DEVO

For the best part of three decades the high street has been in a quandary. It didn’t know quite what it was, what it was for, nor what it wanted. Local stores dressed up like branded chains, while branded chain-stores disguised themselves as locals. Little mom and pop newsagents brandished oversized fascias emblazoned with multi national brands so huge they could be read at ease from low flying aircraft, while national chains lovingly placed the town’s name on their fascias, just in case you forgot where you live. Big brands tried to look small and local, while genuinely local stores employed slick designers to dress them up like prototypes poised for global domination.

Some multi-national brands tried to import the flavour of their flagships into the regions by shoehorning the best bits into tiny provincial shoeboxes that were once perfectly respectable local stores with proper shelves and a bell on the door. Our high streets were having an almighty identity crisis…when boom! Covid19 swept in and changed everything.

Literally overnight, everyone could be heard singing the praises of their local heroes: the little stores that kept the lifeblood of the town pumping through its narrow streets. A silent revolution so welcome in some quarters that they declare they saw it coming, that is was inevitable, that something had to change.

The crisis has resurrected the idea of proper service too. Our local heroes stood behind their big, wooden counters and fetched us the things we needed like we were in a Two Ronnies sketch. What’s more, we were happy to wait politely as a sign of our newfound respect for their role in the community. It was as if thousands of high streets, up and down the country, slipped back in time a century or so. Boxes of the things in greatest demand were piled high near the entrance for tap and goers in a hurry and there was no need for a planogram from head office. Staff thanked customers more loudly and with earnest eye contact. Some even grew long beards and wore aprons as if to get into character for their part in this crazy sci-fi movie we call 2020.

Would you believe it? We’re actually enjoying the rebirth of community spirit and relish the new civility the crisis ushered in. Smiles are often broader and more genuine behind the masks than they were without them. Reconnecting with our hometowns has created its own momentum. We hunt down local produce and get excited placing special orders for things at the baker and butcher as if it’s Christmas! We even brag about our love of seasonal produce and joke about our abstinence from imported, blister-packed avocados.

So, do you remember what it was like pre lockdown? Rich, clever brands were developing ways to encourage us to buy things we didn’t need by feeding us little tasters on social media and measuring how many microseconds we’d dwell on their shiny bait. This information was then fed into a giant computer so that they could helicopter in the most ‘liked’ products to the places that most ‘liked’ them. Supermarket chains were developing software to transport us virtually to the birthplace of every product on their shelves. Interspersed with ads, of course. In the tidal wave of consumerism up to the end of last year, this sounded rather exciting. Post Covid it feels irritating and insignificant.

We now know that the tipping point came in March 2020. The shockwaves from switching off the global economy have yet to be fully felt but it’s pretty clear we’ve now embarked on DEVO: A process of de-evolution of our high streets, of brands, the way we trade, and the way we think about retail. The intense heat of business has been burned off: the ridiculous rents, rising rates and the relentless rush for sales to pay them have slammed us hard into a brick wall. The over managed, over designed, over excited retail model that ultimately grew to bore us to death has run its course. How many three storey, back illuminated shoe walls can you see before you crave the simplicity of a pair in a simple cardboard box? How many interactive video screen towers do we install before they become invisible and meaningless? Even the glitziest flagships will switch to Devo mode. I dare say a few video walls are already being dismantled to make way for more reassuring communication like quality of manufacture, or simply creating the breathing space for proper one-to-one service. Simplification is back big time. Even the bizarre and baroque supply chains that over-evolved to bring us the stuff we didn’t need anyway, have strangled themselves lifeless.

Spectacle in retail will not die, of course. Gyrating Gen Alpha Tik-Tokkers will get the spaces they deserve, but big brand boardrooms will no longer echo to the demands for that ever elusive wow factor. Wows were so pre-Covid. We were heading here anyway, the coronavirus just hurried us along. Retail will mature very quickly in the coming months because our values have changed so dramatically. Smart retailers are sure to join us.

The advent of 5G was supposed to be the gateway to an instantly personalised future, so that even the mightiest of megastores would know our name, our cat’s name, and all our personal preferences. But in the post Covid climate who actually wants this sort of fake buddy-ism from the corporate world?

If we work together on this, DEVO can take us back to a gentler, more considered future with a stronger sense of moral purpose. So let’s not get too depressed as we watch our legacy brands in free-fall. They are clearing the way for fresh, young, agile entrepreneurs that will remind us just how beautifully simple retail should be.

Please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for rants and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Jul 15, 2020   Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

THE WOKE OLYMPICS

The race for brands to parade their PC credentials is well underway! Gillette dashed to the front of the pack by showing us it was more interested in curing toxic masculinity than selling razorblades, but dropped back suddenly after it lost $8 billion in sales. Turns out blokes don’t like being called misogynists. A close shave indeed.  

Surprisingly, the enthusiasm for hopping on the outrage bandwagon has lost none of its momentum. Just like the way poor Taylor Swift was bullied to come out for one side or the other, brands must now decide if they are left or right, right on or stuck in the mud, Democrat or Republican. Brands, like the rest of us, have been dragged into the bear pit of the Twittersphere and the landscape in which they can express themselves, their Overton window if you like, has shrunk to a pinhole. You’re either with us, or against us.

Stuff we bought to shave with, or wash our knickers with, has grown a twenty first century conscience. In a world in which we have everything we need, a brand cannot simply offer us more stuff. In fact, this misunderstanding is largely responsible for the demise of our high streets and shopping centres. They were built on the premise that we needed to buy things to keep our mundane lives trundling along. They made the aisles wide and linear so that we could grab and go once we’d located what we were looking for. Product categories were announced in fonts bolder than motorway signs, as if we were all moving at seventy miles per hour. And in a sense we were. We dashed in and rushed back to the car before the ticket expired and our people carrier was towed away for ransom. How simple life was back then.

Where was I? Ah yes. Brands have realised they cannot carry on as if it were 1985, and so have evolved from being smiley, helpful and value-for-money, into fully grown, cynical adults with issues, consciences and axes to grind. In short: woke. In the rush of revelation some have joined the outrage hunters, pushing to the front of the melee in a desperate search for things to be shocked by. This then, is the new landscape for brands and we can expect it to intensify over the next few years. 

But you do know they’re faking it right? You do realise their pretend outrage and loud baying noises are for the purpose of deflection, lest the mob turn on them? An orchestrated distraction to avoid the laser beam of outrage homing in on their own transgressions, whether they be plastic packaging, pollution, landfill, low wages or waste. Like teenage bullies, woke brands are eager to elbow to the front of the mob in the name of progressivism. And who is against progressivism?

The problem is, in its rush to kick at the wicked establishment patriarchy, the mob is forced to edge forward, becoming ever more outraged and angry with the status quo. Egged on by a mainstream media exercising its last gasp for glory, too many of society’s strongest, deepest foundations are getting damaged along the way, sometimes irreparably. 

The frenzy of the mob, you see, can bring out the worst in us. All of a sudden, those quiet, conventional, harmless types see their opportunity to exert a little control. Very quickly, what considered itself a libertarian movement finds itself fuelled by an authoritarian impulse, one that wants to close down, ban, censor and admonish. The impulse that fights for women’s rights, for instance, swiftly morphs into something that’s distinctly anti-male. The push for racial equality, likewise, can so easily become discriminatory. Logic would suggest that the same libertarian instinct that campaigned for gay marriage and sexual equality would be against censorious regulation, but the reverse is true. Libertarianism and authoritarianism, once at opposite ends of the spectrum, have become fused in a kind of Alice in Wonderland nightmare. A new puritanism has infected the liberal mindset and its effects are serious.

And so, armed with this newfound pc superpower, the Advertising Standards Authority has waded into the mire to ban images it deems un-woke, things it doesn’t want you to see. We’ve all read about it: with the aim of discouraging gender stereotypes, the ASA banned a Volkswagen ad showing a young mother, sitting on a park bench alongside a pram. Once upon a time ‘motherhood and apple pie’ represented all that was good and wholesome with the world. Today, the ASA finds motherhood demeaning, something that might hamper a girl’s ambition and life chances. Shrug all this off as a slice of summer madness whipped up creamy by Daily Mailers by all means, but I believe it deserves a serious pause for thought: our regulatory bodies have decided that motherhood is wrongthink. It’s pretty obvious that a society that finds motherhood embarrassing or demeaning won’t last very long.

It’s important we don’t add to the hysteria, but at the same time, we cannot pretend everything is just fine. It’s blindingly obvious that brands are tip-toeing around convention, sweating over showing a heterosexual nuclear family with clearly gendered offspring, or a sexually attractive female for fear of being labelled regressive or bigoted. Humour that pokes fun at anything cultural, gender-based, racial or religious has been off-limits for so long that we’ve grown used to advertising’s mediocre glumness. But the prohibition of gender stereotypes promises to make life considerably more treacherous for brands wanting to stand out from the crowd. Expect to see a lot more of the Alice in Wonderland world in which heroes, adventurers, scientists and scholars are exclusively female, where families are made up from across the sexual ‘spectrum’ and where the image of a smiling, white, middle class family is deemed harmful to society.

I know. We’re already there.

So, Mr Futurist, how does all this end, I hear you cry?

That’s easy: a mighty financial crash, obviously.

In the meantime, have a great week!

 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail musings

  Howard Saunders   Sep 04, 2019   advertising, Brand, Future, overton, Retail, shopping   0 Comment   Read More

It’s 2019. We still don’t know what to have for breakfast

We’ve been lied to and lied to. Ever since we were told to ‘Dig for Victory’ back in 1941 governments have grown addicted to telling us how and what to eat in order to stay healthy. Often they were wrong. Sometimes, very wrong. Not that they were strategically malicious, you understand. Like all professional liars governments make stuff up, for often very good reasons…but once evidence emerges to deflate their well meaning hunches, instead of coming clean they double down or wriggle duplicitously so that the edges of truth become blurred and impossible to make out.

Fat is the obvious example. Scientists originally promoted low fat diets back in the fifties, along with the concept of controlling calories for cardiovascular health. Post war optimism ultimately embraced the low fat, high carb lifestyle. After all, we watched as the fat solidified after our morning fry up, and we certainly didn’t want that clogging up our arteries! So, in the sixties we switched to Cornflakes (along with a cup of sugar).

It turns out this was the worst advice given since the days of blood letting. Today, Cardiovascular Disease is the number one killer, responsible for a third of all premature deaths. A third ffs! But did we get an apology for the untold slaughter of a million innocent butter-dodgers?

New evidence contradicts everything the World Health Organisation still evangelises. Namely, saturated fats directly enable us to absorb essential minerals and vitamins, build cell membranes, and raise levels of good cholesterol…at the same time as disarming the bad. Bread and dripping anyone?

Just as the medical institutions enthusiastically leapt on the fat bandwagon, so they jumped on the cholesterol one too. Latest evidence suggests bad cholesterol may not be that wicked after all, despite Statins being one of the world’s most widely prescribed drugs ever. Bandwagons build tremendous momentum when they get going, and rather than change direction they simply get outpaced by a newer one.

A case in point is the anti-meat bandwagon, which is currently gathering speed at one hell of a rate. Only a few years ago, vegans and vegetarians were a rare and endangered species notable mainly for their nose-rings and knitted socks. Today by contrast, even the reddest-blooded meat enthusiast will boast of the joys of flexitarianism. Shamed by a vitriolic climate of health-freakery, carnivores must now be wary of offending their friends and colleagues. They nibble their pork pies furtively inside the wrapper and sensitively lower their voices when recounting tales of the weekend barbecue. 

But actual evidence proving red meat causes cancer, which we hear on an almost daily basis, is very dubious indeed (the worst offender is very well done, or over-roasted meat…much like the risk of burnt toast) The WHO’s website sprinkles its meat warnings with a generous handful of mights and maybes, but then the press get hold of it and distil a thousand words into another bite-sized, blood-curdling headline. I can’t help but think this is driven primarily by environmental concerns, and our own health, rather than the planet’s, is their way of scaring us into abstention. (These are the things that keep me up at night)

Before the virtue signallers among you grin too broadly above your enormous plate of under-cooked kale, it’s worth pointing out that every silver lining is wrapped in a miserable, grey cloud. In short, iron in vegetables is nowhere near as absorbable as the iron in red meat. Rates of anaemia among vegans is rising, along with other delightfully named conditions such as Leaky Gut and Fatty Liver Disease. And we haven’t got time to get into the whole side effects of phytoestrogens thing, but trust me, it’s pretty scary. And believe it or not, just like everything else, you can have too many vegetables in your diet. A big plateful of fibre takes so much digesting that it can cause a deficiency in essential proteins and fats. Suck on that, smug potato.

If you don’t believe me, read this personal story of an ex-vegan:

https://www.cleaneatingkitchen.com/vegan-diet-dangers-health/

Things are changing so fast. We now know that many of the vegetable oils we glugged so enthusiastically a few years ago are much worse for us than lard, and  probably increase the risk of heart disease. So, it looks like we’ll learn to love lard like it’s 1939 again.

Fruit is another minefield of contradictions. Not long ago we were told to eat as much fruit as humanly possible, presumably because it was unlikely anyone could overdose on oranges. Blueberries, we were told, are a superfood that can prevent the cancer we’re all growing as a result of our meat addiction. Armed with this very rare, good news we gleefully poured bucketfuls of berries into the blender in the hope of living to 150. Within a few short weeks however, an alternative truth emerged: the high sugar content in fruit means we may as well drink Coca Cola.

It gets worse. After a thirty thousand year love affair, our most worshipped and romanticised food icon of all time, fresh bread is suddenly the worse thing we eat on a daily basis. News just in is that it’s loaded with salt, sugar, contains very few nutrients if any, and is no better for us than a box of Mr Kiplings.

The problem with advice from colossal institutions like the WHO or the NHS, is that it will never, ever, be up to date. Like ocean going tankers, embarked on a specific course, it is understandably impossible for big organisations to change direction overnight. So much time and money has been invested, millions, if not billions of people in hundreds of countries have been nudged or coaxed to follow certain guidelines, a thousand initiatives have been launched and hundreds of billion dollar deals have been made with Big Pharma. So here we are in 2019, surrounded by advanced technology, armies of super-scientists, legions of researchers and Yottabytes of detailed data, and yet we…actually…don’t…know…what…the…bloody…hell…to…have…for…breakfast. Full English, buttered toast, yoghurt, or a blueberry smoothie? You tell me.

There is, however, hope on the horizon in the shape of our little slab of black glass, yet again. If we wish, our smart-phone will shortly have access to our personal genome: the entire map of our unique DNA and all the biological propensities and fragilities our loving forefathers bestowed upon us. An army of apps will surely follow to advise and warn and encourage us to do what’s best for specifically for us, not generalised, out of date, one-size-fits-all mandates designed for entire populations.

Big data is really powerful when it gets small and personal. Now, pass the butter.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Apr 17, 2019   Food, Future, pizza, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

MANKIND PEAKED AT ME!

Do you worry about your children? Do you fret they won’t be able to cope with the modern world? Do you despair of their inability to concentrate and cringe at their poor social skills? Do you grimace as they fumble with their shoelaces or attempt to carry a hot drink from one room to another? Even if you haven’t yet had any imbecilic offspring, do you lie awake at night brooding over how well prepared the younger generation is for the real world, the world of tough business negotiations, the world of complex mortgages and life insurance? 

Well my friend, you are not alone. In fact, I guarantee that your great, great, great grandmother was equally concerned over your great, great, grandmother’s mental faculties, and whether she’d amount to anything very much at all. Indeed, there has never been a generation that didn’t believe its successor would be lazier, less respectful, shallower and generally less likely to cope with the challenges of contemporary life. Put another way, no one ever, dead or alive, believed they were handing the future to safer, wiser hands than their own. Every one of us is genuinely convinced the world would be better off if only we could stick around to oversee things properly.

There’s an ever-lengthening list of things we cannot discuss openly these days, isn’t there? Perhaps this is why so many polite conversations resort to the narcissistic, screen-obsessed young generation. What we are really saying, of course, is that WE are far more sophisticated, considerably more practical, eminently more articulate, extremely conscientious and clearly more enlightened than any other generation, past or present. In other words: mankind peaked at me!

Yes, humankind dragged itself from the swamp, to discover fire, invent the wheel, agriculture, transport, fight a few wars, overcome famine and disease to build cities, aircraft, computers and smartphones…but now, sadly, it’s downhill from here. Most likely, our great, great grandchildren will dig out our Facebook archive to gaze in awe at the pinnacle of humanity right there, pictured somewhere tropical with cheesy grins. “Progress stopped with Great, Great, Grand Mammy and Pops” they’ll sigh.

Truth is of course, your idiot children will help usher in an incredibly exciting new world. It’s only us myopic Boomers and miserable Millennials who think progress stopped at the iPhone. And as for attention spans, just look at the hours they put in playing computer games or watching make-over videos in their bedrooms. Compare that to the stupidly staccato ‘sorry, gotta go to the news’ ‘gotta leave it there’ hurried BBC interviews we wake to every morning. No, there’s nothing wrong with their attention spans. They’re just not interested in your boring world, that’s all.

Mankind’s graph of progress is actually very clear. Despite the doom-mongers and naysayers, the best time to be breathing air is, believe it or not, today. Whether your barometer of progress is humanity’s access to knowledge, travel, freedom, opportunity, longevity, security or technological innovation, the overwhelming majority of us are living in the safest, most liberated and creative time in human history. Ask your great, great grandmother how she thinks your life chances are looking. She’d probably say they were pretty bloody awesome. Or words to that effect. 

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily musings and retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Feb 04, 2019   Future, me, me age, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

THE BATTLEFIELD

The high street has become a battlefield. Every morning we awake to yet more news of store closures: stores we grew up with and brands we believed would be around forever are shuttering up as the best form of defence against this relentless, yet invisible, onslaught. And now our restaurants, pubs and bars have become infected too. Big name, highly regarded chains such as Byron, Carluccio’s and Jamie’s are buckling under the pressure as their foes advance on all sides. Rent, rates, Amazon, Brexit, Deliveroo and even the weather have joined forces against the very places in which we once sought refuge…and a cold beer.

But on the distant horizon a new technologically advanced force is preparing for battle. Autonomous vehicles, drones and robots armed with artificial intelligence and facial recognition software are plotting the next wave of disruption. The question is, are they friend or foe?

Ok, enough metaphor for one day. You get the picture. There’s no question the shiny new world that beckons will change the way we shop, work and play. Artificial intelligence is sure to iron out most of the irritating niggles we bump across during our working day. It won’t be long before we look back on form filling, applications and buying tickets for travel as the quaint behaviour of a gentler age. Predictive algorithms will eliminate much of the friction and frustration in getting hold of the things we need, because they will know what we need before we do. Our working lives will become ever more digitised as our e-assistants complete tasks and solve mundane problems in nano seconds while we focus on the more creative stuff.

But surely, at the end of a hard day plugged into the electronic universe we will yearn for a bit of human contact, a warm smile and a cold beer? Of course our e-assistant could have one droned in (within three minutes…in its refrigerated drone pod) but wouldn’t you prefer to sit at a real bar for some real life eye contact?

The future may be somewhat daunting, scary even, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ll still be human when it arrives. It’s understandable that in the rush for the future we believe even hospitality will become digitised. I say let’s keep the robots busy in the back office organising the logistics, the stock replenishment and the P&L, and let the humans do what they’re best at.

As AI and robotics lubricate our lives I believe we will seek out, and value, human connection even more. So before you order that row of iPads to speed things up a bit, consider instead investing in a smart, charming, genuinely charismatic human being with an engaging smile.

The future doesn’t just happen, it’s waiting for us to shape it. So let’s at least agree what hospitality is for and why we will always yearn for it.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Nov 06, 2018   Future, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More