PETROLHEDONISM: NEW YORK’S AUTO SHOW & THE AMERICAN SPIRIT

Here’s the thing: Manhattan men don’t like cars. I know because they say so loudly in bars accompanied by an effete salute. ‘I know NOTHING about cars’ they chime, as if just breaking sexual stereotypes instantly elevates you above your peers. Women here say the same about cooking. ‘I wouldn’t know HOW to turn it on!’ they proudly chortle in a display of inverted arrogance. So, to hold an international motor show in a city that largely despises the car may seem somewhat odd until you get a grip on its significance. The New York Auto Show is not just a petrol-head convention for out-of-towners, it is the annual visit when America comes to Manhattan.

This show has become a kind of annual barometer that measures how America feels about itself. Obviously, it was never a market for selling practical modes of transportation. The Auto Show is a brazen display of fuel-injected testosterone: who this year has the fastest, biggest, most daring etc. The romantic view of the driver as adventurer on the open road has never really waned in the US, partly because the country still has an awful lot of open road. In Europe our cars have huddled down and ‘hybridded’ up in an admirable attempt look discreet, unassuming and eminently sensible. Not here. The rocket-ship aesthetics of the 60s and 70s may have been tamed over time but the stars of the show in New York still have plenty of mirrored chrome, provocative bulges and yards of leather piping.

The American Automobile carries a weight and significance in its homeland unlike anywhere else and it has retained an openly glorified status that has yet to be quashed by those that know better. The retro-roadsters are not, as in Europe, a tongue-in-cheek design quirk, rich in urban irony. Here they are steeped in meaning. Just uttering the names Corvette, Mustang, Shelby, Buick, Dodge, Cadillac, Lincoln and Chevrolet has a tangible, reverberating resonance that rumbles the gut of America like a Chrysler 8 litre V10 with 640hp at the back wheel.

And just as hem lines rise when the economy perks up, so the dropheads step into the limelight like forgotten Hollywood starlets, and there are plenty to choose from in 2015 with the Ford GT 50th Anniversary edition (yes, 50!) as Queen Bee.

But I like to watch the crowds, the families failing to control their hyper-active children and the old men reminiscing loudly over distant four-wheeled love affairs. For this show gives us a glimpse into the soul of America where, despite a myriad of failings and broken dreams, there still purrs an engine of optimism, primed and ready to hit the open road.

  Howard Saunders   Apr 09, 2015   Blog, Brand, Gallery, image, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

REBOOTING IN LAS VEGAS


I write this from the very epicentre of excess, in a city that is a strange love-child borne of both Mormons and Mafia, built in the middle of the desert as a celebration of indulgence. A city that is a fusion of the sublime and the ridiculous, an adult playground for the silly rich and the permanently poor, bound together by a common love of consumption that is not just conspicuous, but utterly theatrical. It can only be Las Vegas.

Here at the Encore, one of the newest and most luxurious of the casino hotels, the columns bulge in Disneyesque proportions on marble floors inlaid with grotesque butterfly motifs the size of pterodactyls. The soft furnishings in giant stripes and spots adorn every available surface like an Alice in Wonderland nightmare. Every wall is clad with a montage of quilted fabric and bevel edged mirrors in gilt frames. Cool this is not.

But if you can relax your middle class, reasonably well-educated, tightly-knotted stomach for a moment you can actually just enjoy it for what it is: a fifteen year old’s vision of opulence.

The fifteen year old in question was Steve Wynn himself who actually said “Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money”

For many of us, Vegas represents all that is wrong with consumerism. The endless avenues of Pradas, Guccis and Louis Vuittons are a twenty four hour grinning reminder that this is what we want, what we must have if we are to be considered wealthy or successful. It is greed unleashed. Surely the most brand hungry young things must become a little jaded after a few days here. The sparkling Rolex or Gucci handbag that looked so desirable when you first arrived very quickly irritates with its desperate attempt to allure, just like the sycophantic greetings you’re forced to acknowledge when you enter every store. ‘Hi there! How are you today?’ Tell them you have terminal cancer and this is your farewell holiday and they’ll just grin and say ‘Wow, that’s cool!’

But in spite of its shamelessness Las Vegas actually has an innocence about it. It did not cause the crash, that’s for sure, but its sub-prime bruises are plain to see if you wander from the strip. The city is still littered with stalled developments where dormant cranes loom overhead, poised with characteristic Vegas optimism, to swing into action at a moment’s notice.

Where new investment has arrived several blocks of ‘luxury apartments’ have already been converted into budget hotels, awaiting their first guests. Many of the older resorts, The Flamingo, Harrah’s, Tropicana, Paris and more, are clearly struggling to stay afloat with rooms going for as little as $30 a night, or as my taxi driver succinctly put it, ‘less than the price of a pizza’.

The iconic Sahara, that back in the day regularly played host to Frank Sinatra, clearly followed in his famous footsteps over the years with numerous facelifts and the inevitable demise.

It reopened in 2014 as SLS Las Vegas after a $400 million refurb but has had major issues since then including the abrupt closing of its restaurant, several tranches of staff cut backs and the CEO walking out.


But this is only part of the picture. The Wynn resort, which includes the Encore, is clearly thriving. Dozens of gardeners, tend to the topiary that lines the entire perimeter, like busy little honey bees that never sleep. Doormen, security staff and bellboys are on hand at every few paces, waitresses are persistently attentive, cleaners endlessly polishing glass tables and sweeping the mighty marble floors twenty four hours a day. This resort looks like a bustling city centre because that’s what it is. And it’s the busy-ness that keeps it feeling alive and thriving, a place we want to be. We are innately attracted to busy-ness: we seek out restaurants, bars and cafes that are full of life and ringing with the clatter of cutlery. We may talk about our hatred of crowds and our dream of a remote retreat but we are lying to ourselves. Fly a thousand feet above any town or city and you can clearly see that we are all huddled together, trying to get into busy restaurants, shops, theatres and museums and complaining about how busy they are.

Success breeds success of course, but so too does failure breed failure. It cannot be easy to run a mini-city, but it’s clear that cutting back on staff bleeds a place of its busy-ness and makes it feel as if it’s dying, probably because it is.

Las Vegas then, is a caricature. The over-branded augmented beauties, the status cravers desperately seeking shiny reassurance, are us, amplified into a form that we can sneer at. This city crystallizes things so that we can read them more clearly, that’s all. So don’t despise Las Vegas, learn to love what it tells us about ourselves.

I recommend a trip here not to indulge in the all the excess, but to reboot our minds into a better balance. Spend a fortnight at a rural retreat and you’ll be desperate to get back to the high street to see what’s new. Spend it here and you go home with a wonderfully refreshed perspective on what you really want from retail.

  Howard Saunders   Mar 20, 2015   Brand, Retail, shopping   0 Comment   Read More

THE KNIFEMAKER’S TALE

Do you want a knife? Yes, I’m talking to you. Would you like a knife?

It might sound like an odd question but it’s one I’ve been testing on my audiences for a couple of years now as it’s a really simple example as to how brands can make their products more desirable. The test is very straightforward: I show examples of different retailers selling knives. There are images from a supermarket with its long runs of coloured blister packs, varying in price (and some on 2 for 1 offers). Then there are the department stores where the posher ranges hide safely behind locked glass doors.

If it’s a small session I’m running, then maybe the perky guy at the back wearing the psychedelic tie might shout ‘what sort of knife are you selling mate?’ but if there’s a big crowd you can bet that no-one will answer me at all. It’s clear, no-one needs or indeed, wants a knife.

So then I introduce Joel. Joel Bukiewicz is a knife maker (it says so on his card) and he fits his title perfectly. He’s a bearded, burly, bear of a man that carries just enough weight to be called ‘artisan’ (no-one wants a skinny knifemaker) and he moves with gentle, respectful purpose around his dangerous whirring machinery. He has a mellow, distant air about him as if his mind is elsewhere. Joel explains that he trained as a writer but when he couldn’t get his first novel published he decided to focus his creative energy on making something useful, something that would last a lifetime. The growth of New York’s restaurant culture gave him the idea of making high quality kitchen knives, and so he tried one and then another, and then another. A video tells the tale in grainy black and white, punctuated with a few emphatic f words, how hard it was to learn and how many times he cut or burnt himself before he got any good. His voice has a light sprinkling of Brooklyn gravel about it and as he slowly turns a new blade into the light, you’re hooked. This is rock star as knifemaker.

Click on his blog and he’ll apologise for not being around on Wednesday due to the weather but he did manage to produce two knives: 1. a Journeyman 240 in 52100 carbon steel with brass and white mosaic pins ($650) and 2. a Journeyman 120 in 1095 carbon steel and spalted maple with brass mosaic pins ($350).

So, now I ask the audience who wants a knife and a good three quarters of the hands go up. No exaggeration. The rest are probably tapping his web address into their iPhones. (cutbrooklyn.com)

The second character in this tale is my good friend Christian. In his early 40’s Christian works for a big private equity company and spends most of his life in the air somewhere between Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong with regular trips to New York where we meet for manly steak dinners. Christian is not a man with much spare time so he needs to know what’s cool and where he can get it. I knew the Joel story appealed to him when he first saw me present it but last week he turned up at my door with a Cut Brooklyn masterpiece as a gift.

When you present someone with a handmade knife it’s not like giving them a tie rack or a pair of pyjamas. A proper knife carries a primaeval weight that demands respect; you offer it with both hands outstretched. And when you receive a handmade knife you don’t tear open the wrapping and shout ‘thanks a million!’. No, a knife that has been hand cut from carbon steel and honed for hours takes on a spiritual significance. You take it slowly and silently, settling it down gently on the worksurface where you will get to know each other over the years, where it will decide if you are man enough to handle it. Then you lovingly flatten the brown paper it came wrapped in with the palm of your hand, and fold it together with the string that bound it.

Joel Bukiewicz is a retail genius. He understands that we no longer need any more stuff, knives included. But to own a handcrafted tool of dangerous beauty, that we will use daily, that will last a lifetime and that tells its own story, well we all want one. Now when it comes to chopping the veg for dinner, instead of rushing at it so I can get back to my computer, I slowly unroll the square of sackcloth I found for it, balance the ten inch blade reverentially in my hand before sacrificing my onions with religious choreography.

I can hear you cynics out there saying this is all very well, but it’s not real retail and it’s not scaleable (whatever that means). Oh how wrong you are my friends. Come hold my knife and then tell me our lives are not enriched by owning things that tell their own tale.


  Howard Saunders   Mar 03, 2015   Uncategorized   4 Comments   Read More

WHY WE HATE SUPERMARKETS

Cultural shifts in attitude have a habit of creeping up on us gently and spinning us around in the opposite direction. In less than a decade our attitudes to the environment, smoking in public places, and same sex marriage have shifted dramatically so we have reached a kind of public consensus, as if we had always held these views.

Exactly the same can be said of the supermarkets. Not very long ago we used them as regularly as our washing machines, but something has changed. The tide is turning.

Every morning we wake up to yet another juicy slice of bad news for the big supermarket brands. They are bleeding customers and, it appears, are unclear why.

The big, hairy Goliaths are losing their grip slowly but surely every week. And what a grip it was. They thought the world was theirs forever and suddenly it seems it’s not. They are currently in a state of panic, making desperate daily announcements, promising to be good in the future. So what happened?

The weekly mega-shop became a routine for billions of western families. Every weekend, right across the planet well meaning parents would pile their kids into the car and head to the seedier edge of town where sixty thousand square feet of hell awaited them. If the kids were lucky there might be some sort of play area for them; probably a grimacing fibreglass menagerie of sorts, or a ball park where children could learn to drown each other in ping-pong balls.

For any normal, reasonably well balanced child this weekend nightmare was even worse than church! At least church was spookily weird and didn’t last very long. The supermarket shop seemed to have no natural end.  Once the trolleys were full there was always some pharmacy shopping to do or a dry cleaner to visit.

It wasn’t exactly fun for us either. There was no restaurant as we know it, not if you were a semi intelligent biped. The eating area was usually a school canteen type of affair where screaming kids had been replaced by slavering octogenarians, endlessly masticating their two dollar fry ups. It was all about price back then. You could fill your belly for a couple of dollars (pounds or euros) and then save money on the weekly provisions. The meat was a tad tough, sure, but it was half the price of the local butcher. Every little helps, why pay more? saving you money everyday, live well for less. We were so grateful!

That’s why we drove twelve miles to get there: so we could save ten cents on a can of beans. The journey paid for itself, sort of, but we never actually worked it out. It’s just what everyone did, so it made sense. Every family had its preferred supermarket and your choice announced to the world exactly how poor or posh you were. That way, the supermarkets became a rich source of school bullying too.

Sometimes we’d sneakily snack in the aisles and hand the kids treats to stop them moaning. We’d guiltily present the empty wrappers at the checkout though, to prove that we may be greedy, but at least we were honest. We certainly weren’t going to use the restaurant: that was obviously for the poor and downtrodden. Occasionally we’d daydream that one day they’d have a bar like in some of those big Spanish supermarkets, but it never happened of course. Probably some health & safety law that prevents serving alcohol in a place we drive to. Nothing like a pub, of course.

For a good long decade we’d carry a fistful of loyalty cards in our wallets like top trumps, as if we were outwitting them somehow. Mustn’t put all your eggs in one wire basket, we thought to ourselves. They would send us statements every so often, on a kind of invoice looking thing, that showed we’d accumulated over four hundred thousand loyalty points and were now entitled to ten percent off Rice Krispies. Oh the excitement!

This, of course, was part of a massive programme by all the major supermarkets. It would, culminate in the term ‘big data’. They had files on every one of us and we imagined that somewhere deep inside head office there was a room filled with James Bond style computers, where six foot diameter spools whirred gently and made pleasant bleeping sounds. They knew everything about us: where we lived (of course) our ages, whether we preferred custard creams to garibaldi, how much we spent at Christmas and how many times a year we went on holiday. Then, every so often, an alarm would go off and the giant computer would spit out a length of ticker-tape: a voucher especially for us! It was usually something uplifting and glamorous like a discount on bulk dog food. For years we wished we’d had a dog so that we could cash in on all this generosity.

Then, after the 2008 crash, the GFC, the apocalypse as I call it, we began to question things. We started to realise that we were spending more on fuel getting there than we could ever save on groceries. We also began to notice how much we were throwing away. Those big bags of salad were like soggy underpants by the time we’d pulled up to the house and all the well intentioned, shiny fruit and veg (the stuff that makes us look like good parents as we push our trolleys around) that too mostly ended up in the bin. The oversized flagon of milk had always turned to yoghurt by the middle of the week and we’d have to venture to the petrol station to top up anyway. Curiously, we always had to eat the jumbo pack of fresh cream eclairs in one sitting, lest they passed their sell by date. This was no way to eat, no way to live, in fact. The kids were miserable, obese of course, and to be honest, when we went food shopping and fought over what we each wanted, we ended up hating our own family as much as the dead eyed neighbours we’d pass in the aisles.

It was about this time that we rediscovered our local deli and butcher where we would top up the mega shop as the weekend loomed. We found that it made sense to buy fresh meat each day, instead of having to tentatively sniff the poly-tray and meat tampon. We actually enjoyed choosing our protein each night and it felt good to be investing in local stores, in our own community. We shook things up a bit with a takeaway on a Thursday.

Everyone was happy with that, and we were spending less money and throwing much less away. Then we got really smart. We ordered the big, bulky, boring things online to be delivered once a fortnight: the toilet rolls and cleaning stuff, basically. They were even cheaper than at the supermarket and it saved us lugging it all home. This was when we realised we didn’t need the supermarkets as much anymore.

On top of this, we found out some of the things they were up to, like using horsemeat instead of beef. We also watched videos on the internet showing how they keep chickens and how they make that processed ham we put in the kids’ pack lunches. Yuck! Then we learned how they bully their suppliers into selling things less than it costs to produce! Well that can’t be right, not in anybody’s book. Oh yes, and some of them were fiddling the books too, making out they were doing better than they were. If we did that they’d send us to prison.

We never liked them that much in the first place but now we’re starting to hate them.

Supermarkets must now choose what they want to be: nice or nasty, basically. Do they invest in their stores to make them appealing? (with proper restaurants serving freshly cooked healthy food, together with an engaging events calendar) or do they go nasty and strip out any niceties to compete with the discounters who consider even shelves to be luxury furniture?

They may be dying but they ain’t dead yet. They still have time to change if they really want to but it will need a massive cultural shift and tankers rarely move like speedboats. In fairness, one or two are already showing signs of adapting, promising us better looking stores with decent restaurants and ethical business practices. Who knows, we may even get to like them again.

In the meantime, we are quite enjoying ourselves, using the corner shop and getting to know the fat, flirtatious butcher. (We never really chatted to the supermarket butcher, but then again, he is about sixteen). We’ve learned that stores are exactly what they say they are: giant warehouses where things are neatly stored. They’re not really for us. We now know we want our shops to be engaging, friendly places where they actually really remember us and don’t just pretend. We’ve learned to like food shopping again and we love it when a shop, or a brand, asks us to sample something or wants feedback on a new range. It’s like they actually value our opinion! And we love just popping in to say hello and find out what’s new.

I guess it’s a funny, old fashioned thing called community.

  Howard Saunders   Feb 05, 2015   Blog, Future, Retail, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More

THE AXEMAN

I’ve just received the coolest gift. A box, one metre long, heavy and wooden: inside a limited edition, numbered, hand-painted, hickory-handled, American felling axe. Yes, an axe. In another box, a cream enamelled ‘axe care kit’ complete with a sharpening stone and some serious looking G clamps that I wouldn’t know where to start with. The whole thing is so exciting. I mean, what else can you get a cynical city dweller of my advanced years other than some professional lumberjacking equipment? What’s more, my girlfriend is just as thrilled. She loves to feel the reassuring heft of the four pound, leather-sheathed axehead as it falls into her palm. No, I’m not being rude…this is serious. There is certainly something immensely powerful about an axe. Let me explain.




I recently took a small group of professional guys from Sydney around New York for a bit of a retail safari. They were a mix of well travelled developers and lawyers, so a clever bunch. They were interested in seeing a few cool brands so at the end of our afternoon walking Manhattan I took them to Tribeca to visit one of the coolest: Best Made. Now, I’ve brought people in here before and the reaction can be somewhat mixed. The entrance is hard to find with an appropriately tiny logo on the glass and inside you are greeted by a wall of logs, on sale for a dollar each. This is a clue.

Best Made is urban man’s last hope:it sells us the dream of those that built this city, chopped down the forests and replaced them with skyscrapers. It reminds us that not far from this little granite island there is countryside, and a lot of it, and if you want to explore then you’d better be prepared. You’d better man up!

Basically, Best Made sells everything you need to survive in the wilderness after the apocalypse: nicely branded and stylishly over priced enamel ware, waxed canvas jackets as thick as doormats,chunky duffel bags, maps and atlases and lots of very cool camping gear…but their signature product is the axe. Hold an axe in your hands and you are transported to a simpler world, one where you had to kill things for dinner and chop things to stay warm.

Hold an axe and you forget your daily commute, all the office politics and gripes about your expense account. This is the real you, the adventurer, the pioneer, the man they will turn to after the apocalypse: the man with the axe. The axe tells us that our crazy urban lives are meaningless. It reminds us that we can leave our stupid jobs and head for the woods to start a new life living in a shelter we built with our own blistered hands. (Until, that is, we get cold and lonely and want to go home)

So, Best Made are selling us a beautiful handmade icon of the primeval masculinity that we thought we had lost forever. The axe is the first and most important tool man ever created. It gave us wood, fire, food, shelter and power. A limited, numbered, hand painted axe can be yours for about $300. How can so much meaning come so cheap?

I love the fact that as our aspirations shift as times change, the retail space responds with tangible products that answer what are, ultimately, emotional needs. Here is a brand that understands we really don’t need any more stuff. It also understands that in a world where we have most of what we need, we still desperately search for things with real meaning. Oh yes, I love my axe.

  Howard Saunders   Jan 11, 2015   Blog, Brand, image, Retail   8 Comments   Read More