About Howard Saunders

Howard has worked in retail design for over twenty five years. As a former Creative Director of Fitch, based in London, he was responsible for retail design and branding and for creating multi-disciplinary teams of architects, graphic designers, product designers and copywriters and making them work together! As an independent consultant Howard has worked closely with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Westfield, for over a decade, helping them develop new store designs and keeping them informed of the latest retail innovations and shifts in customer expectations. His work with Westfield, for example, culminated in the creation of the artisan Great Eastern Market at Westfield Stratford, Europe’s largest shopping centre, which opened in 2011 on London’s Olympic Park. Now based in New York, Howard’s current clients include CBRE, Claire’s Accessories, Consumer Goods Forum, Ebay, Johnson & Johnson, L’Occitane, Magento, Mothercare, Permira and Westfield World Trade Center. As an international speaker Howard’s talks are big, visual journeys across the world of retail. Provocative, challenging, brutally honest, evidence based and thoroughly entertaining.

SHIT SHOPS

London is infested with them: the tacky newsagent with the sponsored fascia that hasn’t seen a soapy sponge since 1987, the struggling hair salon with its camp wink-of-a-name painted in a 70s funk style font, the print shop with an illuminated logo big enough to be seen from the M25, the crappy café where coffee still comes in granules, the oddball ‘boutique’ with its deranged, contortionist mannequins, the downright dodgy mobile phone repair shop, the dour and dusty furniture store, its windows papered in fluorescent exclamations, and not forgetting the ubiquitous ‘convenience’ store, plastered with more stickers than the arse-end of a hippy’s camper van. If forced to enter one, we might catch ourselves chewing the fat with the owner, swaying our heads in synchronized dismay at the inevitable decline of local stores. We tut loudly in agreement that it’s the fault of the supermarkets, Amazon and Brexit, and yet we’d never dream of telling the truth, that their shop is dirty, scruffy, outdated, over-cluttered and utterly irrelevant. In short: shit.

We’ve become so used to living with shit shops that they’re almost invisible. Despite the fact that they must make up 90% of London’s retail, they barely get a mention in relation to the current crisis. Clearly, they are such an embarrassment to the press and the retail Twittersphere, that we’ve mentally vanished them, in order to concentrate on the woes of decent looking establishments.

Or perhaps you’re one of those inverted snobs that takes a perverse pride in your shitty environs. A country-lubber that revels in their beta post code by way of knocking the districts you can’t afford to live in. ‘No, Marylebone, Hampstead and Chelsea are not real enough for me,’ they whine, sitting in alpha post code pubs… for Sunday lunch only, you understand. These are the same folk who loudly bemoan the gentrification of their personal urban shithole, but you so know they are checking Rightmove.com twice a day to see if the artisan bakery has helped nudge up local property prices.

Oh, and don’t think the posh districts are exempt. There are plenty of shit shops snuggled in between the tasteful ones in the most salubrious parts of our city.

Londoners, take a good look around you on your way home tonight. The saggy, plastic canopies and filthy windows are the result of laziness and ignorance, not poverty. It wasn’t always like this. These stores are the rotting teeth in what was once a radiant parade of a smile. A century ago these shop-fronts would have been scrubbed every morning at 7am sharp, by a crisp-aproned shopkeeper with a sense of pride in his business and a long wooden mop handle. Today’s proprietor, by contrast, is a multi-tasker: one hand to point the card reader, the other to continue texting.

Independent they may be, but shop-fronts are the architecture of our environment, our community, and in that sense they belong to us all. Grubby, neglected shops may be moribund, but they are nonetheless busy sending us microscopic messages of misery every time we pass by. Every day they make us feel a tiny bit deflated, a little less good about the day ahead. A little bit shit.

But thankfully, middle class Millennials and hipstery types know good retail instinctively. That’s why their store designs hark back to Victorian ideals of shopkeeperdom. They know that a black fascia with a discrete gold font has far greater impact that the metre tall, yellow plastic letters it replaced. They know we are drawn to tidy entrances and well merchandised stalls. The harsh truth is that inside your local shit shop, there’s not an over-worked old lady struggling to keep up. No, it’s much more likely to be someone who doesn’t know one end of a broom from the other. Someone who thinks of a shop as a vessel for stuff that the public want, and little more.

I daydream about a hit TV series called ‘Shit Shop SOS’, where an undercover squad of retail enthusiasts wash, tidy, redesign and merchandise local stores, only to be paid in customers’ gasps of wonderment. I muse about kick-starting a hashtag campaign entitled #letsgiveashit to encourage our sad and grimy independents to spruce themselves up a bit.

Alas, there is barely any need. Shop by shop, street by street, the shit shops are dying. Waiting in the wings are hungry, stylish young innovators eager to take their place as soon as the rent and rates will allow. London is not just one of the world’s greatest cities, it is famous for its retail. Let’s encourage our local shit shops to clean up, sort their signs out and put something interesting in the window. In short: #letsgiveashit

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   Jun 25, 2018   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

A LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR

It’s second nature for me to intellectualize brands. I’ve worked with them all my life: deconstructing meaning, reconstructing a nuanced visual language that answers a series of strategic values aimed at convincing consumers of their worth. You know, all the stuff those of us in design deal with every day. Except, we also know that authentic brands, the ones that connect with us on a visceral, emotional level, cannot be constructed strategically or intellectually. Just like us, they take decades to mature and blossom, until they have tales to tell and experiences to share. Among these authentic brands there are a few that stop you in your tracks with a punch to the belly that leaves you wanting more. Ducati is one of these.

My lifelong love affair with this brand began in the late eighties when I set my eyes upon the thing I would treasure only marginally less than my own two, adorable children. Scratch beneath the obvious chromium plated, boyish lust for speed and there’s so much to fall for.

There’s no push button starter here. Instead, you must reach into the heart of the beast and take time coaxing him, priming him lovingly before you kick-start him into life. Once fired up, a glorious cacophony of guttural growls, whines and gasps unleash his story in an instant. Use your X-ray imagination to slice into his heaving chest and witness an unfathomable carnival of whirring cogs and spiraling spindles, each crafted for one task: to launch you at silly, silly speeds. Fear and vulnerability are fundamentals to Ducati. Not just the rider’s vulnerability, but the machine itself, for each integral element of this metallic monster was sculpted by a modern day, grease-monkey Michelangelo. German, American or Japanese machines are robustly engineered for practicality, longevity, endurance and cost. Italians don’t think like that. They are artists willing to shave every last micrometer off their work to ensure it is as light and as perfectly formed as possible. Fragility is fundamental here too.

Many years ago, one Ducatisti proudly showed me a large dent in his bike’s frame. This, he explained, was where they had to make a little extra room to squeeze the engine in. It’s these man-made imperfections, you see, that give art its value.

The divine yet dangerous dance that marries technology, engineering and art has propelled Ducati to the front of the starting grid and, more importantly, to the top of the list of the world’s most desirable brands. All that heritage, heartache and glory has been condensed into six little letters. Cast your eye across the curves of the silver back that bears its name, then tell me you’ve not fallen.

This article is taken from the recently published book: Brand Stories from Brand Champions devised & curated by david.roth@wpp.com Read more about it here

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   May 02, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

EUROPEAN GRAFFITI!

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. If you’re a polite, tax paying shopkeeper from Barcelona, Berlin, Milan or Madrid, you’ll have faced this dilemma one sunny morning when you opened your shutters to reveal freshly painted scrawlings up your pilasters and all around your corbels.

In some parts of Europe our major city centres have become little more than concrete sketchbooks for a kind of push-me pull-you politics, where the alt right, the loony left, the disgruntled and the dispossessed each contribute to a multi-layered cacophony of tangled anger.

I grew up at a time when graffiti belonged to very different artistic genre. In my day, walls were decorated with cartoon genitalia, delightfully captured in mid climax. The masterpieces that illustrated my boyhood were the desperate, pubescent cries of unrequited potency. Toilet cubicles became the private venting booths of the permanently pent up, where intense frescoes of either triangular or cylindrical simplicity were created, presumably as some sort of silent warning to the sex they were yet to encounter. Perhaps these explicit diagrams were a contemporary homage to the Da Vinci cartoons, none of which were that funny anyway, as Peter Cook famously observed.

Sadly, since the advent of free online pornography we’ve witnessed the demise of the cartoonist-gynecologist. Today’s vitriolic hieroglyphs have more of a political bent, and whether leftist or rightist they unite in their distrust of authority and so find harmony working together on the smooth render around an innocent shop-front.

In 2018, the shopkeeper’s dilemma is a tricky one. Should he reach for the bleach and expose himself as a defender of ‘the man’ and the likely retribution that may ensue? Or does he leave the solitary scribble alone and risk it spawning a crawling nest of irate expressionism, each vying for the attention of the passing shoppers?

With global politics in such a state of flux, it’s unlikely our rebellious artists will grow tired and head home for a gin and tonic anytime soon. Like ever increasing business rates, it seems graffiti is another tax our retailers will have to pay for access to play on our tough urban streets.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2018   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist and please read more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

MEET THE WALL DOGS (How advertising became street art)

At first everything seems to be exactly as you’d expect. New York is plastered with commercial images at every turn: on the sides of buses, in the subway, on cab doors and high up on the sides of buildings. But one advertising hoarding catches your eye. At first glance nothing looks unusual, but as you wait to cross the street you ponder it for a few seconds. Something about it has grabbed your attention and you’re not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s the gentle sheen or the way in which the image fits around the window frames? And then it dawns on you: it’s hand painted.

Sky High Murals has turned the everyday advertising hoarding into an art form. Not just by showcasing their tremendous skills as artists, but also as performers: sky high abseiling artists. Sky High HQs in Williamsburg, a couple of doors down from the Brooklyn Brewery, is where our band of artist-abseilers plan their attack before jumping astride their motorcycles. They are the special forces of the advertising world, an urban gang of artistic Navy Seals in paint spattered hoodies. They call themselves ‘wall dogs’ as they spend their working lives chained to a wall. This is not a job for artists of faint heart or delicate disposition. Walldogs endure long hours, high above the city streets in sub zero New York winters and crazy hot summers. But they love it. It’s clear by their swagger, as they head out to another big project, that they feel like an elite squadron of highly sought after soldiers. On the website their list of things ‘you’ll need to become a walldog’ includes ‘strength, positive attitude’ and a ‘good alarm clock’.

In an age where large scale digital printing has never been easier or cheaper it’s clear that picking up the phone to Sky High Murals must offer a brand some serious added value. The obvious answer is that it brings an extra artistic depth to an otherwise everyday image. A global Nike campaign, for example, will see its images reproduced in thousands of cities across the planet, translated into hundreds of languages, in different formats and across all types of media. And yet, Nike will happily invest in the skills of a small band of abseiling street artists because of the extra dimension it brings to the campaign. Hand painted images add artistic value, of course, and street cred, definitely, but there is a more powerful message that sings out behind every individual brushstroke. Namely, time.

I believe the real message is that our advertising images took extra time, dedication and phenomenal skill to come to your street, so please take time to appreciate them. Our message is not the background noise to your city or yet another thin layer of visual clutter spewed from an uncaring and cynical global corporation. Our images, as well as being art, clearly produced by artists, are integral to the city itself.

Yet again Brooklyn has soaked up contemporary culture and regurgitated it in its own likeness. Just like Brooklyn’s take on fast food it has slowed down the things we take for granted and made them more locally relevant, more considered. Like its take on everyday objects it has transformed the ordinary into the artisan. Like its take on all things retail it attempts to integrate it into the community and the fabric of the city, as opposed to simply landing on it from the great corporate heights of commercialism. Even advertising can be Brooklynized.

This article is an extract from the recently published Brooklynization. Click here for a preview.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Mar 02, 2018   Brand, city, Retail, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More