Howard Saunders - Retail Futurist - Keynote Speaker APCC SUMMIT - NextGen Retail Ecosystem
The future of retail
Over the last 30 years, you've been consulted by renowned companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Ikea or Oracle to help them plan their future. What were the main challenges you encountered? And what strategies did you recommend?
My role as a futurist is exactly what it suggests: that is to help businesses and brands navigate upcoming developments. Everyone automatically assumes this is about changes in technology such as getting ready for digital currencies, artificial intelligence etc, but it’s so much more than that. New technologies don’t simply open up new channels or new ways of doing business, more importantly they often dramatically shift our behaviour. This is the bit that excites me. Consider how much more demanding we all are now that we have the power of the smartphone in our hands. Consider how much more informed we are about products and services. So preparing companies for ever more transparency, for example, is just as important as predicting the impact of drone deliveries or robotics. That’s where I believe I can bring useful insight.
In the specific case of shopping centers, how can they adapt to consumer demands?
Wow, this is an enormous question that could encompass every aspect of retail, but in order to offer you one easy to remember soundbite I’d say “stop thinking shop”. Let me explain. Shopping centres, in fact all retail spaces, need to learn to be much more creative and flexible and move away from dividing everything up into individual boxes for a five year rental. Individual stores will, of course, always be essential for specific brands but they should be complemented by adaptable spaces for events, brand launches, immersive digital spaces, temporary brand venues, workshops as well as customisation and production facilities. I know from experience that creative brands really struggle to find interesting, flexible and impactful spaces. As the term ‘retail’ expands to embrace events and immersive shows and spectaculars, landlords must adapt, and fast.
"The reason I love retail is because it is all about community"
What are the retail sector's main contributions to communities?
The reason I love retail is because it is all about community. It’s not some peripheral business to business thing that only experts understand. Retail spaces are where we search for the things that give us social status. And we prefer to do that in a social setting, rather than online, because a brand’s space, layout, lighting, design and personal service reveals so much more than an online studio image. And the sort of customers it attracts is critical to us too as we are all highly brand literate now and will instantly know whether a store is our kind of place…or not. Retail spaces are where we meet friends, family, lovers and colleagues in order to feel that we’ve arrived somewhere alive and relevant: the centre of the universe! The hustle and bustle, the aromas, the sounds of laughter, hanging out with like minded people in a warm, friendly space mulling aspirations, arguing over colour combinations and defending individual tastes…that’s retail.
"New technologies don’t simply open up new channels or new ways of doing business, more importantly they often dramatically shift our behaviour."
What can we expect from your speech at the APCC Summit: Wake up! The truth about the future of retail?
I sincerely believe that we’re told a lot of nonsense about the future. Technology tends to over promise and underdeliver and many in the prediction business love to threaten us with promises of endless disruption and constant revolution. Experience has taught me that things often turn out to be a lot more balanced than was originally predicted. My job is to debunk some of the doom-mongers and the relentless catastrophism in order to paint a realistic vision of the next ten years or so. And perhaps in doing so remind people exactly what retail is for. Too many people get over excited about technology that threatens to change things forever while forgetting why we go shopping in the first place. So, my predictions I believe are rational, practical and based on what we humans might actually want, rather than on what we’re told we’re getting! Remember, we’re still in charge…for the time being anyway.