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.

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

THE BATTLEFIELD

The high street has become a battlefield. Every morning we awake to yet more news of store closures: stores we grew up with and brands we believed would be around forever are shuttering up as the best form of defence against this relentless, yet invisible, onslaught. And now our restaurants, pubs and bars have become infected too. Big name, highly regarded chains such as Byron, Carluccio’s and Jamie’s are buckling under the pressure as their foes advance on all sides. Rent, rates, Amazon, Brexit, Deliveroo and even the weather have joined forces against the very places in which we once sought refuge…and a cold beer.

But on the distant horizon a new technologically advanced force is preparing for battle. Autonomous vehicles, drones and robots armed with artificial intelligence and facial recognition software are plotting the next wave of disruption. The question is, are they friend or foe?

Ok, enough metaphor for one day. You get the picture. There’s no question the shiny new world that beckons will change the way we shop, work and play. Artificial intelligence is sure to iron out most of the irritating niggles we bump across during our working day. It won’t be long before we look back on form filling, applications and buying tickets for travel as the quaint behaviour of a gentler age. Predictive algorithms will eliminate much of the friction and frustration in getting hold of the things we need, because they will know what we need before we do. Our working lives will become ever more digitised as our e-assistants complete tasks and solve mundane problems in nano seconds while we focus on the more creative stuff.

But surely, at the end of a hard day plugged into the electronic universe we will yearn for a bit of human contact, a warm smile and a cold beer? Of course our e-assistant could have one droned in (within three minutes…in its refrigerated drone pod) but wouldn’t you prefer to sit at a real bar for some real life eye contact?

The future may be somewhat daunting, scary even, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ll still be human when it arrives. It’s understandable that in the rush for the future we believe even hospitality will become digitised. I say let’s keep the robots busy in the back office organising the logistics, the stock replenishment and the P&L, and let the humans do what they’re best at.

As AI and robotics lubricate our lives I believe we will seek out, and value, human connection even more. So before you order that row of iPads to speed things up a bit, consider instead investing in a smart, charming, genuinely charismatic human being with an engaging smile.

The future doesn’t just happen, it’s waiting for us to shape it. So let’s at least agree what hospitality is for and why we will always yearn for it.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Nov 06, 2018   Future, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HOW TO SAVE THE HIGH STREET

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