Howard Saunders: “Treat me like just another customer and I probably won’t come back”

Howard Saunders, known as The Retail Futurist, thinks that many of our legacy retailers will disappear. Writer, speaker and designer, Howard sees retail future as messy but also remarkable.

Howard, you are known as Retail Futurist, so let´s start this interview talking about future… How do you think will be our high streets like in two thousand years from now?

Well… First, let´s travel to the past… Two thousand years ago we would have wandered down to the Forum, dressed in our finest toga to see what’s new, meet a friend or colleague for a drink, have a haircut and maybe treat ourselves to a new bedside candle. I believe that in two thousand years time we’ll be doing something very similar. The only question will be what sort of shops and services will be in the Forum of the future.

And how is our Forum (or Hight streets) now?

Nowadays, our high streets and shopping centres offer us so much more than access to stuff. They are the places we meet and hang out, browse and learn and play. It’s where we have our hair cut and our shoes mended. In fact, too many stores still hang on to the belief that we need their stuff – it’s the supermarket model: long rows of merchandise laid out for easy access but with barely any explanation and utterly lacking in meaning. Clever online brands have grasped this to their advantage by wrapping their products in wit, wisdom and heritage. After all, it’s meaning that we’re really looking for. We want to furnish our lives with things that we believe add meaning to our lives and increase our social status.

Our high streets and shopping centres offer us so much more than access to stuff. They are the places we meet and hang out, browse and learn and play

What is the biggest problem fro this business model?

I think the biggest problem is that, in the mature west, we already have everything we need. Most people reading this will have wardrobes so full they can’t find what to wear in the morning. Our bathroom cabinets are precarious to open because of the amount of potions and lotions we have collected. And the cupboard under the kitchen sink rattles with the number of cleaning fluids and soap powders we keep there. We already have enough stuff! If you don’t believe me, ask Greta.

In this context you are describing, what role does technology play in retail?

Technology has a unique way of engaging us by opening our minds and imaginations to endless possibilities: customising and designing, trying and testing things virtually, creating a direct dialogue with brands and even the product designer – technology is a window into a world that is yet to be conceived. We cannot imagine what tech-treats the likes of Nike or Samsung have in store for us… But I can guarantee they’ll be impressive. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t want a virtual haircut preview or a butcher’s counter that livestreams to the farm… Not yet anyway.

I don’t want a virtual haircut preview or a butcher’s counter that livestreams to the farm… Not yet anyway

Can you highlight a current technology or innovation that you believe is setting a trend?

If there was a technological innovation that was clearly trending I wouldn’t want to encourage it as if it’s some sort of techno silver bullet. And that’s the point of customer focussed technology: it must always innovate and change. However, in a more holistic sense, I’m encouraged by what I see from new brands and store designs that focus very much on building authenticity. It seems the message that this is the ‘post-stuff’ era is getting through. Innovative brands innately understand that they must present and merchandise their products to persuade us of their perfect provenance and interesting heritage… Even if they’re new to market!

What does it take for a store to work? Is there a magic recipe?

Yes of course there’s a magic recipe, and it’s very simple: You must be really, really excellent! And that’s in everything you do from making the store feel fresh and inviting through to after sales service and product returns. If I had to boil all that down into one word I’d say ‘hospitality’. Make us feel special and we’ll be keen to connect and add you to our retail universe. Treat me like just another customer and I probably won’t come back.

Loyalty shouldn’t have to be always about discount. That’s so unimaginative

How is customer loyalty achieved?

Loyalty is a two way street. Too many retailers look for their customers to be loyal by offering them ‘micropence’ savings. How about instead they prove their loyalty to us by asking us things, inviting us to product launches etc? It shouldn’t have to be always about discount. That’s so unimaginative. Make us feel appreciated, wanted and respected and I’d say we’re all yours. Easy to say but not so easy to do. To be a little more pointed I would say if your store manager is the sort that sits in the back office all day poring over digital spreadsheets, get a new one!

We started talking about future and we want to finish this interview with the same topic… How do you see the future of retail?

This is the 64 million dollar question! And one that I’ve dedicated my life to… But in one paragraph I’d firstly remind you that the future never arrives as it’s a constantly changing picture, of course. But like most things, the future of retail is sure to be mixed, messy and remarkable. I like to be specific so here goes:

  • Many, if not most, of our legacy retailers will have disappeared.
  • New brands will arrive and some will even stick around for a few years.
  • High street will learn to be much more flexible with brands and events taking spaces for maybe just a week, or a weekend in some cases.
  • A healthy high street of 2040 will include many more local 2 independents than we’re currently accustomed to.
  • They’ll be open in the evenings for product launches and workshops too.
  • There will be online brands tentatively testing the real world and many more incubator spaces dedicated to encouraging start up businesses.
  • There won’t be many banks but there will be a butcher, a baker, a diverse collection of restaurants and even a big discount superstore.
  • There should be a market at least twice a week.
  • And a breathtaking selection of ingenious young street entertainers to ensure your town centre feels exciting and alive.

In fact, it’s not so very different from that Roman Forum I took you to earlier.

🙂 What a time travel interview