DEVO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

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

MANKIND PEAKED AT ME!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BATTLEFIELD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for daily retail rants

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

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