THE BLUES: THE MEANING BEHIND AMERICA’S GREATEST EXPORT

America has one killer export which, in sheer number of units as well as influence, simply dwarfs all others. One that has more customers than Coca-Cola, is more widespread than the English language, has been photographed more than Marilyn Monroe, is more significant than Hollywood and more iconic than Elvis Presley and Madonna. It’s had more column inches written about it than the moon landing and the iPhone combined, and has been embraced by cultures in every obscure corner of the planet.

It’s denim. It broke convention and changed the world forever.

Originally designed as rugged, protective workwear for miners and farmers in the late 19th Century jeans were mainly worn in the Western States until World War II as they were strongly associated with cowboy culture, prairie roaming and a kind of rural, working class freedom. But as soon as Marlon Brando was seen in a pair astride his 650cc Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One (1953) denim’s fate was sealed. The fact that off set Brando wore jeans and rode the same Triumph just added to the authenticity. The Wild One must surely be one of the most culturally influential films of all time. (As an interesting aside, Lee Marvin’s gang in the film was known as ‘The Beetles’ a spooky prophecy if ever there was one.) Hollywood had turned denim in to a symbol of the anti-establishment and once real motorcycle gangs started wearing it, it was soon being banned in schools, bars and clubs right across the United States. To this day it is still forbidden as corporate workwear as well as in certain restaurants and clubs that consider themselves to be ‘upmarket establishments’.

When a restaurant or club introduces denim as part of its staff uniform, whether it’s a pair of jeans or an apron, the message is clear: we like to think of ourselves as a little unconventional, a bit edgier than most but, just like the original miners, we work hard and require practical, rugged workwear.

Denim is ingrained into the fabric of contemporary culture, pun intended. A pair of jeans, unlike any other piece of clothing I can think of, can be read like a book. The cut, the fit, the depth of the dye, the stitching, the wash, the width, the size of the pockets, the turn up, the length and the fit around the waist or hips, each and every detail has been modified, adjusted, ripped apart, bleached or decorated by all, and even opposing, youth cultures to make denim its own. Skinheads, punks, hippies, rockers and rockabillies, gangsters and rap stars wear it because it is the fundamental garment of subculture dress code. Just imagine, if you can, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in a smart pair of trousers.

A pair of jeans speaks a silent, dog-whistle language heard only by those in the know. Tight or fitted, faded on the thigh or shin, torn at the pocket or knee, crossed belt loops at the back or parallel, hemmed or unhemmed, rivetted or rivetless; each detail emits a tribal smoke signal that can strike fear into the heart of the uninitiated. Each tiny modification follows, breaks or rewrites an unwritten rule from an enormous, invisible rule book. And to make matters worse, the rule book is being rewritten weekly.

Denim’s pervasiveness has undoubtedly diluted some of its power since the romantically alluring rebels of post war youth culture paraded it for shock value back in the fifties. A pair of jeans has inevitably become a default item, the thing you turn to when you’re not thinking, or when you simply want to be invisible or fit in. Denim may have gone mainstream but this is precisely because it still represents freedom and democracy. So in spite of its incomparable omnipresence it has somehow managed to retain its symbolism. Denim remains fundamentally anti-establishment and wearing it is an obvious display of freedom.

It is, therefore, impossible for today’s ‘post apocalypse’ culture to ignore denim, or find an alternative fabric that is as elemental or as significant a symbol of subculture. Post Apocalypse Man’s (man as in mankind which includes women) strategy to make denim his own is to follow what has proved so successful with beer, bread and many other daily staples: He turned its manufacture into a craft. And just like all the things we take for granted, PAM stripped denim back to its roots, studying the weave and the weft, the twill, the warp, the slub and the nep. Yes, this is the language of the denim artisan that gives PAM a unique and personal ownership: a denim culture of its very own. PAM is no longer just a consumer, he is a connoisseur. In this way, he instantly, and ingeniously, elevates his ownership of denim high above the noisy chatter of other street cultures concerned only with how their jeans look. Oh wow, PAM is smart.

Having become a connoisseur, the next logical step in the journey to get under the skin of any product is to become the manufacturer, the craftsman. And that’s why we are witnessing the rise of locally made, bespoke denim tailors and mini-factories right across the five boroughs with a fresh batch of denim experts setting up shop every season. From in-house tailors who will customise your jeans through to the full bespoke model, it is clear this is a growth industry that’s set to expand further. In this new age we are more willing than ever before to invest in a pair of jeans that gives us the status we so badly crave: evidence that we are a connoisseur of the cultural icon of freedom. It makes perfect sense. Expensive watches and designer suits were the status symbols of yesterday. In an increasingly casualized world a pair of unique jeans is how we communicate our place within it.

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  Howard Saunders   Oct 14, 2016   Brand, Levi's, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

BEWARE! SLIPPERY SHOPPING

Retailers are a funny lot. One of the latest buzzwords you hear at conferences and in board rooms around the world is ‘friction’. Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales, so it deserves a little examination.

Perhaps it’s us customers that are the strange species. We will happily browse the magazines or beauty section with no intent of buying or any hint of time pressure. We scan articles on knitting or weddings that we have zero interest in, and we open and sniff bottles of potions we have already decided we can’t buy and wouldn’t want if it was ‘grab a free potion’ day. And yet, faced with a queue that might delay us a couple of minutes we instantly become frustrated. Worse, if a doddery old lady wheels her trolley into our imaginary laser-line to the magazine aisle then we tut silently at the loss of the 0.44 seconds we will never recover. Life’s tiny hurdles are little more than an illusory inconvenience to what are, obviously, our meaningful and purposeful lives.

The love affair with our phones also illustrates how quickly we become bored or frustrated when the world around us refuses to work in perfect, synchronised harmony to our own personal schedule. When driving, every traffic light or junction is another chance to check our phones, so that a miniscule delay becomes useful to us in some small, pathetic way. As we watch the train pull into the station, on time, there are still a handful of microseconds being wasted here: enough time to quickly check our Facebook page.

Now retailers who have studied our peculiar behaviour for many decades have decided to remove as many of these unnecessary micro-hurdles as possible from the in-store shopping experience, lest we give up and go the Amazon way. But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.

Not long ago the slipperiest, most friction-free retail model was the supermarket. Before the age of the smartphone we would venture out in the car, drive to the store, pick up a trolley, push the trolley up and down every aisle, load it up with all our weekly needs, unload it at the checkout, pack it into bags, load it back into the trolley, unload it into the car, return the trolley to the trolley bay, drive home, unload car and then store it all neatly at home…until next week. It couldn’t have been simpler! I can already hear my unborn grandchildren begging me to ‘tell us again how you used to buy food Granddad!’. So, in response to the shift in having stuff delivered, our once easy-to-shop spaces are desperately attempting to lubricate their stores further, concentrating primarily on new payment technologies.

Now the camera, in this little documentary I’m making for you, cuts to a fresh food market. Here in the US, markets have increased threefold in number since the financial crash of 2008, but just watch how ridiculously high friction the shopping experience is. Each stall has a queue, and an undignified one at that. The doddery old lady may not have a trolley but she’s been fumbling in her purse at the front of the line for what must be ten minutes now. Your bags are heavy and awkward but still you manage to smile in response to the cheery verbal arithmetic. What a contrast to the dulcet chime that is ‘unexpected item in the bagging area!’

The problem with the supermarket model, within which I include an entire gamut of mid market self-service brands across category, is that it strips away so much of the social aspect of retail, so that even eye contact in the aisles is deemed unacceptable. Retailers have worked hard honing and polishing the cogs of their machines in order that they shine bright beneath the fluorescent lights, but they overlooked the very key to being human, the bit that makes our three score years and ten worthwhile. We are a deeply and innately social species and when we glance at Facebook while the train doors open it’s because we are desperate to connect. At the traffic lights we click on our email to see if anyone wants us, anyone…an awkward client will do. So, in a space deprived of social contact perhaps it’s the magazine aisle and the beauty section that most engages us and offers a little respite from the drudgery of the weekly trawl. Imagine, if you will, a new fresh food market concept, unmanned and where you can help yourself to everything before you simply ‘tap and go’. It wouldn’t last a fortnight.


Apologies for rambling, but last week I was in Warsaw where I visited Hala Mirowska, the big, central fresh food market. Loitering at the entrance was an old man waving a small bag of runner beans, just enough for a couple of servings at most, which could have been mine for a few measly Zloty. That evening I asked my host if the old are really that poor in Warsaw, and she explained that although they may not have it easy, they ‘hang around the market for something to do, to feel involved.’ After all, the market was the centre of the community for many millennia, until big box retail came along. The good news is that Hala Mirowska is currently undergoing major renovations as they strip out the hideous shop units, remove the supermarket and reopen it as a traditional grand market hall once again.

Surely, the visceral draw to belong to a community is one of the reasons the unemployed visit the doctor so many more times a year than those in work. It’s not that they’re inherently more sick, so it’s more likely they just crave social contact, particularly in a retail landscape made up of discounters and fast food chains.

My warning comes too late, of course. We’ve already arrived at the retail crossroads. If you want stuff then turn left for the internet which is full of it; and what’s more it might well be delivered within the hour. But if you want social contact, proof that you’re not alone on this planet and would perhaps feel reassured by a light, fleeting exchange with a fellow inhabitant, then turn right for the shops. Shops are only for social needs now, everything else is waiting in a brown parcel by your front door. It’s not nuanced, complicated or category specific at all. The brutal, binary simplicity of this can be hard to swallow for professional retailers who have been oiling their machines for half a century, but it’s how it is now. Just ask your grandchildren.

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

  Howard Saunders   Sep 27, 2016   Brand, discount, Food, Retail, shopping, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

THE DEATH OF THE DINOSAURS


We awake to a dose of rotten retail results every morning, and it seems as if the high street (main street) has become one long, painful car crash that we’re watching in slow motion between fingers clasped against our foreheads. Bad results are usually followed by an interview with a cheery CEO who puts the ‘blip’ down to hot weather, cold weather, humidity, the Olympics, Brexit or Donald Trump. (Personally, I think it has to be Trump)

The CEO assures us that these figures were for the last quarter and already out of date, as this was way before they appointed the bright new CMO and launched the funky new range, which incidentally, is going down a storm with millennials.


Bullshit, and we all know it. News that Macy’s plans to close a hundred stores is just the start of it. The list of high street woes just gets longer by the day: Gap Inc, Debenhams, Walmart, Asda, Sears, Nordstrom, Marks & Spencer, JC Penney, Tesco, Morrison’s, Kroger, Target, Kohl’s…isn’t it bleedin’ obvious? We are witnessing the death of the dinosaurs. And while we’re on the subject of dinosaurs, I’d like to put in a good word for Philip Green. He didn’t kill BHS because it was moribund anyway. He just raped it.

Beneath the valiant attempts to brush off the hurricane as a gentle breeze, there’s the chatter as to the cause of retail’s problems being Amazon and those disinterested millennials, who’d rather spend money on experiences, whatever that means. But CEOs aren’t stupid. Just look behind the media smile. They know the ride is coming to an end. They’re simply doing what’s expected of them: positive spin and a brave face. They know they can’t blame Amazon. For all its monster power it actually has the same root problem as BHS: it stands for absolutely nothing. Amazon is fully aware this is its Achillies heel, but is too busy counting money to do much about it. Perhaps Amazon is partly to blame in the sense that it made retailers focus on price and ‘frictionless’ shopping, rather than making their stores nicer places to be.

It’s been eight years since the meteor hit planet earth, or since the financial crash, as it’s more commonly called, and we are only now starting to realise the long term consequences. The truth is, it changed everything: we are all millennials now; we all reach for the phone before our eyelids have properly parted in the morning, lest we missed a life changing Facebook post whilst unconscious. We’ve all become tired of the same old: the same old politics, the same old superhero movies, the same old brands on the high street. Is anyone really that surprised? Is there anyone out there who seriously enjoys the Walmart, Tesco or Sears experience anymore? We’re just bored with you all.

Meanwhile, the retail press on both sides of the Atlantic remains religiously obsessed with supermarkets and out of town sheds as if nothing has changed. They act like tin shed groupies, hanging around in the car park, at some godforsaken place, for a titbit of news. Usually something earth shattering like ‘Doberman’s profits down 15%’ As if anyone other than Mr Doberman gives a shit. Imagine the NME still filling its pages with Genesis and Yes stories week after week. Precisely.

The dinosaurs maybe dying but the planet is still teeming with life. We are at the beginning of a renaissance of street markets, ‘hipster’ food halls and the burgeoning rise of street food generally. There’s a slew of eager beaver entrepreneurs selling artisan everything that could do with a bit of positive press right now. Then there’s the satisfying surge of small, niche food producers; café culture has taken off like a rocket ship recently while bars and small batch breweries are absolutely revelling in their heyday. The lunch time food market is more lively and imaginative than it has ever been, and rich, clever brands such as Samsung, Nike, Adidas, Dyson, Lululemon and even Moleskine are inciting FOMO (fear of missing out…for all you who don’t reach for their phone first thing) with flagship stores that do so much more than just sell stuff.

There are also, I’m pleased to say, two great British dinosaurs that we can all learn from: Selfridges, maybe part of a dying breed but it will continue to thrive because when we spot its fluttering flags at the top of Oxford Street, like a cruise ship waiting for us to board, it lifts our spirits. Its commitment to an innovative and engaging calendar of events makes it our ‘day out’ in the centre of London.

And just down the road there’s John Lewis. Now John may be no party animal but he has spent the last 150 years building unrivalled trust with his customers. He brews a quiet, softly spoken form of FOMO, that is nonetheless just as powerful.

So, whilst most of the dinosaurs are beyond help there are ways to turn things around if they really want to and, I’m sorry to say, toying with a bit of omnichannel ain’t gonna cut it. Department stores and supermarkets need to give us reasons not just to go there, but to be there. Restaurants, bars, events, markets, launches, link-ups, competitions, festivals and exhibitions can ignite FOMO, drag us out and stop us staring at our phones for fifteen minutes. Let’s start with that.

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

  Howard Saunders   Aug 31, 2016   Future, Retail, shopping, smartphone, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More

COPYCAT CEREAL KILLER

Some bright spark came up with the idea. We all read about the ironic trend that turned breakfast cereal into a hipster treat and chances are you saw the pictures of Gary and Alan Keery, the photogenic chuckle brothers, who opened the Cereal Killer Cafe on London’s hip Brick Lane. We now also know that those bowls of puffs, pops, flakes and crunchies we woke up to every morning in the 70s, 80s and 90s were poisoning us of course, but those of us who ventured to the CKC were happy to overlook all that to become children once again. Children with bushy beards, that is.

This is not good news for cereal manufacturers and with sales in steep decline the boardroom at Kellogg’s must have been thick with anxiety. Until that is the bright spark piped up with an idea. Maybe, just maybe he stuttered, Kellogg’s could copy the Leery boys and make cereal cool again?

It probably took a good year to launch Kellogg’s NYC in Times Square so, naturally, I was eager to check it out. It must at least be fun, whacky even…you know how over excited big corporations get with the whole pop up thing.

Sweet Jesus it is piss-poor. It looks like it was built by Snap, Crackle and Pop Associates with a design that’s more prison canteen than concept restaurant. In fact, there is no concept here at all. The logo is painted on the white brick wall in a kind of cornflake beige, with the only colour coming from a row of red, numbered, cubby holes where you collect your bowl at the sound of a buzzer. At the counter the prison vibe continues: on thick aluminium trays, four mock up meals, designed by Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, look so unappetising even Ivan Denisovich would have second thoughts. This place is not just miserable it actually haemorrhages any positive energy there is in there straight back out onto Times Square. And there’s not much: a few lonely souls sup from spoons with their heads bowed low, presumably wondering what they had done to deserve such punishment.

But just imagine what could have been achieved here. Kellogg’s is steeped in a rich, kitsch visual heritage that stretches from Tony the Tiger, Coco the Monkey and The Flintstones through to the iconography of the Corn Flakes packs and Special K logos. Remember the excitement we felt when those assortment fun packs were presented at the breakfast table on special holidays? That’s what Kellogg’s could have recreated at this pop up, but instead they thought eating cereal during the day was ironic enough. Oh dear, oh dear.

The result is a concept, with good intent and considerable investment, that has stripped Kellogg’s of any residue goodwill it might have had left over from its glory years. This place is like watching your depressed uncle pretending to enjoy a kid’s party when you know he just wants to go upstairs and hang himself.

But enough of all this, let’s be helpful. Here are a few tips for next time:

1. Momofuku Milk Bar link up. A terrific brand but no one on Times Square has heard of it. It may have street-cred but not on 42nd Street.

2. Design. Well, there isn’t any. Snap, Crackle and Pop Associates clearly didn’t turn up. Pick a proper creative agency that’s in tune with your bold and colourful heritage.

3. Think big. Understand where the beauty and energy of your brand really lies and have fun with it. Just imagine what Warhol or Koons would have done. You could even afford the latter, although I realise the former is unavailable.

4. Aim for PR shock waves rather than footfall. If you don’t believe me ask Prada. Everyone heard about the Prada store in the Texas desert. Number of visitors? Half a dozen. And that includes the photographer. 

5. Next time ask me. I’ll find you the cleverest, most creative guys in the retail business and together we’ll build you a concept that gives you heaped dessert spoons of cool.

Thanks for listening. Now pass the toast.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jul 27, 2016   Blog, Brand, Food, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

GATWICK REVISITED: credit where credit’s due


In October last year I had the misfortune to pass through Gatwick South Terminal on route to meet a client in Portugal. I say ‘pass through’ intentionally, as I tried hard not to touch the sides. The signature bar was a hideous, sticky Wetherspoons that looked like it had been shipped in from Blackpool along with the locals, and there was nowhere for a sit down lunch, unless you’re pubescent and still think Nando’s is a treat. How can an international hub so critical to Britain’s growth get away with it, I thought? How can Gatwick seriously lobby government without sniggering into their handkerchiefs at the thought of anyone grown up actually coming to check them out? You can read the original rant here.

Good old England is so open minded and future focussed that we’ve only spent several decades cogitating as to where to put this extra runway we so badly need. And we still haven’t made a decision. Never you mind that China has 66 new airports planned over the next five years (airports not runways, remember) and is currently expanding a further 100 existing airports. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll come up with a plan or something.


So, having recently visited Gatwick again, I have to say that things at South Terminal have much improved. The dreadful British public are still there of course, in their hordes. The dull of eye and loud of mouth clamour over all sorts of pre-flight crap when they’re in holiday mode, so it certainly feels like the place is making money at least. But bang in the middle of the upper concourse there’s a bright new bar exactly where it should be. Lamely titled The London Bar, presumably because it’s in Crawley, it is nonetheless a vast improvement serving contemporary cocktails, in a somewhat surly fashion, as is the wont of the younger generation.


Better still, I’m pleased to say the star of the show is no longer the utterly cynical and fictional Wondertree, it is a real restaurant, from a real living chef. Grain Store is a breath of fresh air and is lifted directly from hip Granary Square in London’s King’s Cross, beneath the glorious new Central St Martin’s College of Art. It claims to source all its meat and veg within a thirty mile radius of the airport, but it’s not until you learn that Chef Bruno Loubet refuses to serve beef (due to the damage beef farming does to the planet) that you realise something new is happening here. Grain Store is all about making vegetables the focus of the plate, not a side dish. And it does so very well indeed. It’s not the organic thing that makes it so appealing, it’s simply the fact that there’s an idea, a point of view, behind the menu. Most airport restaurants are happy to churn out burgers and pizza under the beady eyed gaze of accountants that get over excited by margins and portion control.


Many of the staff here are reassuringly pink and pimply, which is lovely because it means that like the food and the beer they too are home grown and fairly local. And they’re nicely brought up too so they can talk about the provenance of things without getting embarrassed.


I’d like to think that somehow my October rant found its way onto the Gatwick board, where a red faced businessman shook a printout of my words, banged the table and shouted ‘We need to do something…and fast!’ Sadly, I know how long it takes to pull a deal like this together, so credit where credit’s due.

Now that we have a new, energized PM there’s a much better chance we’ll actually get a decision on this damn runway. So good luck Gatwick.

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

  Howard Saunders   Jul 14, 2016   Food, gourmet, Uncategorized   2 Comments   Read More