There’s a revolution happening in fast food. No exaggeration, the tide has turned and it won’t be turning back. The big daddy of fast food, the mighty McDonald’s and its contemporaries are in a quandary. With declining sales last year McDonald’s closed more stores than it opened in the US…for the first time. In ever growing numbers something has shifted inside us. Our post-crash mindsets are now in search of better quality products with values, not just value, and the food industry in particular is finding it hard to adapt. Let’s not misunderstand this. McDonald’s is still selling us millions of burgers every year. 26 million to be precise, from its 14,000 US restaurants alone.

Ask yourself how you feel about McDonald’s, Burger King or Subway? Has your attitude changed and what changed it? How often do you eat there now? And, perhaps more to the point, how do you feel about being seen carrying those little brown bags of shame? Shame, yes that is surely part of the problem. Where once the glowing red and yellow signs represented a sunny, modern American lifestyle, now they have come to represent bad health, obesity, the poor…or all three.

Are we even allowed to say ‘the poor’ now? Low socio-economic status seems such a waste of time. To say that many of these customers are poor is not to put them down, or to suggest that they are trapped there through idleness or ignorance. Single mothers with a family to feed are faced with a simple choice: they can spend $10 on healthy vegetables and other ingredients that need peeling, preparing, cooking and, let’s face it, flavouring, or they can spend $5 on a Happy Meal. I always come back to the fact that humans are a logical species and faced with that choice the Happy Meal wins hands down. It even includes a drink and a toy, for god’s sake! Lentil soup is no competition.

But the news just gets worse. This endless gorging on high fat, high sugar, high sodium foods is not just disastrous for our health, it may well be the major cause of climate change too. Watch the powerful and persuasive ‘Cowspiracy’ documentary for the detail but some of the figures are astonishing:

Animal agriculture consumes 30% of the world’s water. One cow eats 140-150 pounds of water intensive grain and drinks anything up to 50 gallons of water…per day! It takes a shocking 660 gallons of water to produce one quarter pounder. Animal agriculture is also responsible for 91% of the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest and it seems that anyone who points this out over there is very quickly ‘disappeared’.

As ‘Cowspiracy’ elegantly illustrates, it makes a mockery of eco shower heads and rubber bricks in your cistern.

But things are changing. As we learn more and more about how our diet is affecting our own, aswell as our planet’s, health more of us are joining the ranks of the Worried Well. Those of us in employment, the urban gym rats, the ambitious, the concerned, the conscientious and those that believe they have some sort of an investment in the future are shunning the big chains and choosing instead to lunch at Sweetgreen, Dig Inn or Chop’d: small chains that focus on seasonality and local produce. No longer is McDonald’s in competition with Burger King. It’s these small ‘artisan’ brands that are grabbing market share from the big fast food brands in our busy urban centres. The ‘artisan revolution’ is happening right across the board: whether it’s beer, bread, coffee, chocolate or cheese, the big corporations are losing sales to small batch producers with their ‘authentic’ values and health halos. Sales at the big brands are still gargantuan in comparison, of course, but we are witnessing a David and Goliath battle that’s being played out, not in high production advertising, but on the far more treacherous battleground of social media.

The response has been fascinating. McDonald’s, the biggest and by far the cleverest, is leading the counter attack and now sources its chickens free from antibiotics even branding its chicken sandwich ‘artisan’ and who can blame it since the definition of this well worn word is so woolly. It also recently replaced margarine with butter on its Egg McMuffin. This small and rather obvious decision sends seismic shockwaves throughout the food industry simply due to the enormous numbers involved. It means that McDonald’s will increase its dairy use by nearly six hundred million pounds of milk each year…enough to produce every pound of butter the US exports.

McDonald’s is testing new formats too. For example, it’s currently trialling a bespoke burger here in Manhattan under the ‘create your taste’ banner. I tried it. It’s actually really good. You build your own burger, with a big choice of extras, toppings and even buns, on a giant iPad. After you swipe to pay you pick up a GPS disc so that they can deliver your meal straight to your table. It avoids having to deal with the sullen counter staff for one thing and certainly gives Five Guys and Shake Shack a run for their money.

It’s important that we don’t get over agitated by the numbers everyone throws at the big brands. Back in 2001 Fast Food Nation shocked us with plenty of that. The sad reality is that if a billion of us want chicken for dinner then, one way or another, a billion chickens have to die. If we go back to rearing chickens and cows in idyllic, free range conditions there simply isn’t enough planet for us all to eat meat. Sensible and well meaning pleas for us to quell our carniverous desires will not work. Even recent evidence that meat eating can cause cancer had little effect. We have become meat addicts and only when the price of meat starts to become truly prohibitive will we cut back. The most likely scenario is that the middle classes will ‘do the right thing’ by eating only high quality hand-reared animals once or twice a week, leaving low cost protein, along with the high sugar intake, to those who can’t afford anything better. Of course, this will only exacerbate the fact that the poor are more likely to be obese with all the health consequences that entails.

As with so many areas of consumer behaviour at the moment, we are witnessing a rebalancing and ultimately it’s good news. We are already seeing the big chains react with more ethical processes and that is sure to gather momentum as we learn more about good and bad nutrition. Prices will have to increase to accommodate these changes but a Meal Deal will always be just that, good value. Perhaps the biggest issue will have to be faced by Coca Cola and the big drinks corporations…but that’s another story.

McDonald’s has a unique and very direct relationship with its customers, unlike so many of the giant food corporations. Its influence and sheer buying power is sure to gradually fine tune fast food to be better produced, slower and more ethical wherever it can. At the other end of the spectrum high quality fast casual brands will have to face a different dilemma: how big should they get? In other words, how big can David grow before he becomes Goliath?

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  Howard Saunders   Nov 24, 2015   Brand, Food, Future, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More


Is this really the best you can do? Here at the South Terminal the jewel in the crown is…Nando’s. Yes, Nando’s. And the big anchor on the top floor is a dark and sticky Wetherspoons called The Flying F*** (or maybe it’s horse). As a nod to the twenty first century we have three grubby little internet booths. Yes, here you can pay for a session on THE INTERNET! Wow, I love THE INTERNET. At least it’s an escape from this hell hole. God forbid you just give us free, non-Boingo goose-chase access to THE INTERNET. What would we do with all that freedom? I dread to think!

Take a close look at this place, for what they have built here is a direct reflection of what they think of their customers…and that means you. This sub-Lakeside setting has been skilfully sculpted around what they think we want, none of this happened by accident. They sat with architects and consultants and negotiated hard with a range of tenants to bring you the mix that’s right for you. Not for them, you understand. Not for their wives or husbands, nor for their children. No, Gatwick is clearly aimed at other people’s children, the ones we avoid, the ones that shout at us in the street.

So let’s look at these customers: the fearless builders, arms full of Eastern symbolism and heads full of football, the little lavendered old ladies who rub their spotted hands in constant disapproval and chew their estuary vowels like seedless grapes. The pubescent parents laden with pushchairs and baby kit, the snub-nosed, borderline-obese teens, faces as sullen as X Factor rejects. Yes Gatwick, I too avoid these people but don’t you think we should give them something better than this? Can we not raise their expectations a tiny bit, or must they simply have another McDonalds and Cafe Rouge? Is there anyone left on Planet Shit that really believes Wondertree is an up and coming restaurant plucked from Chichester town square and not just a catering conglomerate’s cynical impersonation?

Are we not clever enough to give these ordinary, ‘hard working families’ a glimpse of something better before they land on Lanzarote? Let’s try and be helpful here. For a start we could have a gourmet burger bar, there are lots of great ones to choose from. And how about a John Lewis style restaurant, bright and contemporary, with an open kitchen and a small, daily, freshly prepared menu? Instead of the dark and dingy Flying F*** there could be an open bar with local ales, holiday cocktails and friendly barmen. There could even be an astro-turf picnic area and cinema screen where families can relax and enjoy their Pret sandwiches and takeaways.

I know I sound like a pipedreamer and you think my argument doesn’t ‘stack up’ but hang on a minute. You are the ones that want another runway! You are the guys that want to be taken seriously as the gateway to England!

So, be careful Gatwick that, like Tesco, you don’t just ‘give us what we want’. Tesco sank into a mire of its own making, grabbing desperately at Giraffe and Harris & Hoole at the last minute to make it look as if it was listening. Of course, it only dragged those down too.

Mediocrity has an immense gravity, especially when it fills the tills every night. What England needs is a vision, an uplifting, chest filling, brand showcase that makes us feel proud of our funny little island. Dear Gatwick, I know you can do better.

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  Howard Saunders   Oct 28, 2015   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More


I gave a talk in The Netherlands recently which specifically asked for predictions for the year 2035. I love challenges like this, scary though they are. General rhetoric about shifts in behavior are not enough; you have to really put your neck on the line. So here’s a summary of my forecast for 2035:

Firstly, I call myself a Retail Futurist because that’s exactly what I do: I worked in retail design for over 20 years and now I track retail and consumer trends internationally to build a picture of how things are likely to develop. Shops, and consequently our towns and cities, are in a state of flux as never before. It’s such an exciting time: new technologies have given rise to new consumer behaviour and we are just beginning to see the manifestations of this.

Secondly, I must also declare that I am an optimist. So, to take the serious issues head on I believe we will largely overcome the threat of climate change and whilst terrorist groups will continue to multiply and become ever more dangerous, I believe, as the figures prove, we will continue to live in a more peaceful and less violent society than ever. Since the financial crash, I believe our towns and cities are experiencing a renaissance. Paradoxically, in this digital age we are rediscovering the importance of community and this has to be great news for the future.

I think it’s important here to point out the natural gravity toward the negative when it comes to prediction. We have good evidence of how different civilisations, across many centuries, reacted when they saw Halley’s Comet, for example. In 1066 they thought it was an omen for the death of Harold II at Hastings and before that this ‘sign from the gods’ was responsible for endless predictions of failing crops as well as thousands of brutal sacrificial killings.

Not one civilisation that we know of thought the comet’s bright tail in the sky foretold a better crop or more healthy offspring. It seems the power of portent lies clearly at the negative end of the spectrum.

Cities are ultimately places for the exchange of ideas. They are, and always will be, hubs for the young and ambitious who want to change things or simply feel close to the centre of the universe. In mature democracies our cities are at the beginning of an age of enlightenment: we are learning how to regenerate broken spaces, learning to love our heritage and history and coming up with ever more inventive ways to make spaces alive and vibrant. The good news is that retail is now seen as a catalyst for this. Architects and town planners who once preferred a purist vision of civic buildings and green spaces are learning that select retail can bring colour and life to a space. So, in 2035 we can expect our global cities to have many more communal spaces, urban parks, oases, event spaces and arenas where people gather for fashion and food shows, markets, theatre, performances and promotions of all kinds. The marriage of commerce and culture will be a much more comfortable one with big companies wanting to benefit from the warm glow of community. Parts of our city centres will be ‘ring-fenced’ and better managed with branded cleaners and security staff paid for by corporate sponsorship.

I may be a futurist and an optimist but I’m also a realist. There will be no shortage of issues to worry us. Health scares will increase in frequency and give rise to ever more niche, restrictive diets, which in turn will require niche food operators and diet specialists. For insurance purposes we will all be expected to monitor our own health much more closely with our personal devices and for those of us that can afford it medicine and healthcare will become highly bespoke with hourly monitoring.

Contrary to popular predictions we will not be commuting in our driverless cars, nor will the sky be thick with drones delivering toothpaste. Drones will be used mostly for surveillance, security, crowd control at events and for emergency deliveries. Driverless cars will only be seen in highly managed city epicentres, and even then they will be restricted to under 40 kph. Many of our major global cities are projected to grow by at least 20% by 2035 and no matter how small and eco-friendly our cars become, the infrastructure will simply not be able to cope with individual vehicles for the general population. Car sharing is a much more practical, and therefore likely, model for getting us all around, and we are already witnessing the beginnings of this with Uber and its contemporaries. On our motorways, driverless trucks will run constantly in a designated lane, only requiring human drivers to help them reach their final destinations.

Politics will continue to be a bumpy and reactionary road but the incremental move away from post war socialism will continue as we learn better how to manage our economies, reduce state dependency and harness corporate sponsorship.

After several decades that saw our venues for cinema and theatre gradually get smaller and more intimate, we will see the resurgence of big, communal venues of a thousand plus: the increasingly bespoke nature of our ‘inner worlds’ will see us cherish big, communal events again and enjoy feeling part of a big crowd.

As for the mix of stores and shops, we are at the beginning of some big changes on the high street. I would expect to see a much more polarized picture: big, glamorous fashion flagships in our major cities, alongside niche independents. Many department store brands will have disappeared making way for ‘click & collect’ centres run by new brands to the high street that made their names online, including players such as Amazon. Rents will flex to encourage start-ups to join the fun and I’d expect to see shorter leases and increased turn around bringing new players to market more frequently. Stores will become brand showcases, arriving in a town for a few weeks at a time, before moving on. Technology will make stores much more informative showing us how and where things are made and how we can customize them. Out of town and edge of town supermarkets will have become value warehouses selling largely on price. Smaller, high end food brands will sell groceries in town but with a much greater focus on good quality take away meals. Banks will have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Advertising will be highly targeted and individually bespoke. City billboards will be interactive, talking to passers-by in real time, offering us Minority Report style tailored promotions and opportunities. Our favourite stores and brands will be our personal ‘clubs’, inviting us to previews and events in return for holding all our personal information so that cash and credit cards will become obsolete. Payment systems will be invisible with fingerprint recognition widespread. Privacy will be bigger issue than ever before as we become a highly monitored society. ‘The internet of things’ will bring us bespoke service and better information…but at the price of much greater surveillance. Our mobile devices will be critical for us to access services and information of all sorts, but they will also dissuade and restrict us from ‘buying that last drink’ or eating unhealthily. In short, we will be both better served and far more restricted.

Voice responsive operating systems will see the end of the keyboard on our mobile devices but this may give new life to the Google Glass, or equivalent, as we will need to hear our OS responses from an earpiece or from the arm of a pair of glasses. We will continue to be ‘moths’ ie. screen focussed, but screens are likely to become ‘bendyware’ ie. soft, malleable, expandable and much more comfortable to carry and wear than today’s hardware. Information will be held remotely so that a screen I touch will reveal different information than when you touch the same screen.

Robotics is another subject that brings out droves of doom and gloom merchants. However, just as it took the digital age to help us recognise the importance of community, so the rise of robotics will help reveal what is great about humanity: emotion, empathy, hospitality and the human connection.

It is not difficult to imagine a world in which data ‘knows’ everything about us: our personal preferences, habits and tastes in fashion, food, film and music. This is already happening. The consequences for retail though are particularly exciting. If during a film your favourite star can be ‘clicked on’ to order her dress in your size and colour, then exactly what constitutes a ‘shop’ will change yet again.

All of this comes with huge issues of security and privacy but ultimately, as an optimist, I believe that we can look forward to a world where there will be no customers, no consumers. Finally, we will all be individuals.

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  Howard Saunders   Oct 14, 2015   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SAN FRANCISCO: The King is Dead!

San Francisco is getting a new king.  I know this because the battle for power has left a dark, gaping hole at its very heart, on the elevated corner of Union Square. For this was where the mighty Levi’s flagship stood as a mecca and monument to the garment that dressed the world and changed it forever. But now in the very city that denim was born, there’s a ghostly void, a chasm that tells a tale of how things have changed here, and so very quickly.

Poor old Levi has not had an easy time of late. In perhaps the most competitive and nuanced fashion market there is, his historic indigo cotton has lost much of its cool to younger, louder types. Levi’s is a brand that carries almost universal love. Everyone has stories and fond memories to share, but too few actually buy. To be relegated from its proud Union Square pedestal is humiliating enough, but to watch its beautiful home annihilated is surely a stinging slap in the face for such an iconic and famously indigenous brand. So now, the busy cranes and earth movers dance upon poor old Levi’s grave to make way for a shiny new shrine; a palace made of glass nonetheless, designed by the world’s finest maker of glass palaces, Sir Norman Foster. Only the richest company on the planet would have the audacity to dethrone the old King of San Francisco in such a public manner. Yes, it’s Apple.

You can well imagine the board meetings at Levi’s that spruced up the language of this deposition as ‘bringing it’s flagship back to the people’, but it’s not convincing anyone. This was a battle of the icons, and the richest and cleverest won. It seems this new age of retail has turned everything upside down. Denim, the ultimate symbol of cool, has been out-cooled by the nerds that made technology trendy. Marlon Brando would be appalled.

The king chose well. Apparently, Steve jobs personally called Sir Norman Foster to ask for help a few years back, and the first results of their little chat opened in Istanbul in May this year. From the top of the brand new Zorlu shopping centre the new Apple store looks like a giant MacBook. He didn’t let them down.

Foster is also busy on what must surely be one of the most difficult design jobs ever: none other than Apple’s HQ in Cupertino. This will truly be the home of the world’s greatest superpower. The colossal spaceship that sits at the centre of its 170 acre site will house 13,000 bright young things. Steve Jobs wanted the space to reflect the Californian landscape he grew up in. Now there’s a brief.

So, while San Franciscans await the imminent arrival of their new king they are at least allowed a glimpse of some deliciously tantalizing artist’s impressions of the new royal residence, and magnificently minimalist it promises to be. The toughest taskmaster, the world’s greatest architect and a mind-blowing budget must surely give us the eighth wonder. Watch this space.

The King is dead, long live the King!

  Howard Saunders   Aug 28, 2015   Apple, Brand, city, Levi's, Retail, San Francisco, shopping   0 Comment   Read More

Meet PAM

Don’t hate the hipster. The much mocked, sock-free chap who scoots around town on his gear-free bike with his razor-free chin in the air is changing the way we look at the world. He dresses like a pioneer-pilgrim with a big beard and rolled up denim because that’s what he is, and we have a lot to thank him for. He is reshaping our towns, shops, restaurants and brands for a generation sick of the mass produced and the mediocre. He is an ambassador for a new retail world, one that is stripped of fakery and corporate bullshit. The brands he loves emanate the very essence of what he stands for and he is never, ever seduced by marketing rhetoric and glossy advertising. At least, that’s the theory. Of course, as Peter York points out in his new book ‘Authenticity is a con’ it’s all fakery anyway, which is about as nihilist as saying ‘we’re all going to die anyway’. Absolutely true of course, but perhaps not very helpful.

The hipster, as all cultures before it, is simply the extreme expression of our new view of the planet. When punk pioneered its irreverent attitude to music, art and authority we did not need to stick safety pins through our nostrils to join, and ultimately enjoy, the powerful groundswell of change this reactionary culture brought us.

So far from being a just a quirky fashion subculture the hipster is spearheading the way the majority of us feel right now about our retail landscape. The hipster is Post Apocalypse Man (and woman, of course) that grew up after the financial crash, at its epicentre here in New York. To be precise, PAM was born in Brooklyn, just a few yards across the water from Wall Street, and spread quickly throughout our angry urban centres including Pearl District in Portland, Mission in San Francisco, Shoreditch in London, Fitzroy in Melbourne and Kreuzberg in Berlin.

Actually, the earliest sightings of the species just preceded the turn of the millennium. Perhaps he was born out of an impending sense of a new era emerging, but it was the crash that really launched PAM into the world. In 2008 we all knew things would have to change and PAM was there to take the helm and direct us towards a new landscape of aspiration.

New York’s PAM wants his local stores to sell local produce, he wants his clothes to be made in his own country, the place where denim was invented after all. He wants his beer to be brewed locally, preferably next door to the guy that fixes the fixie bikes and the barber shop that manages all the town’s beards. (And, of course, he wants his knives handmade by Cut Brooklyn too: A Trumptonesque retail utopia? Perhaps not. Look how swiftly the big brands have attempted to showcase their local credentials, their sense of community. Then consider how your own attitudes to the big supermarkets, burger and coffee chains have changed. However cynical you may be, do you not find yourself more attracted to limited editions, the artisanal and the bespoke, whether it be beer, bread, cheese, chocolate, coffee, handsewn leather goods or handmade bicycles? You think this is a coincidence?

There is pretty good evidence that locally produced food is better for you as well as the planet, but this misses the point. Buying locally made stuff gives us the warm glow that comes from investing in our own community, nurturing the very thing we have neglected for the last half century and seem to be rediscovering in the digital age.

PAM has revolutionised our bars and restaurants too. Barely a decade ago we were quite content with a mood lit, heavily tableclothed establishment with an encyclopaedic menu and an invisible kitchen. Not any more. PAM style spaces are stripped back with open kitchens and a focus on food rather than furnishings. Menus are getting shorter too, so short in fact that we are learning to love the set menu again. On a recent trip, after a terrifically on-trend dinner at the buzzing Bullerei restaurant in Hamburg, supercool TV chef Tim Malzer whisked me away to his Off Club. He passed me a menu that was blank apart from the words ‘Fuck Off’ tastefully printed in varnish onto the thick black paper. Was Tim trying to tell me something? Well yes, you get what you’re given here you see.

You can also thank PAM for the single dish restaurant (The Meatball Shop in New York, Johnny Casserole in Chicago, Cereal Killer Cafe and Blacklock in London etc) as well as for the meteoric rise of gourmet street food in all our major cities. PAM expects you to be an expert now and if it ain’t niche PAM just ain’t interested.

As I’ve said many times, trends don’t come from above, from big, clever, corporate think tanks: they are brewed inside us. As our aspirations and emotional needs twist and turn, then so does the world around us. So remember, when you next raise a single eyebrow behind the back of the hipster in the coffee queue as he asks about a particular bean’s provenance, this guy is changing the world for the better. He’s a goddamn hero.

  Howard Saunders   Jul 22, 2015   Blog, city, Food, Retail   4 Comments   Read More