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.

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

CONFESSIONS OF A CONSCIENTIOUS CONSUMER

It dawned on me about three weeks ago. I was involved in a series of customer study groups, trying to establish how attitudes have shifted in the current climate, when whoosh, a sudden a sense of realisation washed over me like some kind of tidal epiphany. It was so bloody obvious: the greatest threat to retail, our high streets and our town and city centres is not the ridiculous business rates, nor is it the increasing barrage of regulation. It’s not the rise of online retail or even the sirenic Alexa who promises to bring you everything you could ever want by tomorrow morning at the latest. Nor is it the B word, WTO tariffs, increasing energy prices or the lack of available staff. No, I’m afraid the biggest threat to our shopping streets, my friend, is you.

Let me be specific. It’s that little glowing ember of guilt you have inside you, the one that the mainstream media has been oxygenating for a decade and that’s now being fanned to a flame by politicians, lovely Greta and angry Extinction Rebellion.They have made you doubt the very system that made us rich in the first place. They have a point. You only have to slide open your wardrobes for evidence that you have too much stuff. Your bathroom cabinets barely close anymore and your attic is legacy to a Noughties tech binge, a veritable V&A in your loft. But you are not alone in your guilt. Listen to Cathy, the interviewee that changed my mind forever. Cathy (42) is married to Lee (44) and they have three kids Sasha (12) Aron (10) and Ella (7)

Me: In the light of recent health warnings and the increased threat of climate change, how have your shopping habits changed?

Cathy: I find myself thinking much more about things now. I reached up for a box of cereal for Ella the other day and stopped myself. I’d read that it’s mostly sugar and the packaging costs more than the contents, or something. And there’s the diesel the trucks use to deliver it, I saw something on that too. Anyway, I put it back. I’m the same about cooking sauces, biscuits, crisps, and bacon (Cathy counts her victories intently, finger by finger) and we’ve cut out ready-meals, so it’s harder for me getting dinner ready after work, but I know it’s for the best.

Me: How about other sorts of shopping? Fashion, for instance.

Cathy: We all watched that documentary on fast fashion. Incredible really, the amount of landfill it causes. And the chemicals they pour into the gutters that end up in the ocean. It’s truly disgusting how these things are produced. So we’ve agreed not to buy anything unnecessary from H&M, Topshop and Zara from now on. We don’t need it, so we’ve really cut down, I’d say. We tried using the local shops more but the choice isn’t really there to be honest, and the parking’s a nightmare, so most of our essentials are bought online now. It’s easier for us and better for the planet, I guess.

Me: What about changes to the way you travel?

Cathy: Yes, we have definitely stopped using the car so much. In fact, we were supposed to be visiting Lee’s mum at the weekend but we changed our plans. The petrol alone would cost over a hundred quid and all we could do is take her out for lunch really. So, we’ve decided to Skype her instead and wish her a happy birthday the modern way. For the best, really.

Me: Any other big changes you’ve made recently?

Cathy: Well, yes. We’ve stopped going to the pub on a Wednesday night. It was a bit of a break for me to be honest. It’s quiz night and we’d have a burger and a couple of beers. But what with all the health scares around alcohol…and red meat for that matter, we’ve decided to just stay in and watch Netflix. (she laughs)

Oh, and we banned McDonald’s outright. There’s been so much about them in the press and on various documentaries. They’re cutting down the rainforest just to produce enough beef, and then there’s the amount of salt and sugar they put in everything. It’s a no go zone for us now, I’m afraid, though I think Aron still sneaks in there with his friends. I can smell it on him, you know. He denies it, of course. We also cut out the Friday night curry. It was a bit of a family routine and we loved it until we saw that programme on the amount of salt they use. Unbelievable. And very fattening too. So no takeaway curries for us anymore!

Me: Away from food, how about household goods and homewares etc? 

Cathy: Oh my god, don’t get me started. The whole kitchen needs doing and this sofa, well I’ve always hated the damn thing. But no, we’re not looking to replace anything major in the current climate. I don’t want to look extravagant, especially when everything is so uncertain at the moment.

So folks, Cathy and millions like her are doing their bit in these troubled times by cutting back a little on the things they once took for granted. If a few more million of us can be as conscientious as Cathy, our high streets and town centres will be completely devastated in five years. Tops.

We cannot let this happen. It’s clear that to turn the tide on this cultural erosion will take more than a cut in business rates and a 3 for 2 promotion. We need to address this head on: we must champion our local pubs and restaurants because they are our community and not just alcohol merchants. We need to bring back the local butchers and bakers and we need healthy, contemporary fast food in family-friendly environments. We need sustainable fashion brands that are genuinely affordable and we need parking spaces that encourage us to bring our families into town. We need community events every weekend and late into the evening after work. We need retailers to work together to make their streets clean, warm and welcoming. We need sensible family-friendly rail-fares that don’t have to be booked six months in advance too! And yes, we need to encourage as many street markets and independent traders into the town as possible, if only to break up the monotony. Put simply, we need to reclaim our town centres for what they were originally designed for: hard working, well meaning, conscientious consumers like Cathy.

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

  Howard Saunders   Oct 08, 2019   shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE WOKE OLYMPICS

The race for brands to parade their PC credentials is well underway! Gillette dashed to the front of the pack by showing us it was more interested in curing toxic masculinity than selling razorblades, but dropped back suddenly after it lost $8 billion in sales. Turns out blokes don’t like being called misogynists. A close shave indeed.  

Surprisingly, the enthusiasm for hopping on the outrage bandwagon has lost none of its momentum. Just like the way poor Taylor Swift was bullied to come out for one side or the other, brands must now decide if they are left or right, right on or stuck in the mud, Democrat or Republican. Brands, like the rest of us, have been dragged into the bear pit of the Twittersphere and the landscape in which they can express themselves, their Overton window if you like, has shrunk to a pinhole. You’re either with us, or against us.

Stuff we bought to shave with, or wash our knickers with, has grown a twenty first century conscience. In a world in which we have everything we need, a brand cannot simply offer us more stuff. In fact, this misunderstanding is largely responsible for the demise of our high streets and shopping centres. They were built on the premise that we needed to buy things to keep our mundane lives trundling along. They made the aisles wide and linear so that we could grab and go once we’d located what we were looking for. Product categories were announced in fonts bolder than motorway signs, as if we were all moving at seventy miles per hour. And in a sense we were. We dashed in and rushed back to the car before the ticket expired and our people carrier was towed away for ransom. How simple life was back then.

Where was I? Ah yes. Brands have realised they cannot carry on as if it were 1985, and so have evolved from being smiley, helpful and value-for-money, into fully grown, cynical adults with issues, consciences and axes to grind. In short: woke. In the rush of revelation some have joined the outrage hunters, pushing to the front of the melee in a desperate search for things to be shocked by. This then, is the new landscape for brands and we can expect it to intensify over the next few years. 

But you do know they’re faking it right? You do realise their pretend outrage and loud baying noises are for the purpose of deflection, lest the mob turn on them? An orchestrated distraction to avoid the laser beam of outrage homing in on their own transgressions, whether they be plastic packaging, pollution, landfill, low wages or waste. Like teenage bullies, woke brands are eager to elbow to the front of the mob in the name of progressivism. And who is against progressivism?

The problem is, in its rush to kick at the wicked establishment patriarchy, the mob is forced to edge forward, becoming ever more outraged and angry with the status quo. Egged on by a mainstream media exercising its last gasp for glory, too many of society’s strongest, deepest foundations are getting damaged along the way, sometimes irreparably. 

The frenzy of the mob, you see, can bring out the worst in us. All of a sudden, those quiet, conventional, harmless types see their opportunity to exert a little control. Very quickly, what considered itself a libertarian movement finds itself fuelled by an authoritarian impulse, one that wants to close down, ban, censor and admonish. The impulse that fights for women’s rights, for instance, swiftly morphs into something that’s distinctly anti-male. The push for racial equality, likewise, can so easily become discriminatory. Logic would suggest that the same libertarian instinct that campaigned for gay marriage and sexual equality would be against censorious regulation, but the reverse is true. Libertarianism and authoritarianism, once at opposite ends of the spectrum, have become fused in a kind of Alice in Wonderland nightmare. A new puritanism has infected the liberal mindset and its effects are serious.

And so, armed with this newfound pc superpower, the Advertising Standards Authority has waded into the mire to ban images it deems un-woke, things it doesn’t want you to see. We’ve all read about it: with the aim of discouraging gender stereotypes, the ASA banned a Volkswagen ad showing a young mother, sitting on a park bench alongside a pram. Once upon a time ‘motherhood and apple pie’ represented all that was good and wholesome with the world. Today, the ASA finds motherhood demeaning, something that might hamper a girl’s ambition and life chances. Shrug all this off as a slice of summer madness whipped up creamy by Daily Mailers by all means, but I believe it deserves a serious pause for thought: our regulatory bodies have decided that motherhood is wrongthink. It’s pretty obvious that a society that finds motherhood embarrassing or demeaning won’t last very long.

It’s important we don’t add to the hysteria, but at the same time, we cannot pretend everything is just fine. It’s blindingly obvious that brands are tip-toeing around convention, sweating over showing a heterosexual nuclear family with clearly gendered offspring, or a sexually attractive female for fear of being labelled regressive or bigoted. Humour that pokes fun at anything cultural, gender-based, racial or religious has been off-limits for so long that we’ve grown used to advertising’s mediocre glumness. But the prohibition of gender stereotypes promises to make life considerably more treacherous for brands wanting to stand out from the crowd. Expect to see a lot more of the Alice in Wonderland world in which heroes, adventurers, scientists and scholars are exclusively female, where families are made up from across the sexual ‘spectrum’ and where the image of a smiling, white, middle class family is deemed harmful to society.

I know. We’re already there.

So, Mr Futurist, how does all this end, I hear you cry?

That’s easy: a mighty financial crash, obviously.

In the meantime, have a great week!

 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail musings

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2019   advertising, Brand, Future, overton, Retail, shopping   0 Comment   Read More