CONFESSIONS OF A CONSCIENTIOUS CONSUMER

It dawned on me about three weeks ago. I was involved in a series of customer study groups, trying to establish how attitudes have shifted in the current climate, when whoosh, a sudden a sense of realisation washed over me like some kind of tidal epiphany. It was so bloody obvious: the greatest threat to retail, our high streets and our town and city centres is not the ridiculous business rates, nor is it the increasing barrage of regulation. It’s not the rise of online retail or even the sirenic Alexa who promises to bring you everything you could ever want by tomorrow morning at the latest. Nor is it the B word, WTO tariffs, increasing energy prices or the lack of available staff. No, I’m afraid the biggest threat to our shopping streets, my friend, is you.

Let me be specific. It’s that little glowing ember of guilt you have inside you, the one that the mainstream media has been oxygenating for a decade and that’s now being fanned to a flame by politicians, lovely Greta and angry Extinction Rebellion.They have made you doubt the very system that made us rich in the first place. They have a point. You only have to slide open your wardrobes for evidence that you have too much stuff. Your bathroom cabinets barely close anymore and your attic is legacy to a Noughties tech binge, a veritable V&A in your loft. But you are not alone in your guilt. Listen to Cathy, the interviewee that changed my mind forever. Cathy (42) is married to Lee (44) and they have three kids Sasha (12) Aron (10) and Ella (7)

Me: In the light of recent health warnings and the increased threat of climate change, how have your shopping habits changed?

Cathy: I find myself thinking much more about things now. I reached up for a box of cereal for Ella the other day and stopped myself. I’d read that it’s mostly sugar and the packaging costs more than the contents, or something. And there’s the diesel the trucks use to deliver it, I saw something on that too. Anyway, I put it back. I’m the same about cooking sauces, biscuits, crisps, and bacon (Cathy counts her victories intently, finger by finger) and we’ve cut out ready-meals, so it’s harder for me getting dinner ready after work, but I know it’s for the best.

Me: How about other sorts of shopping? Fashion, for instance.

Cathy: We all watched that documentary on fast fashion. Incredible really, the amount of landfill it causes. And the chemicals they pour into the gutters that end up in the ocean. It’s truly disgusting how these things are produced. So we’ve agreed not to buy anything unnecessary from H&M, Topshop and Zara from now on. We don’t need it, so we’ve really cut down, I’d say. We tried using the local shops more but the choice isn’t really there to be honest, and the parking’s a nightmare, so most of our essentials are bought online now. It’s easier for us and better for the planet, I guess.

Me: What about changes to the way you travel?

Cathy: Yes, we have definitely stopped using the car so much. In fact, we were supposed to be visiting Lee’s mum at the weekend but we changed our plans. The petrol alone would cost over a hundred quid and all we could do is take her out for lunch really. So, we’ve decided to Skype her instead and wish her a happy birthday the modern way. For the best, really.

Me: Any other big changes you’ve made recently?

Cathy: Well, yes. We’ve stopped going to the pub on a Wednesday night. It was a bit of a break for me to be honest. It’s quiz night and we’d have a burger and a couple of beers. But what with all the health scares around alcohol…and red meat for that matter, we’ve decided to just stay in and watch Netflix. (she laughs)

Oh, and we banned McDonald’s outright. There’s been so much about them in the press and on various documentaries. They’re cutting down the rainforest just to produce enough beef, and then there’s the amount of salt and sugar they put in everything. It’s a no go zone for us now, I’m afraid, though I think Aron still sneaks in there with his friends. I can smell it on him, you know. He denies it, of course. We also cut out the Friday night curry. It was a bit of a family routine and we loved it until we saw that programme on the amount of salt they use. Unbelievable. And very fattening too. So no takeaway curries for us anymore!

Me: Away from food, how about household goods and homewares etc? 

Cathy: Oh my god, don’t get me started. The whole kitchen needs doing and this sofa, well I’ve always hated the damn thing. But no, we’re not looking to replace anything major in the current climate. I don’t want to look extravagant, especially when everything is so uncertain at the moment.

So folks, Cathy and millions like her are doing their bit in these troubled times by cutting back a little on the things they once took for granted. If a few more million of us can be as conscientious as Cathy, our high streets and town centres will be completely devastated in five years. Tops.

We cannot let this happen. It’s clear that to turn the tide on this cultural erosion will take more than a cut in business rates and a 3 for 2 promotion. We need to address this head on: we must champion our local pubs and restaurants because they are our community and not just alcohol merchants. We need to bring back the local butchers and bakers and we need healthy, contemporary fast food in family-friendly environments. We need sustainable fashion brands that are genuinely affordable and we need parking spaces that encourage us to bring our families into town. We need community events every weekend and late into the evening after work. We need retailers to work together to make their streets clean, warm and welcoming. We need sensible family-friendly rail-fares that don’t have to be booked six months in advance too! And yes, we need to encourage as many street markets and independent traders into the town as possible, if only to break up the monotony. Put simply, we need to reclaim our town centres for what they were originally designed for: hard working, well meaning, conscientious consumers like Cathy.

For daily retail musings and rantings join me on Twitter @retailfuturist 

  Howard Saunders   Oct 08, 2019   shopping, 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

EUROPEAN GRAFFITI!

To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. If you’re a polite, tax paying shopkeeper from Barcelona, Berlin, Milan or Madrid, you’ll have faced this dilemma one sunny morning when you opened your shutters to reveal freshly painted scrawlings up your pilasters and all around your corbels.

In some parts of Europe our major city centres have become little more than concrete sketchbooks for a kind of push-me pull-you politics, where the alt right, the loony left, the disgruntled and the dispossessed each contribute to a multi-layered cacophony of tangled anger.

I grew up at a time when graffiti belonged to very different artistic genre. In my day, walls were decorated with cartoon genitalia, delightfully captured in mid climax. The masterpieces that illustrated my boyhood were the desperate, pubescent cries of unrequited potency. Toilet cubicles became the private venting booths of the permanently pent up, where intense frescoes of either triangular or cylindrical simplicity were created, presumably as some sort of silent warning to the sex they were yet to encounter. Perhaps these explicit diagrams were a contemporary homage to the Da Vinci cartoons, none of which were that funny anyway, as Peter Cook famously observed.

Sadly, since the advent of free online pornography we’ve witnessed the demise of the cartoonist-gynecologist. Today’s vitriolic hieroglyphs have more of a political bent, and whether leftist or rightist they unite in their distrust of authority and so find harmony working together on the smooth render around an innocent shop-front.

In 2018, the shopkeeper’s dilemma is a tricky one. Should he reach for the bleach and expose himself as a defender of ‘the man’ and the likely retribution that may ensue? Or does he leave the solitary scribble alone and risk it spawning a crawling nest of irate expressionism, each vying for the attention of the passing shoppers?

With global politics in such a state of flux, it’s unlikely our rebellious artists will grow tired and head home for a gin and tonic anytime soon. Like ever increasing business rates, it seems graffiti is another tax our retailers will have to pay for access to play on our tough urban streets.

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

  Howard Saunders   Apr 26, 2018   Future, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More