HI-HO, HI-HO

It must be true. A recent government report has predicted that more than six million workers fear being replaced by machines within the next ten years!

Hang on. Let’s read that again: ‘fear being’…well that’s hardly surprising since we’ve subjected them to daily doom-laden scenarios to contemplate over their cornflakes. And when asked if they thought government was doing enough to prepare for all these lost jobs, guess what they said?

So will this ‘report’ (and the nicely paid commission that follows) be led by a young, forward thinking entrepreneur looking to help maximize the potential of AI and robotics in the workplace? No, I’m afraid it’s Yvette Cooper, the genetically disgruntled former work and pensions secretary. That explains a lot.

Predictably, this report focuses on the 20% that feel technology will make their jobs worse and the 23% that believe their roles won’t be needed at all. But in fact, the figures also show that 73% say they feel pretty confident about new technology and will adapt to changes…just like they always have, presumably.

As Steven Pinker points out in his excellent ‘Enlightenment Now’ fear-mongering is par for the course in the prediction business. There’s real power in warning the people to ‘follow me, if you wish to be saved’. Conversely, there is no power in telling everyone things are about to get much more exciting.

Yes, the workplace is changing and technology will surely replace many thousands of current jobs. But if past evidence is anything to go by, which it is, then technology opens up many thousands more opportunities at the very same time. Pop into a Soho bar for a beer and a spot of earwigging. West End pub talk today is of app development, payment software widgets and online marketing campaigns, and they use jargon that to anyone over the age of 32 sounds like Klingon. Here, in the centre of Britain’s engine room, it’s barely possible to find anyone whose job wasn’t invented within the last ten years.

Alternatively, and nothing to do with technology, fifty years ago who could have predicted the meteoric rise of the restaurant and hospitality industry, the millions of jobs that have been created in bars, restaurants and hotels that simply never existed before? The world of work is changing fast, but we seem to forget where we came from even faster.

In the future, retailers will bring much more automation into play. The mundane work of ordering, distribution, stock control, logistics and sales analysis will surely be done by robots in the form of AI, rather than the Meccano-esque variety. Slightly scarier looking robots will be busy organizing the warehouse and selecting stock for mass market consumption. And yes, this will mean fewer bored and sweaty warehouse and security staff. But on the front line, where real people enter real branded spaces, there will be a marked shift towards genuine hospitality.

When the dot matrix tickertape thingy welcomes you aboard your train, how many hearts has it lifted, how many smiles have been raised by its digital grace? Answer: none. Put a human conductor at the door with a similar greeting and he might just put a spring in your step, and everyone else he meets, for the entire day. Why? Well, simply put, humans are unique in that they share the secret of their own mortality on this planet. Connections matter to us. Dot matrix boards will never empathize with our condition.

So now imagine receiving a message from a favourite brand inviting you to a product launch and a glass of wine. Precisely on schedule, the autonomous mobile pod-shop arrives at your door blinking with digital messages just for you. Your fingerprint unlocks the door into this tiny branded universe. A HAL-like voice welcomes you and a hatch swishes open to reveal the shoe that’s been designed especially for you, based on things you have previously ‘liked’. All you have to do is to reach out and take it.

Is this a perfect future retail scenario or is there something missing, humanity perhaps? We seem to forget, humans give us the emotional reassurance that what we want is worth wanting. Humans are our audience, our witnesses and the way in which we negotiate our social status. Without them, the retail process becomes a transaction in a vacuum. Efficient, but utterly meaningless. Personalized, yet impersonal.

Genuine hospitality is a nuanced and delicate balance of polite, respectful distance and emotional warmth. Only humans can fulfil this role. As brands become more emotionally intelligent they will require an army of warm, twinkly eyed brand ambassadors to make us feel connected. This high-level hospitality strategy, I call Hi-Ho, is fast becoming the new brand battlefield.

So cheer up. Despite all the technological seduction, the predictive algorithms and creative AI experiences retail will no doubt offer us, rest assured that humanity will play a far more critical role tomorrow than it does today.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Aug 20, 2018   Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

PEAK STUFF?

It’s very fashionable at the moment to suggest we’ve reached peak stuff. The theory is, here in the mature West we no longer need any more things, that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was reached long ago and, frankly, the desire for any more possessions, can be nothing but greed.

One thing we certainly do have a lot more of these days is guilt. Currently, our guilty consciences are focused firmly on plastics, thanks to the rallying cry of David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series. But once this particular frenzy has subsided, all for the better of the planet of course, another is sure to take its place. Will it be the fashion and textile industry, for example, where poisonous waste products and multi billion ton landfill issues will upset us enough to demand action? Or might it be the waste in Hollywood film production, food waste in the restaurant business, or bottled drinks? There is no industry safe from the laser gaze of outrage our new found powers of moral judgment have given us.

It might be worth remembering our agrarian forefathers were dirt poor, hungry, over worked and with zero naval gazing time for any guilt. A hundred thousand years of poverty in preparation for a few decades of prosperity and already we’re complaining we can’t close our bathroom cabinets and have no space left in our crammed wardrobes.

So where has all this guilt and virtue suddenly appeared from? In a word, Sweden. First off we had H&M encouraging us to bring back our used T shirts. Next up we had the ‘climate friendly’ ReTuna shopping centre in Eskilstuna, whose fifteen stores specialize in refurbished second hand products. And now, not wishing to be out-virtued, Ikea is trialling a furniture rental and buy back scheme for our used Billy bookcases and any other Ikea furniture that has passed it useful-by-date. They call it ‘circularity’ and there’s no question it answers a number of difficult questions for a retail industry that is questioning its very existence right now.

Recycling, downcycling and upcycling are having their heyday. Circularity gives us the warm resonance that we’re doing the right thing, helping ease the burden on the planet, allowing us to sleep a little sounder in our beds perhaps. But realistically, the ecological benefit from buying a used coat, for example, as opposed to a new one, must surely be so miniscule as to be irrelevant. Even if we were somehow to persuade everyone in the UK never to buy a new coat ever again, any benefit to the ecosystem would be tiny compared to the loss of the coat making industry and all the jobs that it supports.

Part of the problem is that our guilty consciences have become detached from the process of manufacturing things. For most of us our working lives are spent writing emails. Every day we travel to work on crowded trains to arrive at a centrally located urban building where people busy themselves…writing electronic messages to other people in similar looking buildings across the globe. But however we frame what we do, if you follow an email thread to its logical conclusion, something, somewhere gets built or manufactured. No matter if you work in accounts, or in a public library, we are all complicit in the process of creating more stuff for consumption. And this, my friends, is how we all got so rich, and ultimately so discontented.

The smartphone is often held up as a shining example of technological convergence and a flag-bearer for the less stuff movement. Within barely a decade our little slab of black glass has replaced the: desk phone, diary, record player, camera, rolodex, fax machine, photograph album, tape recorder, encyclopaedia, newspaper, directory, road maps, radio, alarm, clock, stopwatch…the list is ever expanding. That’s an awful lot of plastic, metal, rubber and paper that no longer needs to be pulped, mined, moulded and manufactured at all, and can instead be used, presumably, for making more iPhones. Which we replace annually, by the way.

We are told that the very concept of owning stuff is outdated. As Gen Z enter the workforce they will apparently enlighten us oldies with a fresh approach to renting and sharing the things that furnish our lives.

I just don’t buy it, pun intended. While I’m not denying that Baby-boomers, Millennials and Gen Z are looking to de-clutter and simplify, I refuse to believe the desire for ownership has subsided. Treasuring something we own has been with us for at least a hundred thousand years, and it would be very unlikely indeed that in a period of less than a decade our disruptive youngsters could evolve themselves free of such a primal, territorial human instinct so swiftly. I suggest it’s much more likely to be a reaction to the difficulty in getting on the property ladder, so that in a fit of pique Gen Z have declared they don’t want to own ANYTHING! Throwing their toys out of the fully-paid-for pram, you might say.

Perhaps the dilemma we’re struggling with is partly a rejection of mass production. We don’t need any more stuff because our desires can be fulfilled so easily with cheap and accessible mass produced imports. The gap that’s left is an emotional one: the desire to own products and things with meaning and provenance, at least more meaning than what’s currently out there. Consider that now we have access to the sum of ALL human knowledge at the touch of our smartphone, we can learn about the history of denim, where to find the world’s best bagel, the rarest coffee bean etc (as well as the age, height and weight of the actor we’re watching). Turn away from the phone and how inspiring does your local department store look now? Ten years ago it was still a local mecca for ideas, treats, gifts, inspiration and perhaps a pot of tea. It would be hard to argue that today.

Desiring things may sometimes be greed, but more often than not we buy things that enrich our lives. We make an emotional contract with the products we select to say something about us. Buying something is an expression of commitment, a sign that we value having a product in our lives that says something positive about us. Renting something for show, on the other hand, whether it’s a dress or a Lamborghini, requires zero emotional commitment. If Gen Z simply want things for that Instagram moment, then they’re shallower than I thought.

The human condition will always be to want something better and that’s a good thing as it’s the very fuel of our ingenuity. But today, I believe we want, not just more stuff, but better, more worthy products that much of the high street has failed to deliver. So, let’s stop pretending we’re turning our backs on consumerism, when in reality, just like H&M and Ikea, we’re all in the business of producing more stuff. Instead, let’s celebrate the fact we’ve never had it so good and start producing, selling and, most importantly, demanding better stuff .

When we walk into a fast-fashion superstore and grimace in disgust at the show of blatant consumerism, we are judging others rather than ourselves. As Stephen Pinker says in his powerful new tome ‘Enlightenment Now’, consumerism is the other guy’s consumption.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jul 10, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

SHIT SHOPS

London is infested with them: the tacky newsagent with the sponsored fascia that hasn’t seen a soapy sponge since 1987, the struggling hair salon with its camp wink-of-a-name painted in a 70s funk style font, the print shop with an illuminated logo big enough to be seen from the M25, the crappy café where coffee still comes in granules, the oddball ‘boutique’ with its deranged, contortionist mannequins, the downright dodgy mobile phone repair shop, the dour and dusty furniture store, its windows papered in fluorescent exclamations, and not forgetting the ubiquitous ‘convenience’ store, plastered with more stickers than the arse-end of a hippy’s camper van. If forced to enter one, we might catch ourselves chewing the fat with the owner, swaying our heads in synchronized dismay at the inevitable decline of local stores. We tut loudly in agreement that it’s the fault of the supermarkets, Amazon and Brexit, and yet we’d never dream of telling the truth, that their shop is dirty, scruffy, outdated, over-cluttered and utterly irrelevant. In short: shit.

We’ve become so used to living with shit shops that they’re almost invisible. Despite the fact that they must make up 90% of London’s retail, they barely get a mention in relation to the current crisis. Clearly, they are such an embarrassment to the press and the retail Twittersphere, that we’ve mentally vanished them, in order to concentrate on the woes of decent looking establishments.

Or perhaps you’re one of those inverted snobs that takes a perverse pride in your shitty environs. A country-lubber that revels in their beta post code by way of knocking the districts you can’t afford to live in. ‘No, Marylebone, Hampstead and Chelsea are not real enough for me,’ they whine, sitting in alpha post code pubs… for Sunday lunch only, you understand. These are the same folk who loudly bemoan the gentrification of their personal urban shithole, but you so know they are checking Rightmove.com twice a day to see if the artisan bakery has helped nudge up local property prices.

Oh, and don’t think the posh districts are exempt. There are plenty of shit shops snuggled in between the tasteful ones in the most salubrious parts of our city.

Londoners, take a good look around you on your way home tonight. The saggy, plastic canopies and filthy windows are the result of laziness and ignorance, not poverty. It wasn’t always like this. These stores are the rotting teeth in what was once a radiant parade of a smile. A century ago these shop-fronts would have been scrubbed every morning at 7am sharp, by a crisp-aproned shopkeeper with a sense of pride in his business and a long wooden mop handle. Today’s proprietor, by contrast, is a multi-tasker: one hand to point the card reader, the other to continue texting.

Independent they may be, but shop-fronts are the architecture of our environment, our community, and in that sense they belong to us all. Grubby, neglected shops may be moribund, but they are nonetheless busy sending us microscopic messages of misery every time we pass by. Every day they make us feel a tiny bit deflated, a little less good about the day ahead. A little bit shit.

But thankfully, middle class Millennials and hipstery types know good retail instinctively. That’s why their store designs hark back to Victorian ideals of shopkeeperdom. They know that a black fascia with a discrete gold font has far greater impact that the metre tall, yellow plastic letters it replaced. They know we are drawn to tidy entrances and well merchandised stalls. The harsh truth is that inside your local shit shop, there’s not an over-worked old lady struggling to keep up. No, it’s much more likely to be someone who doesn’t know one end of a broom from the other. Someone who thinks of a shop as a vessel for stuff that the public want, and little more.

I daydream about a hit TV series called ‘Shit Shop SOS’, where an undercover squad of retail enthusiasts wash, tidy, redesign and merchandise local stores, only to be paid in customers’ gasps of wonderment. I muse about kick-starting a hashtag campaign entitled #letsgiveashit to encourage our sad and grimy independents to spruce themselves up a bit.

Alas, there is barely any need. Shop by shop, street by street, the shit shops are dying. Waiting in the wings are hungry, stylish young innovators eager to take their place as soon as the rent and rates will allow. London is not just one of the world’s greatest cities, it is famous for its retail. Let’s encourage our local shit shops to clean up, sort their signs out and put something interesting in the window. In short: #letsgiveashit

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist or at least read a few more of my blogs and rants here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Jun 25, 2018   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

A LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR

It’s second nature for me to intellectualize brands. I’ve worked with them all my life: deconstructing meaning, reconstructing a nuanced visual language that answers a series of strategic values aimed at convincing consumers of their worth. You know, all the stuff those of us in design deal with every day. Except, we also know that authentic brands, the ones that connect with us on a visceral, emotional level, cannot be constructed strategically or intellectually. Just like us, they take decades to mature and blossom, until they have tales to tell and experiences to share. Among these authentic brands there are a few that stop you in your tracks with a punch to the belly that leaves you wanting more. Ducati is one of these.

My lifelong love affair with this brand began in the late eighties when I set my eyes upon the thing I would treasure only marginally less than my own two, adorable children. Scratch beneath the obvious chromium plated, boyish lust for speed and there’s so much to fall for.

There’s no push button starter here. Instead, you must reach into the heart of the beast and take time coaxing him, priming him lovingly before you kick-start him into life. Once fired up, a glorious cacophony of guttural growls, whines and gasps unleash his story in an instant. Use your X-ray imagination to slice into his heaving chest and witness an unfathomable carnival of whirring cogs and spiraling spindles, each crafted for one task: to launch you at silly, silly speeds. Fear and vulnerability are fundamentals to Ducati. Not just the rider’s vulnerability, but the machine itself, for each integral element of this metallic monster was sculpted by a modern day, grease-monkey Michelangelo. German, American or Japanese machines are robustly engineered for practicality, longevity, endurance and cost. Italians don’t think like that. They are artists willing to shave every last micrometer off their work to ensure it is as light and as perfectly formed as possible. Fragility is fundamental here too.

Many years ago, one Ducatisti proudly showed me a large dent in his bike’s frame. This, he explained, was where they had to make a little extra room to squeeze the engine in. It’s these man-made imperfections, you see, that give art its value.

The divine yet dangerous dance that marries technology, engineering and art has propelled Ducati to the front of the starting grid and, more importantly, to the top of the list of the world’s most desirable brands. All that heritage, heartache and glory has been condensed into six little letters. Cast your eye across the curves of the silver back that bears its name, then tell me you’ve not fallen.

This article is taken from the recently published book: Brand Stories from Brand Champions devised & curated by david.roth@wpp.com Read more about it here

Join me on Twitter @SaundersHoward and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   May 02, 2018   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

EUROPEAN GRAFFITI!

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. If you’re a polite, tax paying shopkeeper from Barcelona, Berlin, Milan or Madrid, you’ll have faced this dilemma one sunny morning when you opened your shutters to reveal freshly painted scrawlings up your pilasters and all around your corbels.

In some parts of Europe our major city centres have become little more than concrete sketchbooks for a kind of push-me pull-you politics, where the alt right, the loony left, the disgruntled and the dispossessed each contribute to a multi-layered cacophony of tangled anger.

I grew up at a time when graffiti belonged to very different artistic genre. In my day, walls were decorated with cartoon genitalia, delightfully captured in mid climax. The masterpieces that illustrated my boyhood were the desperate, pubescent cries of unrequited potency. Toilet cubicles became the private venting booths of the permanently pent up, where intense frescoes of either triangular or cylindrical simplicity were created, presumably as some sort of silent warning to the sex they were yet to encounter. Perhaps these explicit diagrams were a contemporary homage to the Da Vinci cartoons, none of which were that funny anyway, as Peter Cook famously observed.

Sadly, since the advent of free online pornography we’ve witnessed the demise of the cartoonist-gynecologist. Today’s vitriolic hieroglyphs have more of a political bent, and whether leftist or rightist they unite in their distrust of authority and so find harmony working together on the smooth render around an innocent shop-front.

In 2018, the shopkeeper’s dilemma is a tricky one. Should he reach for the bleach and expose himself as a defender of ‘the man’ and the likely retribution that may ensue? Or does he leave the solitary scribble alone and risk it spawning a crawling nest of irate expressionism, each vying for the attention of the passing shoppers?

With global politics in such a state of flux, it’s unlikely our rebellious artists will grow tired and head home for a gin and tonic anytime soon. Like ever increasing business rates, it seems graffiti is another tax our retailers will have to pay for access to play on our tough urban streets.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2018   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More