirit like New York. December is when Fifth Avenue can be herself once again, overdressing for the party with glittering lightshows and dancing crystal to out sparkle the world’s best. Here, Christmas starts the morning after Thanksgiving, so with only four weeks to go shoppers don’t become holi-jaded like in other cities that have been decked out since late August.

And a million shoppers also remain remarkably good humoured. As they battle through the crowds in the brittle-bright winter sun to the soundtrack of the Sally Army bell ringers (in full sidewalk jive) it’s as if everyone is just happy to be here. The Book of Mormon need not have tried to convince us (so hilariously) that this is the true promised land, for New York has become the very heart of Christmas. After all, so much goodwill was forged right here on the streets of Manhattan beginning with ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ via ‘Scrooged’ and ‘Trading Places’ right up to ‘Elf’. If New York is the heart of Christmas then at the foot of the Rockefeller Center, overlooking a thousand furry-hatted skaters, the hundred foot shimmering spruce is surely its epicentre.

Perhaps it’s because New York is still young enough to believe, for there is little trace of cynicism here. Every store joins the party and the avenues are ablaze with seasonal celebrations and world class windows. From chain store campaigns and luxe-brand displays of artsyness, through to the finely sculpted creativity of Bergdorf’s, Saks, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Fishs Eddy, ABC and many, many more, New York at Christmas is, ultimately, a month long festival of optimism. Long may it reign.

  Howard Saunders   Dec 16, 2014   Blog, Brand, Gallery, image, Retail   0 Comment   Read More


Two years ago last summer my life got a little bit better when a friend of mine from Sydney proudly demonstrated his brand new Uber app here on busy Fifth Avenue. John W is a good looking, highly successful, young entrepreneur with a head full of ideas to help make his business more forward thinking and responsive, so the Uber brand fits him perfectly. There’s no way can I imagine John enduring many Sydney cab rides every day (they’re probably the worst in the developed world). Nor would it look quite right for John to have a personal driver on hand (we used to call them chauffers). For a young, go-getter guy it would look a tad self obsessed and certainly rather old fashioned. John isn’t a difficult person with any sense of entitlement, but he certainly doesn’t want to be fumbling around for change or trying to sign a credit card slip on the back of a  headrest. Nor can I imagine his wallet stuffed with ilegible little receipts. No, all John needs is a decent car and a friendly driver.

John was evangelical about Uber because it solved a real problem for him. A clean, handsome car could always be on hand, wherever he was in the world, without having to book or plan ahead and, of course, it gave him membership to a kind of select club without looking ostentatious or elistist.

It works perfectly for me here in New York too. Yellow cabs are notoriously rude and unhelpful probably most of the time and they’re certainly not over keen to help with your heavy bags when you arrive jet-lagged and tetchy into JFK. Then, at the end of the ride, there’s that awkward moment of calculating the tip. In fairness, yellow cabs now make it much easier for you with on screen recommended tips of 20%  25% or 30%. Yes 30%!! Now that starts to look like extortion, and that’s my point. It’s not really the total cost that worries us, it’s the expectation that after a bumpy ride in a filthy cab with a miserable driver, he’s expecting you to add a third of the price on top just as a way of saying thank you! If you’re feeling brave try leaving a 10% tip. He will, very likely, chase you up the street. I’m serious.

So as with most things, our decisions are not based on cost but on the emotional cost. We will probably pay extra to avoid the awkwardness of tipping and we will certainly pay extra for a happy, helpful driver. That’s the key: as each Uber journey is rated by every passenger (the app asks for a rating prior to the receipt) there’s a real incentive for the drivers to at least attempt to look like they want you in their cab in the first place. Too many yellow cabs, and London black cabs for that matter, make you feel as if you’re doing them a favour. At every given opportunity they will let rip about the rules, regulations and taxes that make it impossible to earn a decent living etc etc. Ironically, the arrival of Uber has become a fresh and meaty new source of whinge material.

I recently learned that the Uber driver rates us too! Yes, that means if you’re the kind of Friday night, arrogant throw up artist, then you’ll find it pretty tricky getting hold of an Uber, especially on a Friday night. What a beautifully democratic system.

At this stage I must just put in a good word for the London cabbie. After a long haul flight there’s nothing that gives you the lovely warm rush of a welcome home better than a chirpy London cabbie with a sweary synopsis of the latest news, cockney-style. Sadly though, their recent anti-Uber protests in London may have badly backfired. Firstly, it was a terrific piece of marketing for all those who had never heard of Uber, and secondly it reminded us just how stroppy London cabbies can be sometimes. Ultimately of course, it doesn’t matter how many authorities or cities ban Uber, app technology, whether Uber or not, can only win in the end.

The Uber app makes getting a decent car in a busy city centre much more convenient, with the total charge going straight to your credit card, while a clearly laid out digital receipt and map of your route arrives in your email. But that’s not why it’s successful. The Uber rating system quickly detects low rated drivers so it can remove them from the Uber network. (By contrast, imagine complaining to TFL in London or the TLC here in New York about a cab driver’s attitude. We don’t bother because we know nothing will happen)  The Uber system means that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a polite, if not always cheery, driver that actually wants you in his car!

Now this really is radical stuff! Imagine a world where every store visit is rated in terms of customer experience and service. Imagine how that might change the face of the high street. No more sulky checkout staff shouting ‘next’ and avoiding eye contact as if they were the lover you’d just had an almighty row with. No more disinterested shop assistants chatting to their colleagues to avoid doing any work. No more Post Office staff treating you with utter contempt for having the audacity to want to send a parcel of that particular size. Surely, this is no more than a pipedream? I don’t believe it is.

As payment systems become more advanced at the same time as retail apps become more integrated with their real world stores, I believe this is one of the great, unspoken benefits of the retail revolution we’re bang smack in the middle of.

Uber’s success is a glimpse of the future, a glimpse as to how new technology will change the way we consume. In  four short years the company is already valued at $18 billion, operating in 128 cities across 45 countries. It’s very clear something was wrong with the old system, right across the planet, for Uber to have been embraced with such enthusiasm in so short a time. Thirty-something founder, Travis Kalanick, spotted the weaknesses in the old system and answered them directly. Quite simply, the Uber service is better because it puts the power in the hands of the customer and cares about what we think. And the post crash, Me-Centric consumer loves it!

The breath of fresh air they’ve brought to an old industry feels even fresher when you take a look at their innovative promotional strategy. Over the last year or so, we’ve had the offer of Uber ice cream trucks during the long hot New York summer, Uber chopper rides to the Hamptons, free weekend trips to Brooklyn, Uber sky-writing for Valentine’s Day and, perhaps strangest of all, ‘kittens on demand’ as part of National Cat Day.

The Uber business model really is a template for forward thinking brands. Each of us already uses a handful of the billion apps available to help our lives run smoother: online deliveries, personal trainers, car services and favourite brands. No need for cash or cards, these brands are our trusted ‘clubs’. They are the dominant apps or ‘doms’ that are reshaping retail around how we want to consume.

So, it’s actually our little smartphone that is redesigning the high street. Uber solves a number of problems and brings an exciting efficiency to a tired and very often miserable market. But its genius is that it answers our emotional needs. We could always get a cab when we wanted one. Now we know they’ll be nice.

  Howard Saunders   Nov 17, 2014   Blog, Brand, Future, Retail   0 Comment   Read More


Technology will be our saviour, of that I have little doubt. Advancements in science will help us live healthier and longer, probably solve climate change and the communication revolution will eventually make us all a little more worldly, secular and easier to get along with. But this does not mean that all the technology those big, clever Californian companies promise us is set to change our lives for the better. In fact, there are many ‘innovations’ that are, frankly, just plain stupid, misguided, or both. Now that the Apples and Googles have wormed their way into so many aspects of our lives, perhaps we feel obliged to nod sagely at every announcement as if this is all part of some ultimate destiny. It’s not.

It must be fifteen years since I laughed out loud into my Sunday supplement at the concept of the smart fridge. The idea of a refrigerator unilaterally re-ordering the milk, cheese and frozen pizza was both feasible and ridiculous: a perfect example of technology we don’t want, designed by young men who spent too many years playing Warcraft. The LG smart fridge failed spectacularly because it misunderstood what we want from our machines: we don’t want the fridge ordering the milk because, quite simply, we like to be in control.

A couple of years ago, I took a handful of clients to the launch of the Mini (motor car) brand flagship in London. The store was proudly tech-savvy and had lots of screens playing rally videos as well as touch screens to search for Mini branded merchandise. The ‘piece de resistance’ however, was the interactive mirror at the back of the store. Select an item of clothing from the menu and it would be magically superimposed onto your reflection. Genius. I cannot, honestly, remember another time I laughed so much. My colleague was well over six feet tall and the sight of his hunched frame trying to accommodate a pathetic cutout puffa jacket was just too much. It was nothing but a high tech ‘head thru the hole’ end of pier amusement. We left the store in tears.

So, now we’re supposed to be getting excited about drone deliveries. Again, it’s all utterly feasible, but stop for a minute to picture the skies thick with Amazon’s electronic bees carrying toothpaste and you start to realise how unlikely it is. It may work well for a few rural deliveries or medical supplies, but the future will not include swarms of copters hovering outside apartment blocks, looking for a place to make their drop.

I recently gave a talk alongside a lovely, enthusiastic chap from Google. Eloquently he told his tale of a future where tiny eye movements would put us in touch with friends and enable us to share information right across the world. The fact that during his live demonstration nothing actually worked does not mean it won’t happen. I’m sure it will, but it’s a stark reminder that technology goes wrong…and it goes wrong an awful lot of the time.

Which brings me to the much-heralded Google driverless car. Firstly, I understand from Google that it cannot distinguish between a crumpled newspaper and a rock, so just consider the consequences of that for a moment. Humans, on the other hand, even stupid, underage, drunk ones, automatically know how to react to things like that, so for the time being it’s probably best to leave the driving to us.

Secondly, and most significantly, we don’t want it to happen. We may moan about sitting in traffic jams but in reality we enjoy being in control, frustrating though it is sometimes. We won’t willingly relinquish control to a highly sophisticated computer anymore than we’ll hand the car keys to the family cat.

I read a report recently from a futures agency that explained how technology would change our lives. It described locking the house via an app, the car automatically starting and planning our route, the coffee waiting for us at the coffee shop and then our intelligent diaries, knowing that we wouldn’t make our meeting on time, calling ahead to reschedule. Now, I hate to pour cold water on all this sunny optimism but every stage of this prediction is flawed.

How many of us would trust a symbol on our phones that says our house is locked without at the very least pushing on the door to check? Do we really want our cars to start running based on our everyday routine? If we’re honest, we don’t actually want our coffee sitting there waiting, getting cold…we want to watch it being made, that’s the whole point! And the thought of my diary ringing ahead and making its own arrangements just makes my blood boil.

For some time now Nerds have been telling us that wearable tech is the next big thing, but we’re still waiting. Nerdism’s problem is that it can only design for itself. Self respecting non-nerds wouldn’t be seen dead in most of the stuff that’s promised, and horrific though they are, the assaults on Google-glass wearers were hardly surprising.

The Holy Grail for big tech companies is fashionability, or coolness. Apple was well aware its watch could fall victim to nerdism, so in an attempt to target the ‘right’ types it was launched through cool stores such as Colette in Paris and Selfridges in London. Its acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats was also a part of this strategy. Google tried to coolify their glasses by commissioning the lovely Diane von Furstenberg to help with the design. Despite a slew of excellent PR however, they failed miserably. You see, big companies don’t decide what’s cool, we do.

Perhaps overt wearable tech is a bridge too far. The fact that we spend most of our waking hours staring at a little screen does not mean we want it tied to our foreheads or fashioned into a hat. Smart phones, like newspapers before them, are not just a way to receive information. They have become part of an urban dance, so that as we mingle with the masses we can appear detached at the same time. They provide a social function that’s more nuanced and intricate than nerdism’s Joe 90 vision of the future (Americans: Google it!) Smart phones enable us to look as if we’re engrossed in something intellectual instead of just reading celebrity tweets. Someone grinning inanely into space through big DVF frames, well that’s just plain scary.

So relax. Let’s look forward to a future where technology enhances our lives, opens up new and imaginative opportunities or solves real problems. But technology that interferes, invents problems we didn’t know we had or takes away things we were quite enjoying, that’s not for us thanks.

Read more of my blogs here: The Full Blog

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  Howard Saunders   Nov 03, 2014   Blog, Brand, Future, Retail   2 Comments   Read More