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.

TRUMAN SHOW

Oh shot, shot shot! Flicking hell. Ever noticed how desperately hard Apple’s predictive text works to stop you swearing? Of course you have. No matter how many times you adjust the o to an i, it will never learn that you simply want to write shit. We all know what’s happening but we just tut silently as we change the o for the fourth time.

Yes, this is the world’s richest, most influential company telling you you shouldn’t say shit. Apple knows best and simply wants to adjust your oikish language in keeping with its own, much holier, principles. And it’s not just swearing. Try writing the word urinate, for example. Apple would much prefer you replace it with ruination, for some reason, while goddamn offers us goddaughter or goddess. Apple has become a Victorian prude. If this isn’t Apple playing God, then God knows what is!

Now try Googling images of ‘knife crime’. Despite London’s knife crime epidemic, overwhelmingly an urban, male, black on black problem, you will need to scan past forty plus images before you find a black hand brandishing a knife. There are dozens of white hands, gloved hands, conveniently silhouetted hands, everything apart from the stereotype…a stereotype that just happens to be this crime’s most accurate representation. We know why this is, too. It’s Google re-educating us, attempting to eliminate a stereotype, sacrificing truth for the greater good, of course. And it’s not a universal distortion as Google will adjust its algorithms to offer you different images in different countries. Googling knife crime in Japan, for example, presents us with a fully indigenous line up. Google is curating reality, nation by nation. 

This has echoes of the scene in the Truman Show where our hero catches a glimpse of the reality behind the scenes. Swiftly, just like Apple and Google, the bit part actors rally around to reassure and distract him in order to pull the narrative back on track. Phew. 

At one level social media has undoubtedly opened up our worlds, allowing us to exchange images and ideas instantly with friends and family right across the planet. Just seventy odd years ago a lonely soldier would clutch a crumpled black and white photograph of his lover close to his heart, flattening and kissing it before sleep. Today we thumb-swipe past a hundred videos of people we barely know dancing embarrassingly in their gardens. Portals directly into other’s lives have never been so open, and yet, paradoxically, our individual worlds are closing in. 

As a bit of a motorcycle enthusiast I find myself inundated daily with adverts for anything and everything remotely associated with bikes and biking: accessories, jewellery adorned with skulls (bikers love skeletons apparently) and even merchandise that has yet to be made, (see ridiculous bot designed T shirt below) in fact, anything the algorithms believe will whet my appetite. I find it not just tiresome but cringesome. Algorithms have boxed me in. My universe has shrunk to the size of a suffocating and vacuous echo-chamber. The digital platforms that do their utmost to avoid reinforcing stereotypes have turned me, and you, into exactly that: a stereotype. 

It gets worse. 

Those cheeky little algorithms are ganging up against us. Each platform, each brand, is rating you as a consumer: how consistent you are, how often you return things, how much you complain, how much you’re prepared to pay for specific products, how punctual you are, how loyal, how long you dwell on images of certain products and how often you ‘like’ them. Tinder, for example, knows precisely where you sit on the scale of eligibility and exactly the sort of partners you’re looking for, of course. But it also knows what time of the month you’re most likely to be looking. Yes folks, Tinder knows when you’re horny. 

As each of these platforms and brands exchange data to enhance their profile on us, we are each being ranked in exactly the same way as the Chinese social credit system: our behaviour is being judged, and nudged.

Like Truman we all enjoy the level of comfort that comes from living in a protected bubble, the routine of grabbing a newspaper from the cheery news vendor every morning. It’s reassuring to be surrounded by like minded people with a similar world view. But it’s when we discover the vendor is fake, a bit part actor in our specific narrative, that we get angry. Ignorance, of course, can be bliss. As Truman’s wife Meryl explains to camera, ‘his is a noble life, a truly blessed life’. Controlled, protected and utterly fake, but blessed.

So like Truman we face a stark choice: we can stay in the safety of our own controlled and constructed mini universe, happy in the comfort of our curated reality, or break free into the dangerous, dirty, complex and contradictory real world. 

It’s up to you.

Thanks for reading. Now follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for more devastating insights into where we’re heading…

  Howard Saunders   Aug 17, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

DEVO

For the best part of three decades the high street has been in a quandary. It didn’t know quite what it was, what it was for, nor what it wanted. Local stores dressed up like branded chains, while branded chain-stores disguised themselves as locals. Little mom and pop newsagents brandished oversized fascias emblazoned with multi national brands so huge they could be read at ease from low flying aircraft, while national chains lovingly placed the town’s name on their fascias, just in case you forgot where you live. Big brands tried to look small and local, while genuinely local stores employed slick designers to dress them up like prototypes poised for global domination.

Some multi-national brands tried to import the flavour of their flagships into the regions by shoehorning the best bits into tiny provincial shoeboxes that were once perfectly respectable local stores with proper shelves and a bell on the door. Our high streets were having an almighty identity crisis…when boom! Covid19 swept in and changed everything.

Literally overnight, everyone could be heard singing the praises of their local heroes: the little stores that kept the lifeblood of the town pumping through its narrow streets. A silent revolution so welcome in some quarters that they declare they saw it coming, that is was inevitable, that something had to change.

The crisis has resurrected the idea of proper service too. Our local heroes stood behind their big, wooden counters and fetched us the things we needed like we were in a Two Ronnies sketch. What’s more, we were happy to wait politely as a sign of our newfound respect for their role in the community. It was as if thousands of high streets, up and down the country, slipped back in time a century or so. Boxes of the things in greatest demand were piled high near the entrance for tap and goers in a hurry and there was no need for a planogram from head office. Staff thanked customers more loudly and with earnest eye contact. Some even grew long beards and wore aprons as if to get into character for their part in this crazy sci-fi movie we call 2020.

Would you believe it? We’re actually enjoying the rebirth of community spirit and relish the new civility the crisis ushered in. Smiles are often broader and more genuine behind the masks than they were without them. Reconnecting with our hometowns has created its own momentum. We hunt down local produce and get excited placing special orders for things at the baker and butcher as if it’s Christmas! We even brag about our love of seasonal produce and joke about our abstinence from imported, blister-packed avocados.

So, do you remember what it was like pre lockdown? Rich, clever brands were developing ways to encourage us to buy things we didn’t need by feeding us little tasters on social media and measuring how many microseconds we’d dwell on their shiny bait. This information was then fed into a giant computer so that they could helicopter in the most ‘liked’ products to the places that most ‘liked’ them. Supermarket chains were developing software to transport us virtually to the birthplace of every product on their shelves. Interspersed with ads, of course. In the tidal wave of consumerism up to the end of last year, this sounded rather exciting. Post Covid it feels irritating and insignificant.

We now know that the tipping point came in March 2020. The shockwaves from switching off the global economy have yet to be fully felt but it’s pretty clear we’ve now embarked on DEVO: A process of de-evolution of our high streets, of brands, the way we trade, and the way we think about retail. The intense heat of business has been burned off: the ridiculous rents, rising rates and the relentless rush for sales to pay them have slammed us hard into a brick wall. The over managed, over designed, over excited retail model that ultimately grew to bore us to death has run its course. How many three storey, back illuminated shoe walls can you see before you crave the simplicity of a pair in a simple cardboard box? How many interactive video screen towers do we install before they become invisible and meaningless? Even the glitziest flagships will switch to Devo mode. I dare say a few video walls are already being dismantled to make way for more reassuring communication like quality of manufacture, or simply creating the breathing space for proper one-to-one service. Simplification is back big time. Even the bizarre and baroque supply chains that over-evolved to bring us the stuff we didn’t need anyway, have strangled themselves lifeless.

Spectacle in retail will not die, of course. Gyrating Gen Alpha Tik-Tokkers will get the spaces they deserve, but big brand boardrooms will no longer echo to the demands for that ever elusive wow factor. Wows were so pre-Covid. We were heading here anyway, the coronavirus just hurried us along. Retail will mature very quickly in the coming months because our values have changed so dramatically. Smart retailers are sure to join us.

The advent of 5G was supposed to be the gateway to an instantly personalised future, so that even the mightiest of megastores would know our name, our cat’s name, and all our personal preferences. But in the post Covid climate who actually wants this sort of fake buddy-ism from the corporate world?

If we work together on this, DEVO can take us back to a gentler, more considered future with a stronger sense of moral purpose. So let’s not get too depressed as we watch our legacy brands in free-fall. They are clearing the way for fresh, young, agile entrepreneurs that will remind us just how beautifully simple retail should be.

Please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for rants and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Jul 15, 2020   Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

IT’S 2021. MEET HOMO-TREPIDATIOUS

The bounce back was not very bouncy. There were exceptions, of course. Like the queues at McDonald’s in July last year. A nation of fast food addicts certainly needed its fix. They stood in line for a good forty minutes, grinning and giggling like over excited seven year olds. Happy meals indeed.

There’s definitely a new civility in the air. We’re less frustrated about delays, less hurried and certainly more polite when we finally get our hands on our goods. Many welcome this new civility as long overdue, but the truth is it is born entirely from fear. Like badly berated schoolchildren we obey instruction without question, keep our toes tucked tidily behind the yellow line, and jump the instant the man in the fluorescent jacket raises his arm.

And look what’s happened to pubs. Pub culture was the very foundation of British society. It’s where workers and bosses, landowners and farmer’s hands laughed together across the froth of their beer, untethered by status or social hierarchy. Sadly, the bustling, beery, raucous chorus that was our local boozer has been well and truly throttled by hazard tapes, warning signs and perspex screens. Not dead exactly, just lifeless. Orderly lines of locals supping ale at a safe distance is not a pub, and never will be.

Orderly, civilised and respectful it may look, but that’s because we’ve been scared witless (or shitless, if you prefer). We’ve had the fear of God drummed into us and we’ve chanted the weekly mantras, bashed our saucepans and everything. We may pass each other and exchange polite greetings but we’re both thinking ‘He’s probably got it. Christ, she looks poorly’. Oh yes, the script for the Twenties has been written: Homo Trepidatious is born.

Now come with me to London Town. (We’re travelling by drone, of course, so hold on tight.)  We are hovering directly over Oxford Circus, above what was once the mighty TopShop. It’s June 2021 and there are very few people milling around. The red buses scurry past pretending nothing has changed, but they ferry a scanty cargo. The Portland stone bears its scars of the amputated logotype like a bitter trophy of better days. Much better days. Nike Town is open and good old Uncle John Lewis is still there to welcome us, albeit in mask and visor, but most of his neighbours have moved out. Tezenis and Microsoft were the first to break the circle. Those shops that steadfastly remain unshuttered do so, it seems, in the hope that those better days will return. They may have a long wait. 

As we swish our way down Regent Street it’s much the same story. Most of the passers-by are local office workers (You can tell by their pace). There are a handful of visitors and even a few sightseers, but there’s not much for them to see today. It’s very clear just how many tourists used to visit London. Brooks Brothers, Desigual, Reiss, All Saints, Ted Baker and Levi’s all gave up on their flagships last year. Hamley’s is frozen into a kind of hibernation waiting for good news. Apple, Burberry and Mappin & Webb are hanging in there, thankfully.

Curving into Piccadilly Circus, the brazen billboards dance poignantly to their dwindling crowd, for they know no better. Whirring left into Shaftesbury Avenue, past rows of homeless tents the damage is obvious. None of the theatres survived, though one or two have been cuckooed for private events. Even the famously irritating Trafalgar Square pigeons are somewhat sparse, presumably having abandoned The Smoke for fatter pickings.

But hardest hit of all is Soho. This is where I lived and worked in my twenties and thirties. It’s where I grew up, where I learnt how exhilarating the world of design and retail can be. Such heady, happy, hard working days. That’s where my old agency was in Soho Square. It now lies hollow and soulless. The entire city is riddled with vacant office space. Like a watery-eyed Ebeneezer, I can picture the hip young guys and girls pouring down the steps at lunchtime to sit in the sun for half an hour. And there’s one of my favourite bars, now shuttered in clothes of iron and chipboard. The deli’s barely recognisable with its white-washed windows, but that’s where I could be found at least three times a week, back in the day. So many of the restaurants I loved have closed, and all but a handful of sandwich bars remain to feed the lunchtime workers. A little over a year ago this place was buzzing with what felt like a billion bars boasting of a nightlife that would see you right through to your Pret breakfast. Surprisingly, some of the more robust brands have vanished too: Wahaca, Barrafina and Princi to name a few. Even Pizza Express pretty much disappeared overnight. It’s sad to think that here on Wardour Street is where it started its journey fifty six years ago. Only a couple of private drinking clubs act as vanguard to keep the Soho spirit alive. Just. It feels like we’ve returned to the 1940s.

I’m sure I’ve cheered you all up with this news from the future, but it’s time to head home now. I don’t like to stay out too long these days. London isn’t what it used to be for sure, but as Joni once sang “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Finally, I must say a very, very big thank you to the highly talented Jan Enkelmann for his stunning Lockdown London images. Thank you Jan.

Now please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants, predictions and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Jun 01, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

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