UBER: A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE?

Two years ago last summer my life got a little bit better when a friend of mine from Sydney proudly demonstrated his brand new Uber app here on busy Fifth Avenue. John W is a good looking, highly successful, young entrepreneur with a head full of ideas to help make his business more forward thinking and responsive, so the Uber brand fits him perfectly. There’s no way can I imagine John enduring many Sydney cab rides every day (they’re probably the worst in the developed world). Nor would it look quite right for John to have a personal driver on hand (we used to call them chauffers). For a young, go-getter guy it would look a tad self obsessed and certainly rather old fashioned. John isn’t a difficult person with any sense of entitlement, but he certainly doesn’t want to be fumbling around for change or trying to sign a credit card slip on the back of a  headrest. Nor can I imagine his wallet stuffed with ilegible little receipts. No, all John needs is a decent car and a friendly driver.

John was evangelical about Uber because it solved a real problem for him. A clean, handsome car could always be on hand, wherever he was in the world, without having to book or plan ahead and, of course, it gave him membership to a kind of select club without looking ostentatious or elistist.

It works perfectly for me here in New York too. Yellow cabs are notoriously rude and unhelpful probably most of the time and they’re certainly not over keen to help with your heavy bags when you arrive jet-lagged and tetchy into JFK. Then, at the end of the ride, there’s that awkward moment of calculating the tip. In fairness, yellow cabs now make it much easier for you with on screen recommended tips of 20%  25% or 30%. Yes 30%!! Now that starts to look like extortion, and that’s my point. It’s not really the total cost that worries us, it’s the expectation that after a bumpy ride in a filthy cab with a miserable driver, he’s expecting you to add a third of the price on top just as a way of saying thank you! If you’re feeling brave try leaving a 10% tip. He will, very likely, chase you up the street. I’m serious.

So as with most things, our decisions are not based on cost but on the emotional cost. We will probably pay extra to avoid the awkwardness of tipping and we will certainly pay extra for a happy, helpful driver. That’s the key: as each Uber journey is rated by every passenger (the app asks for a rating prior to the receipt) there’s a real incentive for the drivers to at least attempt to look like they want you in their cab in the first place. Too many yellow cabs, and London black cabs for that matter, make you feel as if you’re doing them a favour. At every given opportunity they will let rip about the rules, regulations and taxes that make it impossible to earn a decent living etc etc. Ironically, the arrival of Uber has become a fresh and meaty new source of whinge material.

I recently learned that the Uber driver rates us too! Yes, that means if you’re the kind of Friday night, arrogant throw up artist, then you’ll find it pretty tricky getting hold of an Uber, especially on a Friday night. What a beautifully democratic system.

At this stage I must just put in a good word for the London cabbie. After a long haul flight there’s nothing that gives you the lovely warm rush of a welcome home better than a chirpy London cabbie with a sweary synopsis of the latest news, cockney-style. Sadly though, their recent anti-Uber protests in London may have badly backfired. Firstly, it was a terrific piece of marketing for all those who had never heard of Uber, and secondly it reminded us just how stroppy London cabbies can be sometimes. Ultimately of course, it doesn’t matter how many authorities or cities ban Uber, app technology, whether Uber or not, can only win in the end.

The Uber app makes getting a decent car in a busy city centre much more convenient, with the total charge going straight to your credit card, while a clearly laid out digital receipt and map of your route arrives in your email. But that’s not why it’s successful. The Uber rating system quickly detects low rated drivers so it can remove them from the Uber network. (By contrast, imagine complaining to TFL in London or the TLC here in New York about a cab driver’s attitude. We don’t bother because we know nothing will happen)  The Uber system means that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a polite, if not always cheery, driver that actually wants you in his car!

Now this really is radical stuff! Imagine a world where every store visit is rated in terms of customer experience and service. Imagine how that might change the face of the high street. No more sulky checkout staff shouting ‘next’ and avoiding eye contact as if they were the lover you’d just had an almighty row with. No more disinterested shop assistants chatting to their colleagues to avoid doing any work. No more Post Office staff treating you with utter contempt for having the audacity to want to send a parcel of that particular size. Surely, this is no more than a pipedream? I don’t believe it is.

As payment systems become more advanced at the same time as retail apps become more integrated with their real world stores, I believe this is one of the great, unspoken benefits of the retail revolution we’re bang smack in the middle of.

Uber’s success is a glimpse of the future, a glimpse as to how new technology will change the way we consume. In  four short years the company is already valued at $18 billion, operating in 128 cities across 45 countries. It’s very clear something was wrong with the old system, right across the planet, for Uber to have been embraced with such enthusiasm in so short a time. Thirty-something founder, Travis Kalanick, spotted the weaknesses in the old system and answered them directly. Quite simply, the Uber service is better because it puts the power in the hands of the customer and cares about what we think. And the post crash, Me-Centric consumer loves it!

The breath of fresh air they’ve brought to an old industry feels even fresher when you take a look at their innovative promotional strategy. Over the last year or so, we’ve had the offer of Uber ice cream trucks during the long hot New York summer, Uber chopper rides to the Hamptons, free weekend trips to Brooklyn, Uber sky-writing for Valentine’s Day and, perhaps strangest of all, ‘kittens on demand’ as part of National Cat Day.

The Uber business model really is a template for forward thinking brands. Each of us already uses a handful of the billion apps available to help our lives run smoother: online deliveries, personal trainers, car services and favourite brands. No need for cash or cards, these brands are our trusted ‘clubs’. They are the dominant apps or ‘doms’ that are reshaping retail around how we want to consume.

So, it’s actually our little smartphone that is redesigning the high street. Uber solves a number of problems and brings an exciting efficiency to a tired and very often miserable market. But its genius is that it answers our emotional needs. We could always get a cab when we wanted one. Now we know they’ll be nice.

  Howard Saunders   Nov 17, 2014   Blog, Brand, Future, Retail   0 Comment   Read More

NERDISM: TECHNOLOGY WE DON’T WANT


Technology will be our saviour, of that I have little doubt. Advancements in science will help us live healthier and longer, probably solve climate change and the communication revolution will eventually make us all a little more worldly, secular and easier to get along with. But this does not mean that all the technology those big, clever Californian companies promise us is set to change our lives for the better. In fact, there are many ‘innovations’ that are, frankly, just plain stupid, misguided, or both. Now that the Apples and Googles have wormed their way into so many aspects of our lives, perhaps we feel obliged to nod sagely at every announcement as if this is all part of some ultimate destiny. It’s not.

It must be fifteen years since I laughed out loud into my Sunday supplement at the concept of the smart fridge. The idea of a refrigerator unilaterally re-ordering the milk, cheese and frozen pizza was both feasible and ridiculous: a perfect example of technology we don’t want, designed by young men who spent too many years playing Warcraft. The LG smart fridge failed spectacularly because it misunderstood what we want from our machines: we don’t want the fridge ordering the milk because, quite simply, we like to be in control.

A couple of years ago, I took a handful of clients to the launch of the Mini (motor car) brand flagship in London. The store was proudly tech-savvy and had lots of screens playing rally videos as well as touch screens to search for Mini branded merchandise. The ‘piece de resistance’ however, was the interactive mirror at the back of the store. Select an item of clothing from the menu and it would be magically superimposed onto your reflection. Genius. I cannot, honestly, remember another time I laughed so much. My colleague was well over six feet tall and the sight of his hunched frame trying to accommodate a pathetic cutout puffa jacket was just too much. It was nothing but a high tech ‘head thru the hole’ end of pier amusement. We left the store in tears.

So, now we’re supposed to be getting excited about drone deliveries. Again, it’s all utterly feasible, but stop for a minute to picture the skies thick with Amazon’s electronic bees carrying toothpaste and you start to realise how unlikely it is. It may work well for a few rural deliveries or medical supplies, but the future will not include swarms of copters hovering outside apartment blocks, looking for a place to make their drop.

I recently gave a talk alongside a lovely, enthusiastic chap from Google. Eloquently he told his tale of a future where tiny eye movements would put us in touch with friends and enable us to share information right across the world. The fact that during his live demonstration nothing actually worked does not mean it won’t happen. I’m sure it will, but it’s a stark reminder that technology goes wrong…and it goes wrong an awful lot of the time.

Which brings me to the much-heralded Google driverless car. Firstly, I understand from Google that it cannot distinguish between a crumpled newspaper and a rock, so just consider the consequences of that for a moment. Humans, on the other hand, even stupid, underage, drunk ones, automatically know how to react to things like that, so for the time being it’s probably best to leave the driving to us.

Secondly, and most significantly, we don’t want it to happen. We may moan about sitting in traffic jams but in reality we enjoy being in control, frustrating though it is sometimes. We won’t willingly relinquish control to a highly sophisticated computer anymore than we’ll hand the car keys to the family cat.

I read a report recently from a futures agency that explained how technology would change our lives. It described locking the house via an app, the car automatically starting and planning our route, the coffee waiting for us at the coffee shop and then our intelligent diaries, knowing that we wouldn’t make our meeting on time, calling ahead to reschedule. Now, I hate to pour cold water on all this sunny optimism but every stage of this prediction is flawed.

How many of us would trust a symbol on our phones that says our house is locked without at the very least pushing on the door to check? Do we really want our cars to start running based on our everyday routine? If we’re honest, we don’t actually want our coffee sitting there waiting, getting cold…we want to watch it being made, that’s the whole point! And the thought of my diary ringing ahead and making its own arrangements just makes my blood boil.

For some time now Nerds have been telling us that wearable tech is the next big thing, but we’re still waiting. Nerdism’s problem is that it can only design for itself. Self respecting non-nerds wouldn’t be seen dead in most of the stuff that’s promised, and horrific though they are, the assaults on Google-glass wearers were hardly surprising.

The Holy Grail for big tech companies is fashionability, or coolness. Apple was well aware its watch could fall victim to nerdism, so in an attempt to target the ‘right’ types it was launched through cool stores such as Colette in Paris and Selfridges in London. Its acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats was also a part of this strategy. Google tried to coolify their glasses by commissioning the lovely Diane von Furstenberg to help with the design. Despite a slew of excellent PR however, they failed miserably. You see, big companies don’t decide what’s cool, we do.

Perhaps overt wearable tech is a bridge too far. The fact that we spend most of our waking hours staring at a little screen does not mean we want it tied to our foreheads or fashioned into a hat. Smart phones, like newspapers before them, are not just a way to receive information. They have become part of an urban dance, so that as we mingle with the masses we can appear detached at the same time. They provide a social function that’s more nuanced and intricate than nerdism’s Joe 90 vision of the future (Americans: Google it!) Smart phones enable us to look as if we’re engrossed in something intellectual instead of just reading celebrity tweets. Someone grinning inanely into space through big DVF frames, well that’s just plain scary.

So relax. Let’s look forward to a future where technology enhances our lives, opens up new and imaginative opportunities or solves real problems. But technology that interferes, invents problems we didn’t know we had or takes away things we were quite enjoying, that’s not for us thanks.

Read more of my blogs here: The Full Blog

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  Howard Saunders   Nov 03, 2014   Blog, Brand, Future, Retail   2 Comments   Read More

THE MANHATTAN MACHINE

Unfurl a giant map of the United States, say the size of your living room, and you’ll barely be able to make out the island of Manhattan. In fact, once you’ve located the tiny grid layout you only have to move your finger left or right a few blocks for it very quickly to become the bits of New York you’ll never want to visit.

So, what most of us mean when we say ‘New York’ is actually a few central streets in the lower half of this little granite island in this Atlantic archipelago they call New York City. Getting your head around this is the first step in understanding the crazily condensed, capitalist Galapagos that is Manhattan.


The big revelation for me, after living here for a couple of months, was that Manhattan is a actually a machine: a machine for living with a much more exposed and well lubricated mechanism than other cities I know. If you have a decent job you will probably earn more than your European counterparts, and once an enormous chunk of it is taken by the landlord, you spend it making your life run smoothly.

Firstly, no one cooks here. No one. You either eat out or ‘take out’. Stoves are for reheating exclusively. And everyone gets everything ‘done’: eyebrows, nails, shoes shined, necks massaged, hair blow-dried, dogs washed and walked, sheets pressed, supplies delivered.  So now the famous grid makes total sense: Up and down the avenues for the big fashion brands and department stores and sideways are the streets for the nail bars, salons, laundries, framers,

tailors, delis and restaurants, all ready to deliver within the hour. You’re never more than three feet away from a trolley or a dolly in this city as they rattle along dodging the shoppers.

Try explaining the UK’s ‘click and collect’ concept to a New Yorker and they’ll look at you like you just suggested a spot of Morris dancing.


What drives this city is the food and whatever happens here takes off around the world. The casual dining revolution began in Manhattan and you can see why. The process of bringing a restaurant to market in New York is beautifully Darwinian: you literally bring your concept to one of the many food markets (Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, Madison Square Eats, Broadway Bites) or get yourself a food truck.


All the cool food brands start this way so you don’t really need big financial backing to get a name for yourself like you would in London, for example. One caveat though: you need to be good, really good. New Yorkers are the most discerning customers on the planet (and for discerning read difficult, fussy and swift to complain). Get it right, on the other hand, and they’ll tell everyone they know how they discovered you.

 

The result is an entire city that is constantly fine tuning itself and it seems to work. Most of the time, service is good and the quality of food exceptional. Everyone is an expert here and if you want to succeed you’d better be damn good and you’d better be a specialist. Average generalists do not survive.

New York then, is a template for other world cities. As we all become more urban, more travelled, more discerning, more difficult, as our cities become busier and more condensed, just like New Yorkers, we will want the very best the planet has to offer. And we’ll want it delivered. Manhattan for all its excess shows us the way: most of the time the machine actually works.

  Howard Saunders   Oct 23, 2014   Brand, Future, Retail   0 Comment   Read More

WHAT ARE SHOPS FOR?

We must have really fallen out of love with our towns. Over the years we’ve allowed far too many of them to fade and we seem to have lost any desire to keep them alive at all, preferring instead to shop at the local shopping mall at the edge of town, or simply to order [...]
  Howard Saunders   Oct 08, 2014   Future, Retail   0 Comment   Read More
Made in Detroit

MADE IN DETROIT

We’ve all read about the decline of the once great Motor City. We may have also seen the shockingly beautiful images of the decaying and derelict civic buildings: Michigan Central Station, the libraries, the theatres, schools, factories and hotels that have been left to fall to ruin, useful only for the occasional arty photoshoot or [...]
  Howard Saunders   Jul 06, 2014   Brand, Future, Retail   1 Comment   Read More