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.

THE NEW PURITANS

The skies are thick with tweet-shaped arrows, raining onto the heads of our once untouchable heroes. Hollywood, Washington, Westminster, nowhere is safe. Politicians, producers, actors, comedians, academics, business leaders, no one can shelter from the Twitter storm. And beware if you find any glee from these sorry tales. Schadenfreude is a fleeting thrill that probably means you’re next. We’re in charge now. We are the New Puritans.

Those toppled are not just the famous, or figures of authority. Hollywood’s finest are our storytellers. Men and women who stage astronomically expensive tales of how we should live. They are the soothsayers that predict how our world will change and, in turn, our politicians and captains of industry attempt to keep us on course. And comedians are not merely clowns. They are our philosophers, who teach us how to think and how to react to life’s vagaries.

That little black slab of glass in our palms, our Great Overlord of Data (GOD) has given us a voice, and oh boy, are we putting it to work. Our vaguest thoughts and randomly vitriolic reactions are instantly published, and carry equal weight and as much momentum as mainstream media’s more traditional commentary. Reactionary homemade Youtube rants, for example, will garner the approval of many millions, whilst The Press struggles to fathom how to pay for content. The battle is won.

One thing is for sure: this is no blip. Social media is relentless. It doesn’t sleep at night and it will interrogate its victims with extraordinary fervor, scratching deep into their digital footprints, reaching back decades if necessary, until it finds something. Stay clean people. Yes, the age that brought us all free porn on tap has turned us into prudes. Until we’re alone, that is.

Once the bolus of lard, that is Weinstein, was flushed into the sewer the torrent of accusation it unleashed has been shocking. The drip, drip, drip of offense taking quickly turned into a downpour so strong that most of us now walk around with our jaws permanently open in outrage. You may tut loudly at the irrelevance of the sacrifice of say, the cartoon-sexy darts and F1 grid girls, but you wait. This is a cultural shift and its effects will become apparent very soon indeed:

Advertising will swiftly tone down the sexist imagery, that’s plain enough. But once this barrier is broken the flood of offence will surely follow. Expect every classic stereotype along with what and why we consume anything to be vigorously challenged at every turn: why are the old often portrayed as frail? And why are they so often white? Why are athletes so often depicted as black? Why are babies shown only with their mothers? Why are those ridiculed as bewildered and hopeless always men? Why should we be told what to aspire to? Surely it can’t be right to advertise provocative images of luxury products that will offend those that can barely afford to eat? And fast food advertising is clearly an affront to our investment in the NHS. When does a foreign holiday become cultural appropriation? And why on earth is advertising allowed for gas guzzling cars? Or high sugar drinks?

Oh yes, sugar taxes are a-coming. For very sound reasons, fizzy drinks will feel the heat first, but wait until you find out what foodstuffs governments are chomping at the bit to tax in the name of our health: yoghurt, all cooking sauces, ketchup, cereals, iced tea, soups, canned fruit, baked beans, and inevitably, wine. Needless to say, this will be on top of VAT and alcohol duty. Salt taxes will swiftly bring up the rear to create the perfect pincer movement. And why wouldn’t they, when the consensus is chanting that something must be done?

Taxes will become bespoke soon too. Just as parking fees spike to punish diesel owners, we can expect more of our choices to be taxed in line with how ‘bad’ they are considered. After all, your phone knows an awful lot more about you than just what car you drive. Oh how we’ll reminisce over the anonymity of cash.

In fashion, expect to see hemlines lowering by the day, and anything revealing or asymmetric to be ousted by long lines of buttons and tailoring of religious symmetry. Colours will shift towards the more subdued and sombre with bright, acrylic colours banished for a decade.

For some strange reason we have a few hypocritical loopholes in our culture that surely must be plugged soon. Rap and pop will have to mind its language in our new era of respect, so we can certainly look forward to the demise of the N and B words over the next couple of years.

And now that we have been fully educated as to the disastrous effects of plastic in the oceans, supermarkets can surely no longer brazenly charge for a bag they’ve just packed with plastic shaped prawn platters and thick plastic avocado holders. Expect to see much more loose product when we go shopping.

In design and architecture, whilst we’re unlikely to see the return of piano leg covers we are perfectly positioned for an aesthetic age of modesty. The trend for ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the form of exposed pipes and conduits, which has become so popular as an expression of function, will probably be seen as somewhat brash and we’ll return to shrouded, concealed and hidden services and mechanics. And as our attitude to car ownership becomes more hardline, cars themselves, electric included, will become demure to the point of embarrassment.

Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, we should prepare ourselves for the insidious march of legislation and censorship across social media, Facebook and Youtube specifically. Free speech is a lovely idea but it’s simply not practical when the public just can’t be trusted.

Remember when tolerance and free speech were the foundations of our society? Yes, so do I.

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

  Howard Saunders   Feb 05, 2018   advertising, city, Future, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SEE LIKE A SIX YEAR OLD

Back at art college, my life drawing tutor was none other than John Constable. I may be old, but this J Constable was the great, great, great grandson of the original, but nonetheless passionate about the world around him. Young JC was a fine draughtsman and appropriately eccentric too, as he paced among the easels in the chilly studio with a small hand towel wrapped around his neck. We never asked as to the reason for the towel, but as impressionable teenage art students I’m sure we all considered adopting it at some point.

Our favourite muse was the mighty Mrs Vincent, who stood no more than four feet something and weighed in at a good two hundred pounds. Her comely curves were indelibly etched onto each of our innocent minds. The shock of seeing a big, fat, naked granny never failed to titillate at first, but eventually JC taught us how to look past our infantile distractions and see what was really there: the shapes, textures and negative spaces that Mrs V created as she posed on her drafty podium.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when a friend called to unleash a tirade about some vile human being who’d apparently dumped an unwanted sofa on the pavement outside his house. In an attempt to ease his apoplexy, I gently asked what his six year old daughter thought of the matter. ‘What the hell are you on about??’ was his considered response, but I persevered to explain that, stripped of all its projected emotion (chain smoking, foul-mouthed, fly-tipping slag etc), all that really existed on the kerbside was a big, bouncy, squishy thing.

This technique, of seeing a problem through a child’s eyes, has been very useful over the years, particularly in retail. Ignore what you know about the brand, forget the footfall figures, the struggles you had with the head of merchandising, convincing the board and the fights with the shop-fitters…and just look. Stand there quietly for a few minutes, in short trousers if you wish, and simply see what your store really is, what it says, what it asks you to do, what it thinks it’s about. Becoming a six year old liberates us from all the warped preconceptions we learnt over the years, the limescale of experience that builds over time.

My final short tale begins at a meeting with a major department store. I arrived early, so decided to wait in their customer café, rather than in their dentist-like reception. With time to kill, I switched into six year old mode, and simply observed. What I saw was a bit of a revelation. This busy café, located alongside a mother & baby department, was a perfect pit stop for stressed mummies juggling push-chairs, shopping bags, screaming kids and social media. An experienced eye, one belonging to the manager for example, would see a bustling café with a healthy queue, a decent stack of pastries and enough free tables if only they could be cleared more swiftly.

But my six year old saw something very different. He saw long lines of agitated mothers balancing trays of boiling water on pram handles above their babies’ heads. He watched the four-point turns the buggies were forced to endure to negotiate the metal balustrade alongside the servery. And worse, he saw an army of staff avoiding eye contact as they lasered in on dirty saucers like robotic magpies.

(I’m pleased to say not long after my meeting, this café was replaced by a very nice restaurant with table service and a pram park)

Six year olds may be cute with button noses, but they are also beautifully equipped with fresh minds, untainted by convention and unburdened by experience. They will ask poignant questions like ‘what’s this for?’ and ‘why did you do that?’ If we can start to address some of these simple issues then we’re really onto something.

High street retail is in a quandary at the moment. It’s not quite sure what it is and where it’s going. So, the new year is the perfect time to slip on those shorts, stand at the entrance to your store for a few minutes, and ask yourself some innocent little questions. You might just get a glimpse of the future.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 11, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE DARK SIDE OF THE ME AGE

The heavenly choirs were at full pitch as the fallout from the global financial crisis became apparent. Suddenly, the sky parted and we were handed a slim, black, slab of glass and told we were now in charge, we were in control. No longer would we need to wait to see what the mainstream media had prepared for us at six o’clock every evening. No longer would we need to press our ears to the radio to discover which twenty tunes they’d lined up for us. The dawning of the ME Age really was this biblical. At precisely the time we lost our faith in governments, banks and authorities of all kinds, the smart-phone arrived to grant us uncharted access to anything and everything the planet has to offer. Little wonder it’s had such seismic impact on our high streets.

But there’s a dark and murky side to all this democracy. ME Agers have evolved into an army of super-entitled consumers, brimful with great expectations. Any semi-literate teen is a potential vlogging evangelist now, preaching how we should live, how we must better our lives. It’s not the porn you need to worry about. It’s the feeding frenzy of entitlement your children are locked into that will distort their view of life on earth. Remember, they are all beautiful now, no matter what, and all deserving of our undying respect, as well as a flawless complexion, of course.

The entitled generation is already percolating into our shopping centres, and you can expect them to become ever more demanding as they grow in number. Every mundane thing you take for granted, or haven’t thought much about, they will have an opinion on, passed to them, no doubt, by one of their teenage life coaches. Toothpaste, toilet paper, washing-up liquid, fruit juice, shampoo, aspirin…they’ll be keen to enlighten you as to how deadly these seemingly innocent products are to the health of you and the planet. Clearly, we must prepare for a mighty surge in demand for products and services that are specifically tailored to their highly individual tastes. And delivered within the hour, preferably. The ‘twas ever thus’ brigade won’t know what’s hit it.

It’s worth noting that ME culture is more bubble-up than trickle-down. The contemporary signals that scream desperately ‘I’M AN INDIVIDUAL!’ are sought much harder by those further down the socio-economic scale, perhaps for obvious reasons.

The rise in the number of obscure intolerances is also a by-product of the ME Age. What better way to signal our specialness than to decline an unsuspecting food type while eating amongst friends or colleagues? To date, brands have adapted pretty quickly to our mushrooming pickiness, but they will have to keep on their toes, as it’s unlikely the esteem, with which we now hold ourselves, will dampen anytime soon.

The current ‘pestminster’ scandal can be put down, in part, to our new-found self worth. Victimology, the science of actively seeking out victim status, is clearly on the rise as more of us feel special enough to demand retribution for every awkward, inappropriate sexual advance, or ham-fisted flirtation, dating back decades. Once upon a time, crude or tacky behavior would have been shrugged off as merely that. But today, our egos demand vengeance. No need for expensive lawyers or painful post-mortems. One tiny tweet can be quickly fashioned into an ugly-man destroying missile, and launched with the lightest index finger.

We are in the midst of a cultural upheaval. Back on the high street we are watching the demise of mass market generalists, mid market supermarkets and department stores, largely because they sell the same stuff as everyone else, to absolutely anyone. But very soon, we’ll arrive in a retail wonderland where artificial intelligence will tailor anything our little hearts desire (as well as plenty they had never even considered). In the meantime, we are fast approaching a clash of cultures that could destroy the traditional retail contract: great expectations vs commercial pragmatism. Whether it’s tinned soup or handmade shoes, retail’s unspoken trick is to sell us mass produced merchandise as if it were specially designed for us. As the ME Age gathers momentum, this may well be our biggest challenge yet.

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

  Howard Saunders   Nov 14, 2017   big data, Brand, me, me age, Retail, smartphone, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

THE DEATH OF NUANCE

The good, the bad, and the nothing in between

Futurists and soothsayers of all varieties predict so many deaths of cultures, eras and fashions that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Death makes a much more striking headline than to warn of demise, so I make no apology here for announcing the death of subtlety and adding another corpse to our ever expanding cultural obituary.

I blame politics. Nuance has been looking sickly for a number of years but rigor mortis really set in some time mid 2016, just before the dreaded elections. Over the course of the summer and pushing into late Autumn the western world turned fully binary. You were either in or out, either on the left or the right, there was no in between. Politics has always been adversarial, with its two party bias whipped up by the media, but something was different this time. Each of us set up camp firmly in one territory or the other and hunkered down, right through into the new year…and there’s no sign of things easing yet.

I blame the media. The BBC and CNN, in fact all of them, talk to us like Blue Peter presenters. In gently lilting tones they simplify things for us to digest, like Mummy cutting up our food. The relentless drip, drip, drip of reassuring reasonableness has taken its toll. We have become infantilized. Everyone is either a goodie or a baddie.

If you are good you vote left. That’s the caring, sharing thing to do. You distrust big business, love the European Union and relish every dystopian warning on climate change you read. If you are bad you vote right. You love big business (since it probably made you rich) hate foreigners and believe climate change is a conspiracy. Surely, even the oikiest of oiks amongst us knows these polar positions could not bear the gentlest scrutiny, and yet this is precisely where we increasingly feel most comfortable.

I blame Facebook. It’s the most powerful forum ever invented but it’s no place for nuance. Our silly social avatars must only be seen faking the thrill of being alive, clinking glasses, peace-signing and mugging to camera. Every tiny, insignificant event in our friends’ lives is offered up as something we must like, heart or cry over. If we fail to decorate our page with the flag of the nation of the latest victim of terrorism, we may ourselves slip into the bad category, amongst the ‘friends’ best avoided. And when they poke fun at a ‘bad’ politician or celebrity we have a thumbprint’s chance to join them and show the world that we are good, not bad like the bad man. This isn’t debate, it’s whack-a-mole politics. We’ve become babies.

I blame Twitter. How can an argument be constructed in 140 little letters? It’s a terrific tool for missile shaped comment and observation but these staccato sound bites can hardly be expected to encourage fluid debate. They merely offer themselves up for us to love or ignore. You’re either with me or against me. Snap decisions force us to go binary and sucker us into joining the consensus. After all, it saves so much time.

But we’ve recently entered a much more dangerous binary phase. In the rush to be outraged and signal our universal goodness we are picking on dull, bird shit spattered statues and demanding they be removed for representing bad deeds. Even lonely old Nelson high above Trafalgar Square, who hasn’t been bothered for 180 years (unless you include John Noakes in 1977) has suddenly become a target.

This binary frenzy threatens our biggest brands too: Secretive Apple, censorious Google and tax dodging Amazon must learn to live on a cliff’s edge, knowing that at any minute the tide may turn against them. These three money making monsters are not just big business, they supply us with the tools for modern life and yet, as crucial as they are, they are more vulnerable than perhaps any of us realize. If, say, we turn against Google for being too manipulative, it might just find itself in the bad column. If it does, it will surely crash to earth as swiftly and as heavily as General Robert E Lee bit the Virginia dust.

Even lower profile brands cannot hide from the Outrage Hunters. Let’s scan a few high street names: Tesco, Sports Direct, John Lewis, Rapha, Walmart. Lululemon, JC Penney, Burger King, T Mobile….don’t be shy. You know which camps they fall into.

I am not normally one to fret over the domination of social media. I believe the planet has just opened up for all of us and the benefits of the digital age are only just becoming clear. I do hope, however, that the fashion for binary opinion on everything and anything is just that, a fashion.

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

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2017   Apple, Brand, Future, Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BOTS CAN’T DANCE

It’s official. 2017 is the year we went mad. All of us here in the UK, anyway. On the one hand we are resigned to the fact it will probably take twenty years to unravel a few trade agreements with the EU, and yet, on the other hand, we fully expect a driverless car to be whisking us off to work within a few months. We mutter endlessly about the naivety of our political leaders, but will happily recount the news that Elon Musk and Matt Damon will shortly be starting a colony on Mars. And in the pub on a Friday night we can be heard thanking god for the robots that will replace us at work, so that finally we’ll have the time to make home-brew, do the gardening and enjoy life on the UBI (Universal Basic Income).

We’re told that shopping will radically change too, when the supermarket shelf stackers are replaced by little Star Wars droids that work through the night, at considerably less than the minimum wage. During the day, of course, those shelves will sing with Minority Report style promotions, designed especially for us.

Dinner party conversation is of home-robot chefs, exactly as predicted by the Jetsons in the sixties. Sillier still, we grin like schoolchildren at talk of sex bots with hyper-realistic latex skin and randomly blinking eyes, that will keep us company and a lot more besides.

The future has never looked so puffed up and swaggeringly arrogant as it does right now. Drone deliveries, telepathically controlled computers, flying cars, homes that talk back to us, 3D printed organs, lab grown meat and brands that know what we want before we do. It’s all very scary.

Oh come on. The future may be racing towards us faster than ever but it’s probably not a bad idea to hang on to some sense of reality a tad longer. It’s as if the mundanity of ordinary life has become so mind-numbing that we reserve our optimism exclusively for fantastical visions of the future, the ones that will probably never happen. Call me Mr D. Squib if you must, but a little injection of practical, down to earth common sense may help put things into some sort of context, so that we’re not so desperately disappointed when the future finally arrives. Which, of course, it never does.

Firstly, we will not be washing our driverless cars on a Sunday morning. A vehicle that can take us to work as we read our tablets already exists. It’s called a train. Or a bus, for that matter. Our roads are clogged already thanks, and they’re unlikely to free up when we each own an autonomous vehicle. And what does it do once it’s deposited us at work? There won’t be room for it to park up and wait for us to finish. No, what our techno-boffins are promising here is a sophisticated new mode of public transport, charged by the mile no doubt.

Drones are more than ready and able to deliver to your door, but reality will kick in when drone delivery goes mass market. There is no way governments will allow swarms of electronic bats to hover above our homes all hours of the day and night, awaiting a thumbprint signature. Not least because they’ll get in the way of their own surveillance drones. Oh yes, that’s sure to happen.

Connected home technology has already become mainstream, if not mass market, but the benefits are limited, simply because our homes are old, often very old, stock. Besides, the opportunity to control the heating remotely was solved decades ago by a simple timer.

The exhilarating vision of talking shelves and shelf-stacking bots can be crushed in one fell swoop, I’m afraid. Supermarkets are already being replaced by local, smaller, more artisan producers. We won’t be wheeling our trolleys past holographic shelf ads because we won’t be wheeling trolleys, full stop. Not because the technology isn’t ready.

Home robots that do the cooking and cleaning are still a very long way off, simply because comprehensive, sensory dexterity is bloody difficult, as well as ridiculously expensive. Rest assured that by the time they’re available you certainly won’t be able to afford one. Not on your UBI anyway! And for the record, Universal Basic Income will be a disaster: another debilitating measure to make us even more state dependent…and utterly useless for the economy.

And saving the juiciest until last, I mean, really? You think a sex bot will ever replace human intimacy? Maybe for a few psychopaths it will, but it’s worth remembering that bots can’t dance yet. And when they do, it just won’t be sexy.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jul 19, 2017   Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   1 Comment   Read More