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.

DEAR DIARY 2030

It’s a chilly Sunday night in March, 2030. I’m booking flights for a short trip to Istanbul next week. Juniper has already offered me three options, so a mumbled ‘ok’ is enough for me to receive the boarding pass together with the train times. That was easy. I ask for a short list of must-sees while I’m out there, though I know I’ll only manage to tick off a couple. Like I say, it’s a short trip.

Juniper has been incredibly helpful lately. Last week she organised a birthday party for my brother; made all the bookings, dealt with all the invites, ordered the food and even kept the design of the cake secret from me! Oh, she’s good. Hugely popular at the moment too. Especially since the whole Amazon debacle. I still can’t believe Alexa so flagrantly made all that stuff up. At least Juniper works directly for me, rather than Bezos, and she’s certainly reduced the avalanche of crap I have to deal with. 

I even get to choose what I watch on TV now, instead of all that pushy, interactive stuff that was ‘specially created for me’. To be honest, I’m totally sick of every damn thing I watch being a thinly veiled advertisement. It’s one hell of a relief to be left alone to surf whatever junk I want. I’m currently obsessed with a 1990s Chinese drama called Sinful Debt. Juniper translates it in all the correct voices and it’s bloody hilarious. Anyway, since Alibaba swallowed Amazon it was bound to end in tears for poor Alexa.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking the train to the airport, it’s because the AVs (autonomous vehicles) have become pretty disgusting frankly. I had to call one the other night and its last ‘client’ had left liquid evidence of their Friday drinking session on the passenger seat. Oh how I love London. I alerted the Report Bot, of course, but TFL will take days to clean it up, as usual. Private vehicles have only been banned in the city a couple of years but already the cost of moving around London has sky-rocketed. Bring back the black cabs, I say!

I try to post daily on Glow just for my business, but it has rather lost its meaning since the new regulations came in. After the Twitter ban, Glow promised us a more polite and ethical social platform but effectively it’s government controlled now, and the GOAs (Global Offence Algorithms) have left it feeling strangely banal and pointless. It’s like reading the back of a Cornflakes pack, if you remember those?

I’m meeting an old friend at a new NDZ bar (No Drone Zone) in Covent Garden tomorrow night. NDZs are specially licensed bars and restaurants where every member has been fully cleared by the Hate Police. It simply means we can drink and talk openly without the COPters hovering outside, listening to our every word. Those licenses aren’t easy to come by, and judging by the price of the drinks, they’re expensive too! Get this: I had to endure an hour long, online interview where they actually played me recordings of things I’d said thirty years ago! ‘Hate Archeology’ they call it. God knows how my Dad has survived this long.

Funnily enough, I logged into one of my local Clapham COPters while waiting for a drone delivery yesterday. I could clearly see what it was watching, but I’d love to know what it’s thinking! The current craze of drone muggings (gangs of illegal drones that ambush delivery drones) has made one hour deliveries pretty unreliable recently. Loads of the COPters have been taken out too, in this part of South London alone. A COPter kill is seen as a badge of honour. The Police caught a Drone Gang a few weeks ago, but they can do very little as most of them are barely teenagers. It really is Drone Wars in the skies above  town these days.

Anyway, next weekend I’m taking a break in the country, thank god. There are still plenty of NDZ towns out there if you look for them. I might even switch off my iDoctor and have a traditional, high fat, cream tea for a change. Oh yes, I’m still a rebel at heart, you know.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Mar 26, 2019   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

MANKIND PEAKED AT ME!

Do you worry about your children? Do you fret they won’t be able to cope with the modern world? Do you despair of their inability to concentrate and cringe at their poor social skills? Do you grimace as they fumble with their shoelaces or attempt to carry a hot drink from one room to another? Even if you haven’t yet had any imbecilic offspring, do you lie awake at night brooding over how well prepared the younger generation is for the real world, the world of tough business negotiations, the world of complex mortgages and life insurance? 

Well my friend, you are not alone. In fact, I guarantee that your great, great, great grandmother was equally concerned over your great, great, grandmother’s mental faculties, and whether she’d amount to anything very much at all. Indeed, there has never been a generation that didn’t believe its successor would be lazier, less respectful, shallower and generally less likely to cope with the challenges of contemporary life. Put another way, no one ever, dead or alive, believed they were handing the future to safer, wiser hands than their own. Every one of us is genuinely convinced the world would be better off if only we could stick around to oversee things properly.

There’s an ever-lengthening list of things we cannot discuss openly these days, isn’t there? Perhaps this is why so many polite conversations resort to the narcissistic, screen-obsessed young generation. What we are really saying, of course, is that WE are far more sophisticated, considerably more practical, eminently more articulate, extremely conscientious and clearly more enlightened than any other generation, past or present. In other words: mankind peaked at me!

Yes, humankind dragged itself from the swamp, to discover fire, invent the wheel, agriculture, transport, fight a few wars, overcome famine and disease to build cities, aircraft, computers and smartphones…but now, sadly, it’s downhill from here. Most likely, our great, great grandchildren will dig out our Facebook archive to gaze in awe at the pinnacle of humanity right there, pictured somewhere tropical with cheesy grins. “Progress stopped with Great, Great, Grand Mammy and Pops” they’ll sigh.

Truth is of course, your idiot children will help usher in an incredibly exciting new world. It’s only us myopic Boomers and miserable Millennials who think progress stopped at the iPhone. And as for attention spans, just look at the hours they put in playing computer games or watching make-over videos in their bedrooms. Compare that to the stupidly staccato ‘sorry, gotta go to the news’ ‘gotta leave it there’ hurried BBC interviews we wake to every morning. No, there’s nothing wrong with their attention spans. They’re just not interested in your boring world, that’s all.

Mankind’s graph of progress is actually very clear. Despite the doom-mongers and naysayers, the best time to be breathing air is, believe it or not, today. Whether your barometer of progress is humanity’s access to knowledge, travel, freedom, opportunity, longevity, security or technological innovation, the overwhelming majority of us are living in the safest, most liberated and creative time in human history. Ask your great, great grandmother how she thinks your life chances are looking. She’d probably say they were pretty bloody awesome. Or words to that effect. 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily musings and retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Feb 04, 2019   Future, me, me age, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

POOR JAMIE

Poor Jamie. The crown prince of casual dining is looking slightly less smug, don’t you think? It seems the world that once was his very public oyster has moved on a notch, leaving him sitting in a lay-by somewhere on the M11, wondering precisely what just happened. His empire has taken a mighty hit, right where it hurts, forcing him to close restaurants and reconsider everything his brand stands for. Things are serious.

The comforting glow of hindsight tells us this was rather more predictable than we might think. When times were good Jamie was showered with cash. His property guys swooped onto every opportunity with unbridled hubris, paid silly rents in stupid locations and raised the costs for everyone in the area. Add to this volatile cocktail a gentle sprinkling of economic uncertainty and the whole damn house of hubris comes crashing down over night. That’s the basic story, but it’s not the whole picture by any means. Trends, you see, aren’t manufactured by big corporates with budgets to match. No, they are forged inside us, and just like Starbucks educated us to ultimately to despise them, so Jamie has done a magnificent job in raising the bar on casual dining…so that now we are in search of something better.

A queue forms outside the opening of Wagamama in 1992

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the UK. Cast your mind back just twenty years. Wagamama was still Alan Yau’s proto-Hakkasan tucked away in salubrious Bloomsbury. Yo! Sushi had just opened its first restaurant in Soho and the poshest burger in town was still the Big Mac. If you weren’t privileged enough to have a Pizza Express or a TGIF, eating out for the majority of us was binary: either a table-clothed fancy place or Maccy D!

Within the space of this last decade the market caught fire, crackling with brands that showed us sad, homey Brits that the future of nosh can be fun: open kitchens, open fires, giant sized family friendly menus, communal tables, colourful cocktails, impossible burgers and waiters that say ‘hi’ just like that time you went to Disneyland. (NB. not the Paris one)

At the risk of a sweeping generalization, we Brits single-handedly invented the casual dining sector. Well, the Americans may have invented the relaxed style and the iconic foods, but we Brits packaged it all up into tidy, digestible, bite-sized brands, ready to drop into any high street. So, for the last ten years we have enjoyed being the casual dining room of the world with the likes of Ask, Bella Italia, Byron, Carluccio’s, GBK, Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Strada, Wagamama, Wahaca, Wasabi, Yo Sushi, and Zizzi bringing a much needed, ready-made vibrancy to our beleaguered town centres.

But nothing lasts forever. A pincer movement of stupid rents on the one hand, and our never ending quest for ever greater authenticity on the other, has left the sector that invented itself now unravelling in less than a decade. That’s quite some achievement.

While you pat a tear from the corner of your eye, let me take you on a little trip to Brooklyn, the birthplace of the latest food revolution. On the edge of the East River, silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline, Smorgasburg is a weekly (Spring and Summer) food festival, rather than a market, that began life just after the crash in 2009. If I dared to utter the word ‘street-food’ I’m sure I’d hear the whoosh of a thousand pairs of urban eyeballs rolling back into your cynical heads, but understanding this movement is important, so bear with me.

Every week, a hundred ambitious and creative chefs turn up to parade their skills at Smorgasburg in the hope of bringing something new to market. The long lines of hungry, patient, Millennial connoisseurs are here for a reason: they are the public jury on what we’ll be eating next year. Yes, it’s a food fashion show, a catwalk of cuisine. There are a thousand ideas here ranging from weird ethnic hybrids to creative combos, each aiming to ignite your brain cells as much as your taste buds. To associate this grand celebration with the scruffy burger vans at your local fete is like comparing the brothers Roux to the brothers McDonald. No, these chefs are the next generation and they’ve been sharpening their artisan knives in readiness for the revolution we’re beginning to witness.

And so, as analysts do, I coined the term Sophisticasual to separate all this from the far too baggy term, ‘street-food’. Just like trends in the world of fashion, the curves of casualisation and premiumisation have joined forces to bring us highly sophisticated products to enhance our ever more casual lifestyles.

In London alone, this trend has spawned a hundred cool new places including Kricket, Smoke and Salt, Blacklock, Bone Daddies, Duck & Waffle, Gunpowder, Hoi Polloi, Lyle’s, Temper, Padella and many, many more. The focus is now on local ingredients, wherever possible, vegetables with provenance, and plenty of plant based options as well as booze free cocktails. Meat’s become much more macho, with an in-house butcher or an open fire pit. Presentation is relaxed-natural, verging on rustic, so that gone is the Jenga vegetable pile and steel cup of chips. Spoon smudged sauces have been banished to the uncool parts of town. Menus are short to the point of blunt. Prices are pence free and rounded up. Long hand explanations and poetic descriptions have been replaced by a no-nonsense chain of adjective-free nouns.

Kricket-PWF-0779-Paul-Winch-Furness-1280x0-c-default

Small has always been beautiful, but we’ve got to the point now that big means bad. We don’t trust chains the way we used to, and even small chains are eyed with some suspicion. We’re so cynical, so aware of being sold to, it’s as if we can see the shiny cufflinks of the marketing director in the reflection on our laminated menu. We can visualise the agency presentations that conjured up the oh-so-witty tone of voice. We’ve grown tired of the achingly obvious nonsense about the friendly butcher. In short, it’s fake. As fake as the fake hand-written blackboards that you think we think are genuine. We’re more sophisticated than you realise. We can spot your sweaty, corporate fingerprints a mile off on those bars and restaurants that masquerade as naïve independents, with their fake objet d’arts and retro, distressed mirrors. We know that every tiny piece is specified in a fat manual back at head office. Manufactured charm is never very charming.

So, dear Jamie. We thank you sincerely for getting us here. Your enthusiasm, charisma, incredible skill and hard work became the perfect stepping stone for us Brits, but it’s time for you to step aside now mate. It’s time to let real independents take control.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

This article was first published in the OnTrade Preview 2019 which can be ordered here: www.ontrade.co.uk

  Howard Saunders   Jan 07, 2019   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

‘TIS THE SEASON

Tis the season for doom-mongery, that’s for sure. What with the whole B-word debacle, chirpy Mr Carney’s cheery forecasts and parliament’s miserable vision on all sides, 2018 was perfectly topped off with the gravelly wisdom of nonagenarian national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, declaring the end of the world is nigh. Very nigh indeed, apparently.

And if anybody wants a touch more gloom to help thicken the December fug, they need look no further than the UK high street, which is desperately gasping for oxygen right now. Over the course of this year, I thought I’d made my views pretty clear on where this is all heading via numerous blogs, conference rants, podcasts, press quotes and radio interviews. But it became clear at a couple of drinky events recently, that I haven’t quite explained myself fully. So, I thought I’d pull together a handful of my little nuggets of wisdom to make a big, brownish plasticine ball of prediction, as a kind of misshapen full-stop at the year’s end. Here goes:

Let’s be honest, 2018 was peak doggy-do for retail. If there was any previous doubt, this year slapped that down pretty pronto. As spring sprang into life, news of M&S closures quickly quashed any uplifting spirits with the unmistakable resonance of a proper death knell. Instantly, we saw a picture of our own high street without a beloved M&S at its centre. The news of Maplin, Poundworld, Carpetright and Toys r Us had earned a mere eye-roll, but M&S is Mummy for god’s sake! (great at cooking, not so fashionable). This is serious.

Mike Ashley’s Trumpish rant at that recent government committee was actually rather illuminating, as well as entertaining. He shook his puffy red cheeks in disbelief at every line of his lacklustre grilling. His interrogators were little more than a rag tag horseshoe of poorly dressed, wannabe librarians with as firm a grasp on commerce as I have on football. With these guys in charge, what hope have we got?

Ultimately, it’s obvious. Left to market forces, our high streets will continue to collapse in upon themselves, helped along by big name closures such as HOF, Debenhams and M&S. But once we have the optics of M&S boarded up for a year or two (surely optics must be the word of 2018?) rents and rates will plummet so that clever, hungry young independents might actually get a chance to kick-start a revival of our beleaguered towns. After all, we were bemoaning the cookie-cutter high street a few years ago. Now that it’s dying all this panic seems a bit disingenuous.

If we cannot wait for market forces to take their toll then government action on rents and rates might catalyse things. Ashley’s 20% online tax would certainly drive us away from Amazon, but added to VAT, are we really encouraging the government to tax us 40%? We would certainly live to regret that.

The good news is coming, but not for a few years yet. The digital age has taught us what we want from the real world, and however dreadful things look at the moment I’m convinced the market square, and all that brings with it, will be back with a vengeance. This time the authorities will understand they must massage and manage their high streets just like a successful shopping centre: taxing profits when times are good, supporting with investment and marketing when times are bad, sculpting their spaces with brands that work in harmony with each other (rather than plonking down the first shop that offers the most rent) encouraging start ups and quirky one-offs because they add to the overall mix and the vision of what we want from our town centres. Yes, retail is a full time job.

And imagine how powerful it will be if our children, and children’s children, know they can bring their own ideas and products to market, instead of assuming it’s in lock down with Debenhams and WH Smith. Imagine the innovation and energy we’ve seen in the craft beer market being encouraged across other retail categories. There is a slew of independent butchers, bakers and yes, candle-makers that currently can only dream of having their own shop in town. So much of the future will cherry-pick the best of the past to bring us what we really want.

Believe me, the future will be rich in innovation and inspiration. Alternatively, believe Sir David and start saving for that ticket to Elon Musk’s Mars. But act quickly if you want to avoid the 40% online tax.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Dec 06, 2018   Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More