YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING

Kids ruin Christmas. It’s not their fault, of course, but as November drags to its drizzly demise the world inexplicably switches into kiddy mode. Every shop, every advert, every programme and every song addresses us as if we’ve just turned six: fully grown TV presenters grin toothily in tinsel covered pixie hats explaining things in over enunciated tones as if their audience is thumb-sucking and nodding in agreement. Even our much lauded Christmas ads have become unbearably cutesy as a parade of lovable fire-breathing dragons (John Lewis) animated carrots (Aldi) animated dogs (Costa) or simply Disney characters lifted directly from Frozen (Iceland) are splurged across our screens in a tidal wave of diabetes-inducing drivel. And as if to add insult to injury, our ‘leaders’, our pathetic politicians promise us an ever-lengthening list of things we’re as likely to witness as Santa’s fat arse in our fake fireplace.

So, partly to escape my homegrown Yuletide blues I hopped across to Salzburg for advent weekend in search of the true spirit of Christmas. (And even though I tweeted my intentions I had no idea that I would actually find it! More of that later.)

Salzburg old town is ridiculously cute too, but in a grown up, stein-clinking kinda way. The Christmas markets have not been plundered by filterless-fag smoking reprobates and street-hustlers, and are instead largely owned by local families. And they’re not all selling the same imported plastic shite either. Each stall has a respectful, symbiotic relationship with its neighbours. The bauble connoisseur is adjacent to the knick-knackery, the miniature figurine specialist is flanked by a lantern stall and a flavoured oil salesman. They segment by colour too, with one stand selling wares in shades of white to contrast with next door’s rich reds and golds. There’s also a fair slice of religious iconography, this being the historical centre of the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic Church turned up the volume on all that icon stuff. (The ‘Altstadt’ alone is home to 27 churches) I found this unusually refreshing, coming from an uber-secular city where religious iconography is avoided like, err, a religion.

Having browsed, nibbled and Gluhweined a good half dozen advent markets I decided to take a break from all the jollity and go for a Sunday walk, because well, it was Sunday. After half an hour’s staggering up the stupidly steep stone steps just across from the Mozartsteg Bridge, I seriously began to question my sanity. At each ‘landing’ where I paused to wheeze noisily, another stretch of stairs would appear as if I’d been trapped in some impossible Escher etching. Finally I reached, surprise surprise, yet another church, but I still felt Kapuzinerberg Hill remained uncharted, despite its managed pathways and clear signs. And so this huffing, puffing pioneer marched onward and upward. Very upward. 

Occasionally I came across another idiot coming downhill through the forest towards me, presumably from somewhere, so I pushed on. Heroically I parted bracken and bravely stepped over a few perilous boulders until finally, thank god, the slope softened into a level clearing. Snuggled into the crest of the hill sat a stone lodge with the spittle-rich name ‘Franziskischlossl’. I approached cautiously, pulling back a dark blue velvet curtain behind the weighty wooden door. I felt like one of the Wise Men arriving at the stable, for yes, I had just discovered the true spirit of Christmas! Below me, nestled in a courtyard way above the city, looking down along the majestic Salzach, was a small band of Christmas hunters just like me. A motley crew of walkers and respectful revellers were gathered around an open fire pit, drinking Sporer hot orange punch and Stiegl beer. I’m sure I‘d have heard the angels singing Halleluja, if ‘Last Christmas’ hadn’t been playing.

Here, my friends, is the real Christmas spirit. It’s not in the shimmering, shop windows, nor is it on the faces of those infantile TV presenters or even in the heartstring tugging supermarket ads . You won’t find it on Amazon, Twitter or Youtube, and you certainly won’t find it on Instagram. You can’t even Google it. No, the true spirit of Christmas is tucked away, often where you’d least expect it, in simple places where like-minded strangers gather around a fire to clink glasses and wish each other well.

Please follow me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rantings and musings

  Howard Saunders   Dec 11, 2019   Brand, Retail, Uncategorized   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

‘TIS THE SEASON

Tis the season for doom-mongery, that’s for sure. What with the whole B-word debacle, chirpy Mr Carney’s cheery forecasts and parliament’s miserable vision on all sides, 2018 was perfectly topped off with the gravelly wisdom of nonagenarian national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, declaring the end of the world is nigh. Very nigh indeed, apparently.

And if anybody wants a touch more gloom to help thicken the December fug, they need look no further than the UK high street, which is desperately gasping for oxygen right now. Over the course of this year, I thought I’d made my views pretty clear on where this is all heading via numerous blogs, conference rants, podcasts, press quotes and radio interviews. But it became clear at a couple of drinky events recently, that I haven’t quite explained myself fully. So, I thought I’d pull together a handful of my little nuggets of wisdom to make a big, brownish plasticine ball of prediction, as a kind of misshapen full-stop at the year’s end. Here goes:

Let’s be honest, 2018 was peak doggy-do for retail. If there was any previous doubt, this year slapped that down pretty pronto. As spring sprang into life, news of M&S closures quickly quashed any uplifting spirits with the unmistakable resonance of a proper death knell. Instantly, we saw a picture of our own high street without a beloved M&S at its centre. The news of Maplin, Poundworld, Carpetright and Toys r Us had earned a mere eye-roll, but M&S is Mummy for god’s sake! (great at cooking, not so fashionable). This is serious.

Mike Ashley’s Trumpish rant at that recent government committee was actually rather illuminating, as well as entertaining. He shook his puffy red cheeks in disbelief at every line of his lacklustre grilling. His interrogators were little more than a rag tag horseshoe of poorly dressed, wannabe librarians with as firm a grasp on commerce as I have on football. With these guys in charge, what hope have we got?

Ultimately, it’s obvious. Left to market forces, our high streets will continue to collapse in upon themselves, helped along by big name closures such as HOF, Debenhams and M&S. But once we have the optics of M&S boarded up for a year or two (surely optics must be the word of 2018?) rents and rates will plummet so that clever, hungry young independents might actually get a chance to kick-start a revival of our beleaguered towns. After all, we were bemoaning the cookie-cutter high street a few years ago. Now that it’s dying all this panic seems a bit disingenuous.

If we cannot wait for market forces to take their toll then government action on rents and rates might catalyse things. Ashley’s 20% online tax would certainly drive us away from Amazon, but added to VAT, are we really encouraging the government to tax us 40%? We would certainly live to regret that.

The good news is coming, but not for a few years yet. The digital age has taught us what we want from the real world, and however dreadful things look at the moment I’m convinced the market square, and all that brings with it, will be back with a vengeance. This time the authorities will understand they must massage and manage their high streets just like a successful shopping centre: taxing profits when times are good, supporting with investment and marketing when times are bad, sculpting their spaces with brands that work in harmony with each other (rather than plonking down the first shop that offers the most rent) encouraging start ups and quirky one-offs because they add to the overall mix and the vision of what we want from our town centres. Yes, retail is a full time job.

And imagine how powerful it will be if our children, and children’s children, know they can bring their own ideas and products to market, instead of assuming it’s in lock down with Debenhams and WH Smith. Imagine the innovation and energy we’ve seen in the craft beer market being encouraged across other retail categories. There is a slew of independent butchers, bakers and yes, candle-makers that currently can only dream of having their own shop in town. So much of the future will cherry-pick the best of the past to bring us what we really want.

Believe me, the future will be rich in innovation and inspiration. Alternatively, believe Sir David and start saving for that ticket to Elon Musk’s Mars. But act quickly if you want to avoid the 40% online tax.

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

  Howard Saunders   Dec 06, 2018   Retail, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

HI-HO, HI-HO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HUMANOIDS ARE COMING!

In March 2016, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas, the world was introduced to the slightly awkward Sophia, a humanoid developed by Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics. Just like any new starlet she was forced to do the rounds and subjected to a thousand inane interviews asking if she was happy, in love, hungry, looking for a partner and even who her parents are. Sophia coped pretty well considering…considering she’s not a human and was barely three months old at the time.

Most industry interrogators seemed reasonably impressed with her performance, clearly willing to put her often slow or repetitive responses down to first night nerves. In fact, she was such a hit that the following year she became a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia, a place where perhaps her shortcomings in humanity would be largely unnoticed. I’m happy to report, her career has gone from strength to strength and in November 2017 she was named the United Nations Innovation Champion, the first humanoid ever to be honoured by the UN. A glimpse of the future, perhaps?

But while Sophia was busy charming the press, the geeks back at the lab were already working on her successor. And on a recent trip to San Francisco I was privileged enough to be given a sneak preview of HMN25, (nickname: Harriet) due for release in 2025. After a long briefing and lengthy NDA signing, I was ushered into Harriet’s private room: a refrigerated, dimly lit, fishbowl. I was terrified. It was like meeting some sort of resurrected and rewired Marylyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. The room fizzed and bleeped as men in white coats (yes, they really do all wear them) examined complex graphs on a drum kit of screens and laptops.

I leaned in for a more intimate look, transfixed by her flawless complexion. Her perfect pores even have a hint of downy hair on the curve of those cinematic cheek bones. She is incredible.

All of a sudden, her head swivelled. A spookily mellow voice echoed out ‘How can I help you?’ My heart literally stopped. I lurched backwards in shock as the white coats cackled like schoolchildren. Harriet is beyond impressive and, like most powerful women, utterly terrifying.

Developed by CAAN Enterprises in association with Alphabet Inc it’s obvious that Harriet is a huge investment. If they get it right I really do believe we’ll be bumping into her right across the planet. They’re quietly predicting a hundred thousand Harriets in stores, restaurants and banks within the first two years in the US alone.

Whereas Sophia has 62 expressions, facial recognition capabilities and machine learning tools to allow her to hold a stilted conversation about the weather, Harriet is equipped with a whole suite of the latest EI (emotional intelligence) software. Analyzing eye micro-movements, for example, enables her ‘mood awareness’ letting her know how engaged we want to be, and how she should react. Sophia was pre-programmed with a decent menu of responses that are selected by relevance. Harriet, by contrast, is able to improvise in a non-linear way to build engaging conversation…with the appropriate reactions too. I am assured she can look flattered, embarrassed, pensive, mischievous, interested and intrigued, together with some eyebrow raising irony convincing enough to out-Roger Moore, Roger Moore. I understand they also plan to program her to be gently sarcastic too. For the English market, I presume.

The bad news is when Harriet is released she will devastate the retail and hospitality industries overnight. The good news is that we already have an army of Harriets, that are programmed to do everything she does, and much more besides. They’re called humans and they are smart, funny, charming, knowledgeable and, on the whole, pretty damn cheap too.

Yes, I’m afraid everything I wrote from paragraph two onwards was a lie. There is no CAAN Enterprises and no Harriet either. It’s not a complete lie, you understand, as I do know of several companies that are working on exactly the sort of emotionally intelligent software I described.

I’m simply making the point that to be successful in retail and hospitality takes so much more than product knowledge sprinkled with politeness…even though we’d often be happy with just that! No, to be a true salesperson or brand ambassador requires charm, empathy, authenticity, enthusiasm and maybe a bit of sarcasm too. In short, humanity. And it’s these nuanced, innately human traits that are so very hard to emulate digitally.

Don’t look so worried. The future of service is absolutely safe, as long as we understand we are there to be human.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 03, 2018   face recognition, Future, Retail, sales, technology, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More