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.


Revolution, retail-apocalypse, whatever you call it there’s little doubt our high streets are struggling. Savethehighstreet.org is an organisation, a movement, dedicated to making our local high streets better and stronger. You can join them by clicking here 

In the meantime, here’s the transcript of my interview:

Can you tell us about the work you do as a retail expert?

I designed stores for over twenty-five years. I learnt my trade at one of London’s biggest and best agencies: Fitch. Rodney Fitch was a pioneer of retail design and believed that design was a force to make people’s lives better. I still carry that with me. Today, I travel, write and talk about the future of retail. It’s so important we don’t lose sight of the fact that shops are the foundation of a thriving community. That’s what’s important to me.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the high street today?

A three letter word: tax. It would be amiss of me not to talk about this issue. Business rates have become unsustainable and must be addressed, not just for businesses, but for the sake of our town and city centres. I’m not one of the current voices that believes punishing Amazon will save the high street. It won’t.

What is the biggest issue facing independent business owners today that you feel is not being spoken about, or addressed properly?

A decade ago everyone was bemoaning the ‘cookie cutter’ high street: the same brands, with the same store designs, so that every town looked pretty much identical. Today, many of these brands are dying and there’s a golden opportunity for local independents to show us how clever and creative they are. It’s a process that began in Brooklyn, New York and it’s spreading across the globe. People want their towns to be individual and unique, they want to buy local produce wherever possible, and would love to see local designers and entrepreneurs coming to market. So it’s for all of us to help and encourage the process I call Brooklynization. Governments, local authorities and landlords must cut us some slack. In turn, local retailers need to smarten up and show more enthusiasm. At risk of offending your entire readership, there are an awful lot of scruffy, dirty, lacklustre independent stores out there. Amongst the gems, of course.

What are the most pressing concerns you hear from local retailers?

Well, I guess I hear the same stories as everyone else: Amazon, Brexit, business rates, unresponsive councils, the weather, there are some that probably blame Donald Trump! I believe, if we can get the financial model working properly, the future will be very exciting. Consider how quickly the craft beer industry took off. Within five short years, it’s turned the world of beer upside down and created thousands of new breweries, bars, new jobs, and some much better beer to boot! And exactly as in Brooklyn, there’s no reason we can’t have the same growth in independent bakeries, butchers, florists, delis, barber shops, bicycle specialists and local fashion designers. Now that would bring us all back to town!

How do you think we can attract more footfall to local high streets?

I think I just partly answered that. Predominantly, we have to get away from this notion of the town centre selling us ‘stuff’. We can get ‘stuff’ on the internet. (There’s tons of it on there). High Streets, on the other hand, are our communities. We go into town to meet with friends and family, pick up some essentials, browse a bit, then stop and have a coffee to watch the world go by. Humans have been doing this since Romans gathered in the forum to see what’s new. Amazon won’t change that. We need to get over this current financial hurdle and encourage our towns to be communities again, with buskers and tastings and fairs, and all the weird and wonderful things us humans get up to when we’re not at work.

What is the best bit of advice you could give to someone who is looking to start their first independent retail business?

Be niche and be nice. We are witnessing the death of mediocre, mass market generalists. Stores that stood for nothing in particular, were specialists in nothing in particular and sold much the same stuff as everybody else. I’d say pick a niche area and excel in it. Make the best muffins, skin cream or leather goods the world has ever seen or tasted, but don’t do all three! You will find your locals should be keen to embrace your homegrown star status. And that’s when the rest of the world will want to know about you, online of course. And yes, with the rise of robots and Artificial Intelligence, hospitality will be more important in the future than it is now. So be nice!

When has a local business surprised you in a positive way and how did they do it?

This is a great question, as it gives me the opportunity to mention two personal favourites, from very different ends of the spectrum, as well as the country. First is Webb Bros, a hardware store in my hometown of Woodbridge, Suffolk. It’s a store very clearly from the Arkwright school of design (Open All Hours, Ronnie Barker) This place is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of bits and pieces that we will all need, at some point. But most importantly, at the centre, beneath the hanging brushes and spools of multi-coloured rope, stands Maggie, the oracle of all things that need to be done. Seriously, there is not a task nor job on planet earth that Maggie doesn’t know how to do and what tool you’ll need to do it. Now, what town is there out there that doesn’t need a store like Webb Bros?

Secondly, there are two very good people in the town of Totnes who own and run two fashion stores by the name of Fifty5a. Malin and Aron Hosie visited us in New York and absolutely hoovered up the independent vibe that is Brooklyn, and brought it back to Totnes. They are both creative and endlessly enthusiastic, and as a result, their stores feel alive, charming, personable, elegantly curated and cosy. They really ‘get’ how an independent store can outdo the chains. That’s the key to success.

Where can we find out more about you?

You can read my blogs and rants on all things retail here: www.22and5.com/blog/

Email me here: howard@22and5.com

And follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist

  Howard Saunders   Sep 11, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


It must be true. A recent government report has predicted that more than six million workers fear being replaced by machines within the next ten years!

Hang on. Let’s read that again: ‘fear being’…well that’s hardly surprising since we’ve subjected them to daily doom-laden scenarios to contemplate over their cornflakes. And when asked if they thought government was doing enough to prepare for all these lost jobs, guess what they said?

So will this ‘report’ (and the nicely paid commission that follows) be led by a young, forward thinking entrepreneur looking to help maximize the potential of AI and robotics in the workplace? No, I’m afraid it’s Yvette Cooper, the genetically disgruntled former work and pensions secretary. That explains a lot.

Predictably, this report focuses on the 20% that feel technology will make their jobs worse and the 23% that believe their roles won’t be needed at all. But in fact, the figures also show that 73% say they feel pretty confident about new technology and will adapt to changes…just like they always have, presumably.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent ‘Enlightenment Now’ fear-mongering is par for the course in the prediction business. There’s real power in warning the people to ‘follow me, if you wish to be saved’. Conversely, there is no power in telling everyone things are about to get much more exciting.

Yes, the workplace is changing and technology will surely replace many thousands of current jobs. But if past evidence is anything to go by, which it is, then technology opens up many thousands more opportunities at the very same time. Pop into a Soho bar for a beer and a spot of earwigging. West End pub talk today is of app development, payment software widgets and online marketing campaigns, and they use jargon that to anyone over the age of 32 sounds like Klingon. Here, in the centre of Britain’s engine room, it’s barely possible to find anyone whose job wasn’t invented within the last ten years.

Alternatively, and nothing to do with technology, fifty years ago who could have predicted the meteoric rise of the restaurant and hospitality industry, the millions of jobs that have been created in bars, restaurants and hotels that simply never existed before? The world of work is changing fast, but we seem to forget where we came from even faster.

In the future, retailers will bring much more automation into play. The mundane work of ordering, distribution, stock control, logistics and sales analysis will surely be done by robots in the form of AI, rather than the Meccano-esque variety. Slightly scarier looking robots will be busy organizing the warehouse and selecting stock for mass market consumption. And yes, this will mean fewer bored and sweaty warehouse and security staff. But on the front line, where real people enter real branded spaces, there will be a marked shift towards genuine hospitality.

When the dot matrix tickertape thingy welcomes you aboard your train, how many hearts has it lifted, how many smiles have been raised by its digital grace? Answer: none. Put a human conductor at the door with a similar greeting and he might just put a spring in your step, and everyone else he meets, for the entire day. Why? Well, simply put, humans are unique in that they share the secret of their own mortality on this planet. Connections matter to us. Dot matrix boards will never empathize with our condition.

So now imagine receiving a message from a favourite brand inviting you to a product launch and a glass of wine. Precisely on schedule, the autonomous mobile pod-shop arrives at your door blinking with digital messages just for you. Your fingerprint unlocks the door into this tiny branded universe. A HAL-like voice welcomes you and a hatch swishes open to reveal the shoe that’s been designed especially for you, based on things you have previously ‘liked’. All you have to do is to reach out and take it.

Is this a perfect future retail scenario or is there something missing, humanity perhaps? We seem to forget, humans give us the emotional reassurance that what we want is worth wanting. Humans are our audience, our witnesses and the way in which we negotiate our social status. Without them, the retail process becomes a transaction in a vacuum. Efficient, but utterly meaningless. Personalized, yet impersonal.

Genuine hospitality is a nuanced and delicate balance of polite, respectful distance and emotional warmth. Only humans can fulfil this role. As brands become more emotionally intelligent they will require an army of warm, twinkly eyed brand ambassadors to make us feel connected. This high-level hospitality strategy, I call Hi-Ho, is fast becoming the new brand battlefield.

So cheer up. Despite all the technological seduction, the predictive algorithms and creative AI experiences retail will no doubt offer us, rest assured that humanity will play a far more critical role tomorrow than it does today.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Aug 20, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More