IT’S 2021. MEET HOMO-TREPIDATIOUS

The bounce back was not very bouncy. There were exceptions, of course. Like the queues at McDonald’s in July last year. A nation of fast food addicts certainly needed its fix. They stood in line for a good forty minutes, grinning and giggling like over excited seven year olds. Happy meals indeed.

There’s definitely a new civility in the air. We’re less frustrated about delays, less hurried and certainly more polite when we finally get our hands on our goods. Many welcome this new civility as long overdue, but the truth is it is born entirely from fear. Like badly berated schoolchildren we obey instruction without question, keep our toes tucked tidily behind the yellow line, and jump the instant the man in the fluorescent jacket raises his arm.

And look what’s happened to pubs. Pub culture was the very foundation of British society. It’s where workers and bosses, landowners and farmer’s hands laughed together across the froth of their beer, untethered by status or social hierarchy. Sadly, the bustling, beery, raucous chorus that was our local boozer has been well and truly throttled by hazard tapes, warning signs and perspex screens. Not dead exactly, just lifeless. Orderly lines of locals supping ale at a safe distance is not a pub, and never will be.

Orderly, civilised and respectful it may look, but that’s because we’ve been scared witless (or shitless, if you prefer). We’ve had the fear of God drummed into us and we’ve chanted the weekly mantras, bashed our saucepans and everything. We may pass each other and exchange polite greetings but we’re both thinking ‘He’s probably got it. Christ, she looks poorly’. Oh yes, the script for the Twenties has been written: Homo Trepidatious is born.

Now come with me to London Town. (We’re travelling by drone, of course, so hold on tight.)  We are hovering directly over Oxford Circus, above what was once the mighty TopShop. It’s June 2021 and there are very few people milling around. The red buses scurry past pretending nothing has changed, but they ferry a scanty cargo. The Portland stone bears its scars of the amputated logotype like a bitter trophy of better days. Much better days. Nike Town is open and good old Uncle John Lewis is still there to welcome us, albeit in mask and visor, but most of his neighbours have moved out. Tezenis and Microsoft were the first to break the circle. Those shops that steadfastly remain unshuttered do so, it seems, in the hope that those better days will return. They may have a long wait. 

As we swish our way down Regent Street it’s much the same story. Most of the passers-by are local office workers (You can tell by their pace). There are a handful of visitors and even a few sightseers, but there’s not much for them to see today. It’s very clear just how many tourists used to visit London. Brooks Brothers, Desigual, Reiss, All Saints, Ted Baker and Levi’s all gave up on their flagships last year. Hamley’s is frozen into a kind of hibernation waiting for good news. Apple, Burberry and Mappin & Webb are hanging in there, thankfully.

Curving into Piccadilly Circus, the brazen billboards dance poignantly to their dwindling crowd, for they know no better. Whirring left into Shaftesbury Avenue, past rows of homeless tents the damage is obvious. None of the theatres survived, though one or two have been cuckooed for private events. Even the famously irritating Trafalgar Square pigeons are somewhat sparse, presumably having abandoned The Smoke for fatter pickings.

But hardest hit of all is Soho. This is where I lived and worked in my twenties and thirties. It’s where I grew up, where I learnt how exhilarating the world of design and retail can be. Such heady, happy, hard working days. That’s where my old agency was in Soho Square. It now lies hollow and soulless. The entire city is riddled with vacant office space. Like a watery-eyed Ebeneezer, I can picture the hip young guys and girls pouring down the steps at lunchtime to sit in the sun for half an hour. And there’s one of my favourite bars, now shuttered in clothes of iron and chipboard. The deli’s barely recognisable with its white-washed windows, but that’s where I could be found at least three times a week, back in the day. So many of the restaurants I loved have closed, and all but a handful of sandwich bars remain to feed the lunchtime workers. A little over a year ago this place was buzzing with what felt like a billion bars boasting of a nightlife that would see you right through to your Pret breakfast. Surprisingly, some of the more robust brands have vanished too: Wahaca, Barrafina and Princi to name a few. Even Pizza Express pretty much disappeared overnight. It’s sad to think that here on Wardour Street is where it started its journey fifty six years ago. Only a couple of private drinking clubs act as vanguard to keep the Soho spirit alive. Just. It feels like we’ve returned to the 1940s.

I’m sure I’ve cheered you all up with this news from the future, but it’s time to head home now. I don’t like to stay out too long these days. London isn’t what it used to be for sure, but as Joni once sang “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Finally, I must say a very, very big thank you to the highly talented Jan Enkelmann for his stunning Lockdown London images. Thank you Jan.

Now please join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants, predictions and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Jun 01, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

ROBOT WARS 2020

Like the closing sequence in a 1950s cheesy sci-fi movie, the robots have been defeated. As the music fades the mechanical invaders retreat over the hill into the sunset, carefully leaving open the opportunity of a ‘return’ sequel in a couple of years.

It seems like ancient history now, though actually only a few months ago, that the mighty McKinsey warned of an impending battle that would see the robots destroy up to 800 million jobs worldwide. In fact, it wasn’t so much a warning as they made it pretty damn clear we’d already lost and any retaliation was futile. Funny how fear of the robots has evaporated now that Covid 19 has arrived bringing with it vastly more devastating unemployment numbers right across the planet. 

Oh how the press love to crank up the fear machine with their daily doses of bite sized doom to spice up our cornflakes. There’s nothing new about this. Take a look at these Der Spiegel front covers over the years. It’s almost as if, god forbid, when the economy looks reasonably stable the robots rise up to threaten our fleeting state of complacency.

Looking back barely a couple of months, it seems we’d become rather hysterical. The Youtube videos of rogue robot dogs or metallic humanoids battling to the death their own crazed creators, it all fed directly into the Frankenstein narrative that clearly sits deep within our DNA. (Even if most of the videos were CGI fakes) Yes, humans have long understood they’ll be the architects of their own demise.

Or consider the robot bricklayer. A genuine multi-million dollar prototype of a cross between a forklift truck and a skittle machine from a fifties bowling alley. Watch it build a wall (badly) as it trundles along (perfectly even rails) whilst carefully being monitored (refilled and cleaned up after) by its non-robot workmate. Genius.

For over a decade, happy supermarket shoppers were warned to watch out for the robot shelf stackers. These ingenious mechanical tikes would manage stock control together with impeccable merchandising skills, all without a whinge or the faintest hint of a tea break. As we look forward to the prospect of unemployment levels of possibly 20% and above, how will we judge a retailer willing to invest millions in machines designed to steal jobs from the poor?

Perhaps (he says hopefully) our techno-hysteria will dissipate now we have a genuine unemployment crisis to worry about. It seems this microbial wake up call has endowed us with a refreshing clarity. Instead of being swept along by life’s relentless momentum, the lockdown has given us a planet-wide pause for thought: time to reevaluate our lives and what we want from them. Maybe we realise the future is ours to steer, instead of something that simply happens to us in the rush of routine.

So, good news, on the hill ahead the robots are retreating. Slightly clumsily, on wheels and tank track thingies, but they are definitely retreating. But, this is no time for celebration. Life post Covid 19 shows all the signs of a much more sinister invasion.

The advent of ‘contact tracing’ technology from Apple, Google and even our own NHSX ushers in an era of super-surveillance. Governments across the planet are developing systems that analyse data from smartphone apps to identify and locate patterns of infection in order to manage where and when we can move about. Helpful, of course, but this technology is a gateway drug to much deeper, Orwellian levels of social control, and we must tread carefully with our eyes wide open.

The Indian government’s compulsory Aarogya Setu app, for example, has emulated the shamelessly authoritarian Chinese model within just a few weeks. The AS app comes pre-installed on new smartphones and means, in effect, you need official approval to access your workplace, public transport and even the local park.

Contact tracing tech maybe a wolf in sheep’s clothing but dictatorial levels of authoritarianism couldn’t happen here, surely? I’m not convinced. Within minutes of the announcement of our lockdown regulations in the UK, the curtain twitchers and tut-tutters were on the phone to the police snitching on double dog walkers and unauthorised family picnickers. Both Youtube and Facebook have banned ‘scientifically unsubstantiated’ posts on Covid 19, which basically means anything not officially approved by the WHO. Oh yes, our soil is fertile for ever more state control.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day is a beautifully timed reminder that freedom should never be taken for granted. “Download our app to stay safe, access advice and services, use public transport safely and clock in at work so we can help keep you virus free! “ 

Failure to do so, however, will see you alienated, excluded, economically impotent and a social pariah. You choose.

Thanks for reading. Now please follow me @retailfuturist for rants and observations

  Howard Saunders   May 12, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More

CORONAVIRUS AND THE RETAIL APOCALYPSE


“WHATEVER WE’RE GOING THROUGH RIGHT NOW, IT IS A CATALYST FOR GOOD AND BAD”

On Wednesday 11th March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered his first Budget in the House of Commons. In this special edition of ‘What’s In Store’, Andrew and Zana Busby give you up-to-the-minute reaction on the UK government’s tax and spending plans for the year ahead. Bringing in the retail futurist Howard Saunders as a special guest, the three discuss what the budget means for retail and the future of the high street. The coronavirus outbreak features heavily in the conversation, as its impact on the economy is clearly reflected in the Budget and is already beginning to put customers off visiting physical shops. Is this a major turning point? Could it be the start of the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’?

  Howard Saunders   Mar 13, 2020   Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

BIG KID: THE RISE OF KIDULTIFICATION

All television has finally become children’s television. It wasn’t always like this. Not so long ago there would be proper debates in which fully grown adults opined on matters with original thought and genuine contemplation. Today, our juvenile brains can only process a well rehearsed soundbite if it’s accompanied by a manic drumbeat. We’ve even grown to love our Cheshire-cheeked presenters of mundanity, pumped with Blue Peter enthusiasm and avuncular vowels. Somewhere up there, in the great conspiracy in the sky, they want us all to be obedient children that grin inanely as a parrot performs card tricks or something.

Infantilism has now infected retail and leisure with a torrent of kidult concepts and products coming to market every week. In the gluttony department, and egged on by Instagram, we have dinner plate sized, candy floss collared ice creams at Milk Train, overladen cones at Udderlicious, Sticky Toffee Warmies at the Chin Chin Dessert Club, Bilog purple ice cream deep fried buns at Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream, hip versions of Mr Whippy from Soft Serve Society, and the £99 Billionaire Soft Serve at Snowflake. If these outrageous gelatos are not kiddified enough for you, how about the cookie dough brands like My Cookie Dough (Stratford), Humbledough (Shoreditch) and Naked Dough (Camden Lock)? (This might be a good time to confess my addiction to Little Moons mochi balls. I can’t even type that without salivating). Ultimately, no adult activity is safe from infantilisation. I mean, what young bride doesn’t dream of a Disney themed hen party-cum-singalong at Funktion Events and a unicorn wedding cake from the Maid of Ginger Bread? 

Invention has no limits when it comes to impregnating us with glucose. From Bubbleology’s Electric Yuzu bubble tea through to Kinder Egg ice rolls made fresh for you at Pan-n-Ice, it’s never been easier to pretend we’re five years old and Mummy is buying us a treat. For advanced narcissism you must go to Candy Mechanics who will make a 3D printed chocolate lollipop of your very own head! What sort of self obsessed idiot would ever want one of these?

Away from the global obesity craze there’s a slew of adult ball pits at the moment from brands such as Ballie Ballerson (Shoreditch & Soho) and at The Museum of Ice Cream (SoHo, NYC) one of the many Instagrammable places emerging along with Happy Place (Vegas & Philadelphia) and the Selfie Factory (O2, London). Even trusty old John Lewis held a selfie workshop at its Southampton store. Not that this has any great social significance you understand, ahem, but boy would Freud freak.

With legacy brands disappearing at a silly rate of knots, shopping centres are racking their brains for engaging replacements to plug the often huge, yawning spaces traditional stores have abandoned. Intu was quick to add adult play areas into the mix with their funky, two storey climbing brand Rock Up seen here at Lakeside. And who could ever forget Bompas & Parr’s Grope Mountain at New York’s Museum of Sex?

Puttshack is doing a roaring trade at Westfield London at the moment with the kind of crazy golf we dreamt of as kids, but sadly never discovered. Topgolf, Junkyard Golf and the cheeky sounding Swingers, mix crazy golf with cocktails to appeal to our inner juvenile. Other brands jumping on the big, squishy, kidult bandwagon are Go Ape (ziplines), Flip Out and Jump Giants (adult soft-play and trampoline parks).

One of the most imaginative up and coming activities is the urban adventure trail. Brands like Hidden City, Secret City Trails and Foxtrail construct tours via cryptic clues sent to your phone, while you dash breathlessly through London’s drizzle. With the advent of Augmented Reality, we can expect to see groups of terrified tourists wandering around Whitechapel in search of ghostly apparitions and virtual gore. The gamification of tourism is here to stay.

Some of the most creative ideas can be found at immersive events designed by the clever people at Escape Room, Gingerline, Colab Theatre and Secret Cinema. These venues are where you dress up to be dragged into a choreographed fantasy world for a few hours, presumably to expunge the memory of your daily commute. If that fails you can always head to The Cauldron where you make your own magic (alcoholic) potions, dressed as a wizard of course.

Fantasy can be fun, but it can also be absolutely terrifying. If you’re into being scared witless try ‘Trapped in a Room with a Zombie’ at Apocalypse Events in Charlton. Solve the clues within five minutes or the zombie’s chain will be released another five foot! Grandma loves this one.

Sleepovers are massive too. The Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, holds all-night pyjama and movie binging parties, while London and Whipsnade Zoos now have permanent sleepover lodges. But best of all has to be the Natural History Museum where the events calendar includes Dino Snores for Grown Ups, silent discos, behind the scenes tours, all-night monster movie marathons and Crime Scene Live where you join their forensic experts to solve a museum based murder mystery. Perhaps some of our retailers could learn a thing or two from our long since dusty museums?

As I’ve said many times, trends aren’t sent down to us from on high, but instead grow inside us as our hopes and expectations shift and change. My inner Freud tells me Kidultification answers a desire to escape adult responsibility. The future has become so scary we clearly yearn to retreat into the sanctuary of our pre-school years…but with added cocktails. My inner mummy just thinks we’ve all become spoilt brats!

Go on, join me on Twitter @retailfuturist for retail rants and wry observations

  Howard Saunders   Mar 07, 2020   Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More