Howard Saunders   Aug 09, 2021   Uncategorized   0 Comment

They’re getting smarter, you must’ve noticed. One minute you’re innocently wiling away a few minutes on Instagram or Facebook, comparing your friends’ weekends with your own meagre offering, when an ad for a trip to the Algarve pops up. That’s funny, you ponder briefly, as you were only discussing how nice it would be to go back there next summer! Somehow, the geeks that live in Silicon Valley must have overheard you and have been busy converting your dreams into click-ready reality especially for you this rainy Monday morning.

Then after a few more prurient thumb-swipes an ad for a pair of swimmers pops up, perfect for the Algarve…then pumps, sunglasses and even travel insurance. How nice of those nerdy valley dwellers to care about me so very much.

We all know what’s happening here.  We’re aware our data is being harvested for cash but in return for a tailor-made holiday any awkward feelings about privacy and intrusion soon evaporate. The digital world has made our aspirations come true as the real world shapes itself around us, just like your Instagram feed. Welcome to the future folks!

Meanwhile, six thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean in Beijing, those future-hungry Chinese are playing with immersive experiences that take us on mind blowing 3D journeys through real life dark spaces. Forget those hilarious smart mirrors that superimposed clothes onto your reflection like you’d just landed in South Park, this technology promises to literally suck you into a brand’s story. 

Imagine stepping into a virtual Nike or Adidas store. There you are on the starting line, the stadium circling around you. The music builds to a chest pounding crescendo until…crack, the starting pistol fires the horizon toward you at blistering speed. As the crowd roars the lights drop and the music changes gear to take you actually inside the machine that makes these bad boys. In 3D close up you get to see exactly how they were conceived, developed and engineered to improve your life. These special edition sneakers are numbered, signed by your hero and revolving three inches from the tip of your discerning but athletic nose. Swipe your thumb and they are yours.

So our city centres will become the interactive showrooms for all the stuff we think we want. Much as they always were in a sense, but ignited now with technology that knows more about our desires and aspirations than we do. Marketeers once collated us into clumsy groups, called demographics. With today’s data, egographics target you specifically. They know precisely how many milliseconds you lingered over that image and exactly which bit of it you enlarged between your grubby fingers before swiping it away. They know the colours and styles you’re most drawn to, what your friends are liking and when you’re next getting paid. Think of it like this: they’ve been holding a 24/7 referendum on everything you’ve lusted after for the past decade. Scary yes, but boy will it give our high streets a much needed shot of adrenalin.

Just imagine how our big cities will develop, over the next couple of decades, armed with this magic fuel, so don’t rush to convert those department stores into flats just yet. Instead of waiting for conventional retailers to fill the holes left by the pandemic, our city centres will become playgrounds for all sorts of brands, not just fashion and beauty. Money spent on conventional advertising will be redirected towards more immersive living advertisements for products and services, including food, fitness, wellness, pharmaceuticals, music and travel. As our cities reboot, slowly but surely the age of the ‘retail ride’ will emerge.

We’re already witnessing the early stages of this revolution. Opening later this year, in and around our very own Tottenham Court Road tube station, Outernet is a billion pound development that incorporates famous Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley. Alongside 55 uber-swanky music inspired hotel rooms and a 2000 seat subterranean venue, Outernet will be home to a gigantic atrium with the largest full height 360 degree screen installation on the planet (for now)…the perfect space for unmissable big brand launches.

Technology works on a more intimate scale too. Sook spaces have been quietly popping up in our urban centres for the last year or so. John Hoyle’s clever concept was to create a chain of off-the-peg pop ups: ready made retail blank canvasses so that brands, independents, artists and artisans of all kinds can set up shop for a few days…or even a few hours. Digital walls can swiftly become the stage set for an ever changing array of things to entertain us.

If you’re still in any doubt as to who could possibly fill our gap-toothed high street or feeling a general lack of enthusiasm for our city centres, you need to spend five minutes with crazy arts collective Meow Wolf. Not only do they have the best name ever, these guys have limitless energy to transform big empty spaces into fantastically immersive theatrical journeys. Think room after room of jaw dropping psychedelic installations created by artists free from the guilt of being ‘retail’. In fact, Omega Mart, their latest space in Las Vegas, is a surreal supermarket with time portals in the frozen section. I’m serious.

As mentioned, Beijing is absolutely bubbling with tech-head outfits. One of the best known is Teamlab, the people behind some of the most astonishingly breathtaking digital extravaganzas ever experienced. Their spaces are full on immersive so that you really do become one with the digital graphics. The only question is, how long before the likes of Nike and Adidas start to harness this? On it already, perhaps?

So cheer up. Once we get past this inconvenient interlude the word ‘retail’ will have expanded to encompass all sorts of marketing theatrics that use the data we’ve been throwing at them to build some incredibly engaging experiences…made especially for us. Our aspirations will be made real as the world shapes itself around us, just like your Instagram feed.

This is all very well for our big cities, I hear you cry. But what about our provincial towns and local high streets? 

Well, that’s for later…

This article was commissioned by my good friends (and loyal client) Aptos.

About Howard Saunders

The Retail Futurist, otherwise known as Howard Saunders, is a writer and speaker whose job it is to see beyond retail’s currently choppy waters. Howard spent the first twenty five years of his career at some of London’s most renowned retail design agencies, including Fitch & Company, where he created concepts, strategies and identities for dozens of British high street brands. In 2003 he founded trend-hunting agency, Echochamber, inspiring his clients with new and innovative store designs from across the globe. Howard relocated to New York in 2012 where the energetic regeneration of Brooklyn inspired his book, Brooklynization, published in 2017. His newfound role as champion for retail’s future in our town and city centres gave rise to the title The Retail Futurist. Howard has been interviewed on numerous television and radio programs and podcasts for BBC Radio 4, BBC Scotland, the British Retail Consortium, Sky News Australia and TVNZ, New Zealand. His talks are hi-energy, jargon-free journeys that explore the exciting, if not terrifying, retail landscape that lies ahead. When not in retail mode, Howard has recorded, literally, thousands of digital music masterpieces, most of which remain, thankfully, unheard.

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