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.

ROBOT WARS 2020

Like the closing sequence in a 1950s cheesy sci-fi movie, the robots have been defeated. As the music fades the mechanical invaders retreat over the hill into the sunset, carefully leaving open the opportunity of a ‘return’ sequel in a couple of years.

It seems like ancient history now, though actually only a few months ago, that the mighty McKinsey warned of an impending battle that would see the robots destroy up to 800 million jobs worldwide. In fact, it wasn’t so much a warning as they made it pretty damn clear we’d already lost and any retaliation was futile. Funny how fear of the robots has evaporated now that Covid 19 has arrived bringing with it vastly more devastating unemployment numbers right across the planet. 

Oh how the press love to crank up the fear machine with their daily doses of bite sized doom to spice up our cornflakes. There’s nothing new about this. Take a look at these Der Spiegel front covers over the years. It’s almost as if, god forbid, when the economy looks reasonably stable the robots rise up to threaten our fleeting state of complacency.

Looking back barely a couple of months, it seems we’d become rather hysterical. The Youtube videos of rogue robot dogs or metallic humanoids battling to the death their own crazed creators, it all fed directly into the Frankenstein narrative that clearly sits deep within our DNA. (Even if most of the videos were CGI fakes) Yes, humans have long understood they’ll be the architects of their own demise.

Or consider the robot bricklayer. A genuine multi-million dollar prototype of a cross between a forklift truck and a skittle machine from a fifties bowling alley. Watch it build a wall (badly) as it trundles along (perfectly even rails) whilst carefully being monitored (refilled and cleaned up after) by its non-robot workmate. Genius.

For over a decade, happy supermarket shoppers were warned to watch out for the robot shelf stackers. These ingenious mechanical tikes would manage stock control together with impeccable merchandising skills, all without a whinge or the faintest hint of a tea break. As we look forward to the prospect of unemployment levels of possibly 20% and above, how will we judge a retailer willing to invest millions in machines designed to steal jobs from the poor?

Perhaps (he says hopefully) our techno-hysteria will dissipate now we have a genuine unemployment crisis to worry about. It seems this microbial wake up call has endowed us with a refreshing clarity. Instead of being swept along by life’s relentless momentum, the lockdown has given us a planet-wide pause for thought: time to reevaluate our lives and what we want from them. Maybe we realise the future is ours to steer, instead of something that simply happens to us in the rush of routine.

So, good news, on the hill ahead the robots are retreating. Slightly clumsily, on wheels and tank track thingies, but they are definitely retreating. But, this is no time for celebration. Life post Covid 19 shows all the signs of a much more sinister invasion.

The advent of ‘contact tracing’ technology from Apple, Google and even our own NHSX ushers in an era of super-surveillance. Governments across the planet are developing systems that analyse data from smartphone apps to identify and locate patterns of infection in order to manage where and when we can move about. Helpful, of course, but this technology is a gateway drug to much deeper, Orwellian levels of social control, and we must tread carefully with our eyes wide open.

The Indian government’s compulsory Aarogya Setu app, for example, has emulated the shamelessly authoritarian Chinese model within just a few weeks. The AS app comes pre-installed on new smartphones and means, in effect, you need official approval to access your workplace, public transport and even the local park.

Contact tracing tech maybe a wolf in sheep’s clothing but dictatorial levels of authoritarianism couldn’t happen here, surely? I’m not convinced. Within minutes of the announcement of our lockdown regulations in the UK, the curtain twitchers and tut-tutters were on the phone to the police snitching on double dog walkers and unauthorised family picnickers. Both Youtube and Facebook have banned ‘scientifically unsubstantiated’ posts on Covid 19, which basically means anything not officially approved by the WHO. Oh yes, our soil is fertile for ever more state control.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day is a beautifully timed reminder that freedom should never be taken for granted. “Download our app to stay safe, access advice and services, use public transport safely and clock in at work so we can help keep you virus free! “ 

Failure to do so, however, will see you alienated, excluded, economically impotent and a social pariah. You choose.

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me @retailfuturist for rants and observations

  Howard Saunders   May 12, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

CORONAVIRUS AND THE RETAIL APOCALYPSE


“WHATEVER WE’RE GOING THROUGH RIGHT NOW, IT IS A CATALYST FOR GOOD AND BAD”

On Wednesday 11th March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his first Budget in the House of Commons. In this special edition of ‘What’s In Store’, Andrew and Zana Busby give you up-to-the-minute reaction on the UK government’s tax and spending plans for the year ahead. Bringing in the retail futurist Howard Saunders as a special guest, the three discuss what the budget means for retail and the future of the high street. The coronavirus outbreak features heavily in the conversation, as its impact on the economy is clearly reflected in the Budget and is already beginning to put customers off visiting physical shops. Is this a major turning point? Could it be the start of the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’?

  Howard Saunders   Mar 13, 2020   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

BIG KID: THE RISE OF KIDULTIFICATION

All television has finally become children’s television. It wasn’t always like this. Not so long ago there would be proper debates in which fully grown adults opined on matters with original thought and genuine contemplation. Today, our juvenile brains can only process a well rehearsed soundbite if it’s accompanied by a manic drumbeat. We’ve even grown to love our Cheshire-cheeked presenters of mundanity, pumped with Blue Peter enthusiasm and avuncular vowels. Somewhere up there, in the great conspiracy in the sky, they want us all to be obedient children that grin inanely as a parrot performs card tricks or something.

Infantilism has now infected retail and leisure with a torrent of kidult concepts and products coming to market every week. In the gluttony department, and egged on by Instagram, we have dinner plate sized, candy floss collared ice creams at Milk Train, overladen cones at Udderlicious, Sticky Toffee Warmies at the Chin Chin Dessert Club, Bilog purple ice cream deep fried buns at Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream, hip versions of Mr Whippy from Soft Serve Society, and the £99 Billionaire Soft Serve at Snowflake. If these outrageous gelatos are not kiddified enough for you, how about the cookie dough brands like My Cookie Dough (Stratford), Humbledough (Shoreditch) and Naked Dough (Camden Lock)? (This might be a good time to confess my addiction to Little Moons mochi balls. I can’t even type that without salivating). Ultimately, no adult activity is safe from infantilisation. I mean, what young bride doesn’t dream of a Disney themed hen party-cum-singalong at Funktion Events and a unicorn wedding cake from the Maid of Ginger Bread? 

Invention has no limits when it comes to impregnating us with glucose. From Bubbleology’s Electric Yuzu bubble tea through to Kinder Egg ice rolls made fresh for you at Pan-n-Ice, it’s never been easier to pretend we’re five years old and Mummy is buying us a treat. For advanced narcissism you must go to Candy Mechanics who will make a 3D printed chocolate lollipop of your very own head! What sort of self obsessed idiot would ever want one of these?

Away from the global obesity craze there’s a slew of adult ball pits at the moment from brands such as Ballie Ballerson (Shoreditch & Soho) and at The Museum of Ice Cream (SoHo, NYC) one of the many Instagrammable places emerging along with Happy Place (Vegas & Philadelphia) and the Selfie Factory (O2, London). Even trusty old John Lewis held a selfie workshop at its Southampton store. Not that this has any great social significance you understand, ahem, but boy would Freud freak.

With legacy brands disappearing at a silly rate of knots, shopping centres are racking their brains for engaging replacements to plug the often huge, yawning spaces traditional stores have abandoned. Intu was quick to add adult play areas into the mix with their funky, two storey climbing brand Rock Up seen here at Lakeside. And who could ever forget Bompas & Parr’s Grope Mountain at New York’s Museum of Sex?

Puttshack is doing a roaring trade at Westfield London at the moment with the kind of crazy golf we dreamt of as kids, but sadly never discovered. Topgolf, Junkyard Golf and the cheeky sounding Swingers, mix crazy golf with cocktails to appeal to our inner juvenile. Other brands jumping on the big, squishy, kidult bandwagon are Go Ape (ziplines), Flip Out and Jump Giants (adult soft-play and trampoline parks).

One of the most imaginative up and coming activities is the urban adventure trail. Brands like Hidden City, Secret City Trails and Foxtrail construct tours via cryptic clues sent to your phone, while you dash breathlessly through London’s drizzle. With the advent of Augmented Reality, we can expect to see groups of terrified tourists wandering around Whitechapel in search of ghostly apparitions and virtual gore. The gamification of tourism is here to stay.

Some of the most creative ideas can be found at immersive events designed by the clever people at Escape Room, Gingerline, Colab Theatre and Secret Cinema. These venues are where you dress up to be dragged into a choreographed fantasy world for a few hours, presumably to expunge the memory of your daily commute. If that fails you can always head to The Cauldron where you make your own magic (alcoholic) potions, dressed as a wizard of course.

Fantasy can be fun, but it can also be absolutely terrifying. If you’re into being scared witless try ‘Trapped in a Room with a Zombie’ at Apocalypse Events in Charlton. Solve the clues within five minutes or the zombie’s chain will be released another five foot! Grandma loves this one.

Sleepovers are massive too. The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, holds all-night pyjama and movie binging parties, while London and Whipsnade Zoos now have permanent sleepover lodges. But best of all has to be the Natural History Museum where the events calendar includes Dino Snores for Grown Ups, silent discos, behind the scenes tours, all-night monster movie marathons and Crime Scene Live where you join their forensic experts to solve a museum based murder mystery. Perhaps some of our retailers could learn a thing or two from our long since dusty museums?

As I’ve said many times, trends aren’t sent down to us from on high, but instead grow inside us as our hopes and expectations shift and change. My inner Freud tells me Kidultification answers a desire to escape adult responsibility. The future has become so scary we clearly yearn to retreat into the sanctuary of our pre-school years…but with added cocktails. My inner mummy just thinks we’ve all become spoilt brats!

Go on, join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Mar 07, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

WORLD SHUT YOUR MOUTH

Try to count them on your way to work tomorrow. First it’s the lift telling you off: ‘Caution, doors opening’ ‘Doors closing’ then at the tube station it’s ‘Walk, do not run down the escalators’ ‘Stand on the right’ ‘Hold the Handrail’ ‘No Smoking’ (as if we didn’t know) ‘Mind the Gap’ ‘Stand behind the yellow line’ ‘Make sure you have your ticket ready’ and once on the tube, my personal favourite, ‘Please keep your belongings and clothing clear of the doors’ as if anyone, ever, intentionally offered up their bag or coat to the filthy tube door’s impatient rubber gums. And if you were in any doubt, they back up their helpful travel tip with another yellow sticker that shouts: ‘Items trapped in the doors cause delays’. Well I never.

Having your face welded inside a software developer’s sweaty armpit every morning clearly isn’t insulting enough. Avoiding eye contact with your fellow sardines is particularly tricky when the only distraction is the plethora of sticky admonishments warning you not to play dare with the doors. Which, of course, makes you think of little else.

Flying is no different. Despite the fact that smoking on board has been a hanging offence for a quarter of a century they still love to threaten us with it, as if we’re all furtive pipe smokers, desperate to light up at any opportune moment. It’s a safety issue you see, and above all else your safety is their number one priority. The fact that they once actively encouraged smoking back in the eighties, parading up and down the aisle with a tray of duty free Rothmans, is neither here nor there.

Look, I get why the occasional ‘No Smoking’ sign can be useful, but when every Chief Cabin Officer’s announcement must warn us that smoking is verboten I’m starting to think I’m missing out on something here. Maybe this smoking malarkey has got something going for it?

On the ground it’s bad enough. Families heading for a week in Spain, over excited and perhaps a little anxious, are constantly warned by the voice of god that ‘unattended bags will be removed and may be destroyed’. Little kids cannot help but have nightmarish visions of their Disney themed luggage being detonated in nearby concrete bunkers. What a lovely welcome to the big wide world that is.

It’s the relentless state-sponsored finger wagging that’s ultimately so demoralising. They assume we’d all be walking around aimlessly bumping into things, spitting, obstructing entrances, running across railway tracks and opening aeroplane doors at thirty thousand feet with an enormous cigar clenched between our teeth…unless their sensible voice of authority stepped in to save us.

The Health Service (in the broadest sense of the term) is one of the worst offenders. Even my local pharmacy has signs warning ‘all children must be supervised’ and the water cooler must only be ‘operated’ (sic) by those over eighteen. I can only assume, god forbid, that some naughty three year old had some serious fun in there once. And I’m very sure it upset the cheery staff (teehee).

But no, this is not just another anti-authoritarian rant because, believe it or not, there’s an industry out there that does people management very well actually, and it’s one we can all learn from. And guess what, it’s good old retail! Yes, the shining example of how to gently manage and control the marauding masses of dribbling morons is our poor, hard hit high street. There may well be a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the door of Costa or McDonalds but there certainly isn’t one stuck on every goddamn table, and yet somehow we cope without lighting up or jamming our coats in the door. Never have I heard the public address system at Sainsbury’s or Waterstones threatening to blow up my backpack. Nor do they have barbed wire or security glass around the checkouts, funnily enough, despite handling tens of thousands in cash. You won’t find armed guards at the exit either. So, why is that, I hear you ask?

Well, quite simply, because they don’t want to piss you off. You are their customer and they want you to keep coming back and they’ve been on a course (probably) that told them that pissing customers off is not good for business. So the next time you read a sign telling you off remember that it comes from a place that doesn’t trust you, doesn’t respect you, and frankly would prefer that you never return.

Retail, on the other hand, intrinsically understands that if you treat people like adults most of them will act as such. The evidence is clear. If this wasn’t the case, our stores and shopping centres would be lawless, violent, smoky, litter-strewn, drug-addled hell holes. Thankfully, our shops aren’t like that. Outside however, now that’s a different story.

For daily retail musings and rantings join me on Twitter @retailfuturist 

  Howard Saunders   Jan 30, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More