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.

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

HOW DARE YOU!

Our new Messiah has arrived, and she’s perfect. For one thing she’s female and we’re in desperate need of more of those in the Messiah department, that’s for sure. She’s also a self-confessed autistic, which means she has a unique insight into life on Planet Earth, which more than compensates for any lack of knowledge or experience. Her particularly penetrating Damian from The Omen stare coupled with a voice with the monotone gravity of a teenage Beowulf, means we take her words as gospel. This is critical. Imagine her words spoken by a teenage Brummie or Liverpudlian. Exactly.

This whole Messiah epithet is hardly an exaggeration or caricature. We are all either believers or heretics. There’s no LibDem option here and, therefore, no room for debate. Raise any doubt and it’s like picking a fight with Jesus, shouting abuse from the back of the crowd like in the sermon on the mount scene from Life of Brian. And her timing is perfect too; arriving at the start of a new decade, an era in which we are questioning our role on this planet and riddled with guilt about the damage consumerism is doing to it.

No matter how cynical you may be, Greta’s presence cannot be ignored. Her steely gaze monitors everything you do and, oh yes, she’s judging you alright. She can see your thoughts as you wander the supermarket aisles, she stands over you as you browse a bucket list holiday spot. Swiping along a clothes rail you catch her reflection in the shop window, arms folded in her yellow sou’wester, awaiting your decision. Close your eyes if you want to, her mantra remains in your head: how dare you, how dare you! It’s the perfect put down prefix to anything and everything. How dare you consider another jacket? How many do you already own? How dare you plan another weekend away? How dare you want steak tonight? How dare you consider going to a restaurant when you have some perfectly acceptable sprouting potatoes in your veg drawer? Have you not been listening? Are you not a true believer?

Here’s a prediction: the word for 2020 is köpskam. For those of you who don’t already know, it means shame of buying. The power of this word is sure to cast a long shadow over everything we do in the coming decade. No one is free from guilt. We all have enough stuff: enough t-shirts, enough shoes, trainers, jeans and jackets to last a lifetime. None of us has an excuse to ignore the new commandments.

Köpskam power comes not just from the fact that no one is guilt free, but also because, quite beautifully, our guilt can never be completely soothed. Greta doesn’t offer brownie points for not doing stuff. At no point will she ever say ‘Hey, this girl’s off the hook, she’s only got six tops’. You won’t receive a thank you letter for abstaining from that new pair of shoes. Her laser-gaze has seen inside your cupboards and wardrobes. Greta knows exactly how much stuff you’ve got. She can see the piles of shoes made from dead animals lying lifeless in the bottom of your wardrobe like, err, dead animals. In fact, when you next see her why don’t you ask her how many pairs you’re allowed to own? The ones you’re standing in probably, if she’s in a good mood.

The more reasonable among you will be thinking, ‘well, a little bit less of everything can’t be a bad thing’ and you have logic on your side. The problem is that once the good ship Abstinence has left port it can never reach its desired destination. There’s always a little further it could go. Fewer t-shirts, fewer jackets, fewer stores, fewer staff, fewer deliveries, fewer delivery drivers, less design, less marketing and so on. You get it. We want to purge ourselves, we asked to be cleansed right? Oh, it’s surely coming. No wonder H&M’s CEO warned this clamp down on consumption would have “terrible social consequences.”

In the world of work no one, except maybe those in the emergency or social services, is exempt. Whether we’re in marketing or accounts, make widgets, ready-meals or are just happy as a humble librarian we are all complicit, each encouraging one another to do more, buy more, consume more. It’s easy to believe that a culture of consuming less will only impact the rich with their gas guzzling Bentleys, infinity swimming pools and multiple foreign holidays. Sadly, it will seriously affect those at the bottom of the pile first as we witness the demise of super-cheap holidays, fast fashion, ready meals and discount chains of all sorts. Prepare for increased taxes on fuel, processed foods, fast food and probably fast fashion. But don’t worry, it’ll also come for those $3k handbags. Brandishers of such symbols of conspicuous consumption shall not escape retribution.

The irony is enough to make a grown man weep. After a decade of government imposed austerity we have willingly embarked on a decade of self-inflicted austerity promising far, far deeper cuts into our twenty first century lifestyle than anything our elitist overlords could have imagined. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Happy New Year!

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 14, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING

Kids ruin Christmas. It’s not their fault, of course, but as November drags to its drizzly demise the world inexplicably switches into kiddy mode. Every shop, every advert, every programme and every song addresses us as if we’ve just turned six: fully grown TV presenters grin toothily in tinsel covered pixie hats explaining things in over enunciated tones as if their audience is thumb-sucking and nodding in agreement. Even our much lauded Christmas ads have become unbearably cutesy as a parade of lovable fire-breathing dragons (John Lewis) animated carrots (Aldi) animated dogs (Costa) or simply Disney characters lifted directly from Frozen (Iceland) are splurged across our screens in a tidal wave of diabetes-inducing drivel. And as if to add insult to injury, our ‘leaders’, our pathetic politicians promise us an ever-lengthening list of things we’re as likely to witness as Santa’s fat arse in our fake fireplace.

So, partly to escape my homegrown Yuletide blues I hopped across to Salzburg for advent weekend in search of the true spirit of Christmas. (And even though I tweeted my intentions I had no idea that I would actually find it! More of that later.)

Salzburg old town is ridiculously cute too, but in a grown up, stein-clinking kinda way. The Christmas markets have not been plundered by filterless-fag smoking reprobates and street-hustlers, and are instead largely owned by local families. And they’re not all selling the same imported plastic shite either. Each stall has a respectful, symbiotic relationship with its neighbours. The bauble connoisseur is adjacent to the knick-knackery, the miniature figurine specialist is flanked by a lantern stall and a flavoured oil salesman. They segment by colour too, with one stand selling wares in shades of white to contrast with next door’s rich reds and golds. There’s also a fair slice of religious iconography, this being the historical centre of the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic Church turned up the volume on all that icon stuff. (The ‘Altstadt’ alone is home to 27 churches) I found this unusually refreshing, coming from an uber-secular city where religious iconography is avoided like, err, a religion.

Having browsed, nibbled and Gluhweined a good half dozen advent markets I decided to take a break from all the jollity and go for a Sunday walk, because well, it was Sunday. After half an hour’s staggering up the stupidly steep stone steps just across from the Mozartsteg Bridge, I seriously began to question my sanity. At each ‘landing’ where I paused to wheeze noisily, another stretch of stairs would appear as if I’d been trapped in some impossible Escher etching. Finally I reached, surprise surprise, yet another church, but I still felt Kapuzinerberg Hill remained uncharted, despite its managed pathways and clear signs. And so this huffing, puffing pioneer marched onward and upward. Very upward. 

Occasionally I came across another idiot coming downhill through the forest towards me, presumably from somewhere, so I pushed on. Heroically I parted bracken and bravely stepped over a few perilous boulders until finally, thank god, the slope softened into a level clearing. Snuggled into the crest of the hill sat a stone lodge with the spittle-rich name ‘Franziskischlossl’. I approached cautiously, pulling back a dark blue velvet curtain behind the weighty wooden door. I felt like one of the Wise Men arriving at the stable, for yes, I had just discovered the true spirit of Christmas! Below me, nestled in a courtyard way above the city, looking down along the majestic Salzach, was a small band of Christmas hunters just like me. A motley crew of walkers and respectful revellers were gathered around an open fire pit, drinking Sporer hot orange punch and Stiegl beer. I’m sure I‘d have heard the angels singing Halleluja, if ‘Last Christmas’ hadn’t been playing.

Here, my friends, is the real Christmas spirit. It’s not in the shimmering, shop windows, nor is it on the faces of those infantile TV presenters or even in the heartstring tugging supermarket ads . You won’t find it on Amazon, Twitter or Youtube, and you certainly won’t find it on Instagram. You can’t even Google it. No, the true spirit of Christmas is tucked away, often where you’d least expect it, in simple places where like-minded strangers gather around a fire to clink glasses and wish each other well.

Please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rantings and musings

  Howard Saunders   Dec 11, 2019   Brand, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

GIRAFFE HUNTING

As everyone knows, giraffes can be deadly. If one were to break loose on an aeroplane, for example, the carnage it would unleash would be unimaginable. Thankfully, over the last couple of decades, the authorities have put in place unprecedented levels of security to ensure that the chances of giraffe based incidents are kept to an absolute minimum. You would think that with their ridiculously extended and conspicuously dappled necks they would be impossible to conceal, but I’m afraid you would be mistaken.

Your holiday starts here folks! Firstly, when you book your flight you are specifically asked to declare (please be aware that ticking the box is a legally binding document), whether you intend to carry a giraffe, or any giraffe related objects within your baggage. Once at the airport you must then confirm this verbally at check in. You may only have packed a twelve year old pair of trunks and a bottle of Tesco’s suncream, so it’s hard to imagine that one of your fellow passengers may attempt to smuggle a giraffe into Benidorm.

Next stop is the serious security. Here you must wait in line (looking at your mobile phone is an offence here, remember) stepping forward only when instructed. To make it easy for you there are bright yellow footprint stickers on the floor, so it’s pretty straightforward. Step outside the designated standing zones and they will quickly correct you, don’t worry. When you eventually arrive at the conveyor belt you must remove your jacket, belt, shoes, large jewellery and ensure your pockets are completely empty. Wedding rings are, rather generously, allowed to remain worn. Laptops and tablets must be taken out of your bag and laid inside the big plastic tray that pops out at your knees. As most of us now know, laptops and iPads are classic giraffe hiding places. 

It’s worth noting that the security staff won’t offer to help you with this cumbersome bucket, as it’s not in their job description, so if you are frail or disabled you will have to ask politely for help. The staff may bark at you, but they are trained to preface their orders with Sir or Madam, so at least it’s respectful barking. 

There are often cheery animated videos to remind you of exactly which items are prohibited. It’s nice that they make it entertaining as you inch forward to be body-searched, don’t you think? Liquids, for example, must not be larger than 100 ml, as clearly a miniature giraffe can be concealed in a container of 101 ml. They’ve worked it all out. Smaller liquids, like eye drops, must be placed in a pocket-sized, transparent plastic bag (provided). But remember, this bag MUST be sealed. Presumably, if a tiny giraffe was hiding inside your Optrex then the sealed bag would prevent it from escaping and galloping along the conveyor belt to its certain death.

As your belongings trundle their way into the x-ray machine, (don’t worry, it’s a very low dose) your next check is the metal detector. This one is easy but nonetheless frustrating, as it often takes two or three attempts before they determine it’s your watch or hip replacement that sets the red light flashing. 

Naturally, they leave the most exciting piece of equipment ’til last: the full body scanner! When the highly trained security guard is ready, and not until mind, you are beckoned into the pod to be bombarded with high frequency radio waves. You must remember to empty your pockets before you step inside, as the thinnest cotton hanky will set it off. In here, you are ordered to stand as if being held at gunpoint after a failed bank raid: head upright, facing forward and hands well above your head with the palms open. The Star Trek like plastic door swivels around you but you must wait for the no-giraffe signal before you’re permitted to step outside for an intimate full-body pat-down. Finally, you are ordered to place each foot on a chair for a highly sophisticated smear test. The cotton wool swab is scanned into a computer that detects microscopic giraffe particles that may have been inadvertently picked up from a visit to a zoo, for example. Once you’ve been given the all clear, you’re allowed to collect your belongings, and get dressed properly in front of all the other jolly, shoeless holiday makers.

Keeping you safe like this is is a gigantic investment. Consider that there are over one hundred thousand flights carrying a total of up to eight million passengers every day. That’s forty million flights every year, carrying five billion giraffe-free passengers! This costs upwards of $50 billion globally every year. Or for those of you who prefer to build hospitals, that’s 150 fully functioning, full sized hospitals every year. We pay for it all, of course. Roughly four quid on every ticket.

Tragically, there have been many giraffe-based fatalities on trains and buses, namely London, Madrid and a dozen or more in India. As it’s unlikely train or bus fares will ever accommodate a four quid surcharge, I’m sorry to say that urban commuters remain exposed to the risk of a giraffe attack at any moment.

Incredibly, despite the billions of bawling babies hauled from pushchairs, trillions of befuddled old ladies hoisted from wheelchairs, and quintillions of pasty faced holiday hopefuls forced to remove their shoes and belts like dazed POWs, despite all this, the authorities have yet to find a single giraffe. That’s dedication for you.

Keep up the good work guys!

Please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rantings and musings

  Howard Saunders   Nov 01, 2019   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More