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

SUSTAINABULLSHIT!

I’m so sick of the daily drip, drip, drip. The endless environmental nagging is too much now. Let’s deal with this head on: Nothing is sustainable. Sorry if that upsets you, but it’s true. Some things, some actions can be made more sustainable, of course. And that is a very worthy aim, but the idea that anything involved in the world of making stuff: producing food, manufacturing products, buildings and infrastructure can ever be sustainable is pompous nonsense. And yet, find me an annual report in the FTSE 100 that hasn’t added the S word to its corporate, virtue signalling lexicon.

Two more things while I’m in full rant mode. 1. The planet is old and wise. We might live a minute by minute existence, measuring this and that on a daily basis, but Gaia doesn’t think like that. You might feel smug when recycling your yoghurt pots but she looks at the long term, big picture and knows, for example, that all your ugly building development is hugely damaging to her planet. Let’s briefly consider plans for just one poxy new office block. It will require thousands of tonnes of highly damaging concrete and bricks fired in huge, high carbon emitting, energy quaffing kilns. Then there’s the immense tonnage of gypsum plaster, acres of desperately damaging gas-fired glass, heat-treated structural steel, engineered wooden floors, hundreds of computer terminals, miles of copper wiring and, of course, beautiful granite vandalised in giant chunks from a mountainside in Brazil or India, only to be craned onto diesel glugging cargo ships before grinding and polishing… just so the reception looks posh. Then we have to fill the place with thousands of tubular steel chairs and tables covered in plastic with plastic moulded wheels and plastic handles. Look, the list goes on and on. And this is before it declares itself a sustainable building because its loos flush with rainwater. For god’s sake, how supine must you be to believe this stuff?

Oh and 2. Mother Earth does not keep annual accounts. At the beginning of the year she doesn’t expect us to do a little better than the previous year. Planets, and the Earth is no exception, just keep spinning…until they don’t. Your carbon footprint is not a blackboard that gets wiped clean every December 31st. Your pollution output keeps compounding. Just because you drove your gas guzzler a little less this year, compared to last, means you drove more in total, I’m afraid. The planet is not stupid like most of us clearly are.

The enthusiasm for banning ‘single use’ plastics is equally infantile. You may use your Sainsbury’s carrier bag a thousand times before finally fashioning it into a handy effigy of George Michael, but it’s still one extra piece of plastic to ship to Chinese landfill. The environment won’t credit you for not using the 999 imaginary bags you could have used.

A few years ago I spoke at a retail conference along with a gentle soul from Prince Charles’ very own Duchy Originals. In Eton-esque tones he explained how in the interest of sustainability they’d thinned the carton to reduce the amount of paper they use, as well as the freight costs. When it came to questions, and even though I was up next, I felt it my duty to ask what I still consider the killer question: “Admirable though all your efforts clearly are Sir, wouldn’t it have been better for the planet if you’d simply stopped producing biscuits entirely?” My point, if I need to hammer it home, is that asking the public to do less, or consume less, is so judgemental. Do we really need biscuits, holidays or marble reception halls? Ultimately, someone has to be the arbiter of all this. Nagging us to stop flying to Barcelona, whilst rich companies receive accolades for reducing the thickness of their biscuit packs, is rude to the point of bloody insulting.

So, it’s time to get real. It’s pretty obvious that no amount of reusing plastic bags, thinning cardboard and rationing holidays can possibly dent the mighty issue we all face. We cannot keep piddling about at the edges if, as we are told, we have barely twelve years to avoid environmental calamity. And if things are as serious as we are to believe, then we must stop expecting the poor, befuddled consumer to turn things around. No, we need brave, decisive action from those indecisive, bespectacled bureaucrats we put in power. Bold action from the top is what we want, not the endless, daily nagging we’re currently forced to endure. Forget the Green New Deal, here’s my three point, London-centric, starter plan:

1. No more office building. None. There are hundreds of acres of office space available in London and we can’t possibly need any more dildo shaped signature buildings on our historic skyline. They gesture on the horizon like the rude middle-fingers they are, a daily reminder that rinsing yoghurt pots is for the little people. Apart from anything, an almighty push for remote working is long, long overdue. The technology has been around for decades but we’re too stuck in our ways to use it properly. Think of the travel emissions that alone would save!

2. We must drastically reduce food imports. Transportation of produce is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases. Currently, something like 50% of UK food is imported. Let’s get that down to 10% in ten years. It would encourage more home grown production, create jobs and, perhaps more importantly, reboot the byzantine nonsense that sees us both import and export milk and beef, for example. 

3. Let’s ban paperwork. All of it. There’s simply no need for ‘hard copies’ any more, and most of it looks embarrassingly out of place in this digital age. The sight of literally thousands of discarded Metro newspapers on the Underground every day, when we all have a smartphone is immoral. (Plus it’s a dreadful rag, anyway) If governments, big business and local authorities led the way by removing the need for all paperwork, what an amazing example they would set. Trickle down would be fast, impressive and quickly spread to other areas of the economy including the mighty swamp that is product packaging. 

I’m sure there are a million more sweeping changes that can set us in the right direction, but these are my three decisive moves that would swiftly improve the environment without putting the blame on ordinary consumers. That’s the change I’m begging for. So, until the powers-that-be implement some proper economy-shifting decisions, I swear I’ll never stuff that wrinkly old Sainsbury’s bag in my anorak pocket ever again.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Jul 08, 2019   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

WE ARE ALREADY CYBORGS!

What’s the name of that bloke in that film? You know, the one about that telepathic girl stranded on an island? How long would it take to walk to the Arctic Circle and how many people actually live there? And how long would we survive on Mars, if we took off our helmets?

The answer to these, and a billion other banal questions, lies at our fingertips in the form of that little slab of black glass, our GODs (Great Overlords of Data) who will endeavour to answer precisely, however scantily clad in fact our ridiculous enquiry. Yes, we have the sum of all human knowledge with us at all times. This digital augmentation happened almost overnight. There was no surgery involved, no implants, no cocktail of drugs or injections. All we had to do was to pop into town to scrawl like a five year old across a screen and we were connected. Everyone knows everything now. We are already Cyborgs.

We used to joke about the smartphone being our most valued possession, prized even more than our homes and our children. Today, of course, we know the smartphone owns us. For a start, it knows a lot more about us than we do. Say you were witness to a serious incident, your account of where you were, what you did, how long you stood there looking hopeless, who you spoke to and what you talked about would be pretty unreliable. Perhaps you would adjust the times to bolster your importance, and you certainly wouldn’t mention the rude texts you sent your brother a few minutes earlier. No, no. You are a fully grown human being and reliable witness. Your GOD, on the other hand, will snitch on you in an instant, brazenly showing the authorities exactly where you were on a real-time map, and the fact you were staring at your screen most of the time anyway. Suddenly, those rude texts don’t look very funny.

We may convince ourselves we’re pumping iron at the gym three times a week, reading intellectual tomes regularly and tucked up in bed by eleven, but our beloved personal snitch may beg to differ, raising its digital eyebrows as you illuminate your spellbound colleagues. Our routines and preferences have long been engraved into its memory.  We each carry a personal black box computer, literally, wherever we go (which incidentally, is stupidly predictable) that records our every move for eternity. Coming of age now arrives almost a decade before puberty. We hand our eight year olds their first ‘phones’ so that their inane musings can be published instantly, and globally. Stitched into the ether forever,  waiting in fear of being disinterred for public ridicule in generations to come.

You may think you are an independent life-form with absolute free will, but sadly you are not. You could run into the chip shop today wearing nothing but an Ikea lampshade and demand a free battered sausage. But you don’t. You my friend, just like the rest of us, are utterly predictable. You go to the same handful of places to do the same things, listen to the same music and watch the same sort of films on Netflix. This is what gives predictive algorithms their limitless magical power.

Your personal, digital assistant is ready to manage your life in ways we cannot yet imagine. Alexa, Siri and their chums will plan and even negotiate with the businesses and organisations you deal with on a daily basis, making booking, form-filling and applications soon seem quaintly nostalgic. Your regular Friday night takeaway will be negotiated and ordered as you sleep, perhaps with a competing curry house. Regular train or plane journeys will be reserved long in advance and adjusted accordingly. A smart digital assistant will know when your family needs a holiday and will research and negotiate with companies eager to bid for your business. A greater sense of trust will emerge, as ultimately of course ‘they know where you live’ and probably have your bank details too.

The benefits for those of us plugged into the economy will be obvious. And for those of us less fortunate? Well, that’s for another blog.

But rest assured, far too many predictions are set in the world of the busy executive with a minute by minute diary and a Starbucks pitstop scheduled on route to an airport. The true power of technology is much more democratic and even handed than that, I’m pleased to say. Remember how we all shifted to WhatsApp while the so-called Masters of the Universe were still fumbling with the pinhead keys on their Blackberries? The same will be true of AI as it sweeps in to revolutionise entertainment, health services, access to credit, public services and education and probably even democracy itself. Right across the population it will lubricate lives and eliminate the impotence of anonymity.

Smartphones may have almost reached saturation point here in the West, but their journey to improving our lives has barely begun. 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Jun 04, 2019   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More