HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

Stand barefoot in the middle of Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue and if you don’t get hit by a red Routemaster or a yellow cab you’ll surely feel the ground rumble beneath you. You are smack-bang in the middle of the retail revolution and it’s gathering momentum at a spine-tingling pace. Look up from your iPhone for a minute and you can watch the tsunami crashing down the street towards you. It’s already washed away the likes of BHS, Austin Reed and Joe Fresh, and there are plenty more in its path. Watch in horror as the waves smash into the windows of Gap, Old Navy, Next, Accessorize, J Crew, Macy’s, Sears, Banana Republic, Sports Authority, American Apparel and Ben Sherman, leaving long term, if not fatal damage.

But the rumblings of change are not really out there as much as they are in here of course, inside us. We expect more than the mainstream and the mediocre now. These days we hold our money tighter and consider things more carefully. Perhaps that’s why the first wave of change came from food. We have a very personal relationship with the stuff we put in our bodies, for obvious reasons, and since we eat three times a day, food was the fastest to offer us alternatives.

Hot on the heels of food, the latest market to react, surprisingly, is not fashion but home. Put it down to cocooning, home-peacocking or simply the reaction to fifty years of polyester sofas and avocado bathrooms, we are willing to invest in our homes like never before. As The Home Depot, B&Q and Homebase struggle to cling on to a dying market, the new wave of home improvement stores has a radical idea: Instead of selling us the ingredients, they sell the whole damn meal. And what’s more, they’ll come and cook it for us too. Suddenly the sorts of bathrooms you thought were the preserve of spa resorts can be yours, assuming you have the cash. Kitchens that out-Kardashian the Kardashians can now be bought and installed by the new Lowe’s, for example, the DIY chain that realised telling busy Manhattanites to ‘do it yourself’ is impossible as well as downright rude.

There’s an audible whir of activity in the home space in New York at the moment. Earlier this year Kate Spade launched her signature cutesy home concept. Then trend-setting Restoration Hardware, which became the RH Gallery a year ago, surprised the market again recently with the launch of its RH Modern collection, and impressive it is too. Madura the French decor brand has a stylish new store on Broadway alongside Ethan Allen which is due to open an 8000 square feet flagship very soon. Italian furniture designer Poliform will also shortly open a 10,000 square feet store with design studio a few blocks north on Madison Avenue next to Roche Bobois, Minotti and Natuzzi. And Spanish kitchen and bath shop Porcelanosa recently opened a $40 million Sir Norman Foster designed showroom at the crux of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Even the groundbreaking Samsung 837 store has a home section showcasing smart fridges and robot vacuum cleaners alongside its virtual reality playground.

But the biggest fanfare recently was reserved for the opening of the much heralded Pirch, a brand with a serious reputation to maintain, especially when landing in busy, cynical Manhattan. It does not disappoint. Three floors of home glamour that border on the pornographic. Mixer taps the size of cherry-pickers, showers and steam rooms you can actually shower in, refrigerators only slightly smaller than a terraced house, barbecue grills so beautiful you could never possibly scrunch newspaper into them, ovens seemingly hewn from from one solid lump of iron that are so sexy you feel your underwear tighten. Yes, all the rooms are ball-achingly seductive, but the focus is not the space. It’s us. Really. From the coffee bar at the entrance through to the consultation rooms and the five full-time chefs whose job is both to entertain and educate, their philosophy is to make you feel worthy of a Pirch interior. I guarantee not a single customer ever leaves this store saying ‘Yeah, it’s ok, but I’ll stick with my squeaky Melamine.’ The only obstacle between you and a Pirch life is the greenback, and in a market that has been so stale, for so long, that alone is quite some achievement.

Pirch is sure to go down a storm here in New York. Previously, if you wanted a Sub-Zero fridge you could stroke one at a showroom on 58th Street, but you’d have to buy it through PC Richards. That’s like watching your Fortnum & Mason hamper being delivered from a Tesco van.

If you think my Pirch enthusiasm is tad over excited then let me explain. By way of contrast, when I visited Sir Norm’s beautiful Porcelanosa flagship, the security guard/doorman (certainly no greeter) scowled as if to warn me not to try shoplifting a bathtub. Porcelanosa obviously considers itself terribly posh, but we Brits are more familiar with its store on The Purley Way in Croydon. Enough said.

The bar has been raised and the front door is wide open. We have given up doing it ourselves because we were crap at it and it made our houses look ordinary. Now we want our homes to reflect the way we think we should feel about ourselves. The death of mediocrity just took another step forward.

To better understand the implications of all this on your own business email me: howard@22and5.com

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

  Howard Saunders   Jun 02, 2016   Future, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HUMBLELUX and the science of cool

New York is now the home of the hundred dollar doughnut. I’m serious. The Manila Social Club in Brooklyn (where else) tells us it’s made with Cristal Champagne icing (obvs) has a purple yam cream filling and is topped with 24K gold dust and gold leaf. The world has clearly gone mad, so some explanation seems in order.

It’s important to remember our aspirations constantly shift as our relationship with the things around us develops. As we mature we look back and giggle at the things we once thought were desirable or fashionable. And just like individuals, mature democracies also become more sophisticated over time. Here in the aging West the world of white Lamborghini’s, impossible yachts, see-thru watches and silly-star restaurants starts to look a little tacky to anyone with a mental age above fifteen that’s read a couple of books. But recently the lux-lifestyle that used to belong to fat, cigar-smoking tycoons has been hijacked by the celebrity classes: the rich and poorly educated, the bling crowd. We may gawk with relish at the lifestyles of this meniscus of society but we know in our hearts that a life dressed from top to toe in D&G is not cool, it’s ridiculous.

We’ve all witnessed wealthy Chinese tourists stockpiling super-lux goods like kids in a candy store. It’s as if they believe these brands grant them instant status, instant happiness, and at some level of course they do, but ultimately the poor souls have been duped. Eventually they will learn that the lust for luxury is like Cristal Champagne icing and should be used very sparingly indeed.

As a direct reaction to this sequestering of super-lux, here in the dark and cynical West a new democratic form of luxury is emerging: the luxury of ordinary things. I call it Humblelux. Humblelux is the art of taking the ordinary, the everyday and reimagining it for the connoisseur and I have good evidence that it started here in New York. Along with the $100 doughnut there is Andrew Carmellini’s foie gras hot dog, Daniel Boulud’s DBGB dog and burger (served with home made lemonade, another Humblelux contender). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a trendy restaurant in New York that doesn’t have a signature burger on the menu. Denim too may have been mainstream fashion for fifty years but only recently has it become fetishized to the point that shop assistants talk selvedge looms and weft before they mention the fit.

As with all trends, their currents often run much deeper than at first sight. If Humblelux is a backlash against conventional luxury it follows that it’s also a movement to redefine luxury itself, a movement that’s actively, though subconsciously, seeking out new products to enroll into its exclusive yet democratic club. The common man is now at the helm of the super-yacht, taking us to the places and the things that he really loves, showing us his own proud heritage. It’s denim and pizza rather than Dior and Per Se. Listen to any New Yorker enthuse over their favourite pizza. They don’t mention how gooey or delicious it is, they talk oven construction and varieties of flour. Humblelux connoisseurs are into the science, not subjective emotion.

While we’re on the subject, there’s no question to my mind which is New York’s greatest pizza; it’s Roberta’s. It’s also happens to be the answer I give when asked to name New York’s best restaurant. Step inside the scruffy Bushwick shack and watch the future play out in front of you. Nerdy teenagers, beardy hipsters (of course) and families with pushchairs squeeze together with clusters of crisply-shirted businessmen. The servers are equally mismatched being heavily tattooed, well educated, and with manners to make their parents proud. Cultish pizza here is married with salt-baked celery root, grilled sunchoke and asian pear. A relentless, thumping dub soundtrack binds the whole crazy cocktail together, perfectly as it happens. This is democracy in action and very probably the spiritual home of Humblelux.    

Traditional luxury brands now face the very real risk of being ‘Kardashianed’ or ‘Chinezed’. That is not to judge either of these lovely groups of people, I’m simply saying that for all their money, glamour, cosmetic surgery and millions of Instagrammers, they are not cool. And clearly I’m not alone in this assumption. If they were cool, then luxury brands would be leveraging the crap out of their new ambassadors, instead of keeping them at the end of a very long bargepole.

The world has turned. As traditional glam-advertising withers in the shadow of its younger, brighter, more genuine social media sister then the cool factor is sure to become the very nucleus of every luxury brand’s strategy, however humble its origins.

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

  Howard Saunders   Mar 10, 2016   Brand, Food, Future, gourmet, pizza, Retail, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

FACE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE: ACTIVATE!


A couple of years ago I had dinner with a memory man. I forget his name but we were both speaking at a retail conference somewhere that’s slipped my mind now, but he was very entertaining. He’d just completed his ‘pick any name from the telephone book’ routine, followed by a quick-fire round where in return for our date of birth he’d shout out the day of the week we were born. He seemed a friendly sort, so over a glass of red I dared ask him the elephant in the room ‘how do you do it?’ question.

Taking a simple example he explained how the common excuse for not remembering names, ie. ‘I’m much better with faces’ is utter nonsense. ‘Everyone remembers faces!’ he scoffed, ‘You have to work at the names.’ His trick was to turn every name into an image, so that when you are introduced to say, Mark Butters you picture a huge melting block of butter on his head with a giant M marked onto it. The sillier the better, apparently.


This is an important lesson for retail because names are the currency of hospitality and using someone’s name in a social situation is like a very personal gift. The smartest retailers are already training their staff to use the customer’s name once they get sight of the credit card, to the point now that it feels rude when stores hand back your card with no acknowledgement!

Things are about to get a lot more complex with the advent of new technologies. Face recognition software is already being used by many retailers, including Walmart, to enhance their security systems. And how do you think Google and Facebook are able to tag your photos?

A few clever types are currently attempting to make our digital companions more emotionally intelligent too. Ted Women recently published a talk by the persuasive Rana el Kaliouby who’s developing an app that recognises how happy, sad or bored we are. By analysing thousands of tiny eye movements and the way our mouths react it can tell how we’re feeling. This is all very advanced and well meaning but it worries me. As I’ve said before, the problem with nerd valley, sorry Silicone Valley, is that it gets over excited with nerdist things. If you proposed an app that would have Sunday lunch with your parents to save you turning up, they would make it happen.

Predicting the impact of new technologies means looking beyond the techno-frenzy, sifting out the absurd and focussing on things that really can improve the quality of our lives. The tidal wave of big data that’s heading our way will bring us more information about the people and things around us than we can imagine but it is wrong to assume that we humans will be forced to take a backseat. The opposite will be the case. I believe that as machines get smarter they will free us up to do the things we’re good at: the hospitality, the persuasion, the charm, intuition, social etiquette, emotionally intelligent communication…the humanity! Every store, every bar, every hospital we enter will know everything they need to know about us. It will be our job as humans to make customers feel welcome and respected. It’s anonymity that causes problems; whether it’s trolling on Twitter, vandalizing bus shelters or the virtual violent crime we commit playing Grand Theft Auto, when we’re anonymous we’re willing to do terrible things. Expose our identities, and backstories and it’s much harder for us to be mean or treat others badly.

Retail technology should give us identity, not make us anonymous. Last weekend, when delayed at LaGuardia airport I came across a new bar concept. There was actually a very nice selection of beers, some local to New York, which always puts a smile on my face but punctuated along the bar in front of the taps was an avenue of iPads. When I asked what the deal was, I was told to order and pay via the tablet, the bar staff would then bring the beer. ‘Do you actually like this system?’ I dared to ask the girl. An eye roll and an abrupt ‘No’ was all she needed to say. Having punctured this little bubble of nonsense allowed the other customers to join in with noises of exasperation as to how ridiculous the whole thing was. Strange how intelligent humans, clever enough to invest in bars and pay extortionate rents, can so misunderstand our culture and the way we want to live.

It’s very easy to get over excited at the thought of an army of robots coming to take our jobs and for sure, humdrum work that can be replaced by an algorithm will be. Accountants, I’d have thought, are first in line and I’m sorry if you detect a wry smile here but they never seemed a happy bunch in the first place. The techno-revolution won’t just eliminate mundane jobs, it will demand a huge increase in intelligent hospitality. Working alongside the robots we will need an army of emotionally intelligent humans to welcome and seduce us in their branded spaces. This is the real revolution that we’re not prepared for, as it will need a massive investment in training if we are to even get close to our customer’s demanding expectations.

So, before we rush to invest in face recognition software that knows we’re having a bad day, how about first we train our staff to remember a few names?

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

  Howard Saunders   Feb 26, 2016   big data, Brand, face recognition, Future, Retail, shopping, technology   0 Comment   Read More

THE ME AGE (God, mobile phones and reasons to be cheerful)


The future is scary. We have so much to worry about: climate change, terrorism, migration, our diets. It’s a wonder any of us ever sleep at night and now we have the impact of technology to worry about too. Not long ago we dreamt that 2016 would bring us jet packs, hover boards and deep space exploration but now that we’ve arrived it’s far more Orwellian. We have to come to terms with the fact that there’s a giant cloud hanging above our heads that knows everything about us. And If that’s not bad enough we’re regularly being warned we’ll soon be losing our jobs to an army of super-smug robots.


We worry that our children have become addicted to their mobile phones, that their attention spans have plummeted to sub-goldfish levels and their literary skills will not improve beyond the ‘u no wot I meen…obvs!’ school of vernacular. We roll our eyes when we witness a group of teens unable to enjoy just ‘being’ without the grinning selfie-evidence that they were there. We despise our fellow passenger’s loud phone calls home and we worry about the drumming decibels that relentlessly pound our children’s eardrums as the background music to their digital lives. Walking the streets we curse behind clenched teeth at the hoards of phone-zombies that blindly career towards us, heads hunched over the screen that controls them (until we too need to check our location or diary appointment.) We even worry about the time we spend worrying rather than just living and we reminisce about a gentler age before mobile phones and computers arrived to consume us.


I believe history will prove that the birth of the ‘smartphone’ was a defining moment for mankind, no hyperbole. Right now, because we’re busy living, we see the smartphone as the gentle evolution of the mobile phone, but it’s far more significant than that. We know the human brain can apply itself to only one task at a time, so no matter if information is projected onto our spectacles or directly onto the backs of our eyeballs, from now until eternity we are homo-distracted, forever connected elsewhere. This tiny device has revolutionised not just our behaviour but the way we think about our place on the planet. We have entered a new age of enlightenment: the Me Age.

For ten thousand years or so we struggled to come to terms with our place in the Universe. Religions of all flavours attempted to convince us of our importance and promised us the answers in the afterlife. Much use that was. We built structures hundreds of feet high, buildings both religious and secular that stretched to the heavens demanding divine confirmation…but we heard nothing. Then, one morning back in 2007, we awoke to find our mobile phone had metamorphosed into the Universe itself! ‘Smart’ is an understatement, this magical, glowing tablet is all knowing: it knows exactly where we are, our tastes in food, music, film and fashion. It follows our friends, family, finances, our secrets, our hopes and even our dreams. This new god, unlike those that came before, actually answers our questions…and instantly too.


Little wonder then that our children worship him so faithfully, waking in the night to bathe in his glow, checking in at every opportunity with inane selfies that beg for his approval. This is the God that can publish our innermost thought or most trivial snapshot to the entire planet within a few micro-seconds, proving that it wasn’t trivial after all. At last we’ve received the validation we’ve been praying for all these centuries: we ARE at the centre of the Universe! Everything comes directly to us now. No longer do we need to be told what to think at the altar of church or school, what to buy at the altar of television, what to listen to at the altar of the Top 40. The Universe is actually in our hands.

As I’ve said before, the art of prediction often has a natural negative gravity in that we tend to view change as part of an inevitable slide to oblivion. The truth is the future gets the people it needs. If we were able to pluck a few poor, unsuspecting souls from the 18th or 19th Centuries and plonk them in 2016, they would be unemployable. In that respect, any desire to return to old fashioned values is pure folly. Just think, the future president of the United States is currently a spotty teenager, texting friends and posing with a stupid Instagram grin.

My own children were first generation digital natives and like every parent I worried about them endlessly. Once they reached the age of six or so they barely made it into the garden, or joined us for dinner, preferring instead to play violent computer games and surf hardcore pornography. (I’m guessing here, but I’m not a stupid Dad) Thankfully, neither of them have turned into mass murderers, not yet anyway, and both have solid and respectable jobs and social lives.

Surely those born with all knowledge at their fingertips, will, on the whole, be more liberated, empowered and emboldened, no? Is it not exciting that for the first time in history we have a youth that really does have a voice, the influence of which it’s just learning to use?  Will they not have a more rounded, nuanced and informed view of life on this planet than, say, the humble farmer tilling the soil?


Technology can be scary and, sure, there are downsides, but it’s clear to me that we are at the beginning of something very big here. Governments, local authorities, social services, healthcare and, of course, retail brands will very shortly lose the excuse to treat us as ‘the public’, as if we don’t matter, as if they don’t know who we are. They will know, we’ll make sure of that. Imagine an age in which no one can snarl dismissively ‘Join the queue here please.’ or ‘You’re not in the system’; an age that no longer generalises, pigeonholes or makes assumptions about us without the facts.

The technology is already in place to to make this happen. Our magical, glowing tablet already knows who we are and what we get up to and soon it will carry our health and wellbeing status too. It can’t be long before we realise we’re in the middle of the Me Age, where we will be, not just customers, but individuals.

I say bring it on!

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

  Howard Saunders   Jan 05, 2016   Brand, Future, image, me, me age, Retail, smartphone, technology, Uncategorized   5 Comments   Read More

THE FUTURE OF FAST FOOD

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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