room44 innovates

On the corner of the high street, squeezed in between a pub and an estate agency, is a small, single-fronted shop with deep red painted window and door frames. Across the window run the words ‘Shoe Repairs’ in gold leaf, and underneath, in script, it announces ‘keys cut’.

The chap that runs the place is thickset, unsmiling and monosyllabic. He isn’t the chattiest of shopkeepers. Anyone entering the shop has to start the conversation, or it doesn’t get started. This means you need to see what you want, or know he has it, before you go in. The shop is too small to ‘browse’ comfortably: the description on the sign outside tells a pretty accurate story, although you could buy an extendable walking stick or a pair of shoelaces. Range selection of the traditional kind.

Writing on the walls

All around the walls hang display cards with blank templates of keys. If you can see the kind of key you need, you’re in luck. If you can’t, you’ll have to ask. You’ll often be met with a response like, “be here Thursday”. Asking how much it will cost seems a step too far.

Until recently, the local hotel used to send over for room key replacements. It’s amazing how many guests go home with their keys, no matter how big and ornate they are. Since the hotel converted their locks to keycards, this business has dried up. No-one’s asked the shoe repairer how he feels about that. Mainly because the key cutting service isn’t important to anyone – it’s just there.

Next, car keys became too hard to reproduce: electronic, automatic opening, near-field activated. The key templates for older cars are still occasionally requested by vintage car owners, and hobbyists who visit the nearby circuit for track days. The shop guy hasn’t really thought about this much, and he sometimes notices the display cards getting dustier.

House keys aren’t asked for so often anymore, and the people from offices who used to pop in for a copy, just in case they lost their door keys and their deposit, have stopped calling.

Even the small keys that were once popular seem to have fallen out of favour. Combination locks for bikes started years ago, but the shoe repairer kept the card on the wall just in case. Someone told him that bikes can be unlocked by a card now; he doesn’t really get how that works.

Micro effects of macro change

Little things in themselves, maybe, but little things that point to a bigger change. Micro effects caused by macro change.

The shoe repairer isn’t interested in technology. His car has keyless ignition, although he hasn’t made the connection with falling turnover. He’s more comfortable with shoes and with work that he can rely on. Hammers, nails, lasts and polish are all reliable. Always needed.

He’s thinking about taking some of his display cards down if he could decide which templates would be missed or what he should put up instead. Maybe he needs a website. Do people buy keys from the internet?

He realises that he hasn’t seen his locksmith friend lately; he used to drop in quite regularly.

Perhaps he should go next door and see what the estate agent wanted to talk about when she called in last week. Maybe she needs some keys.

Then again, at least he’s got shoes to repair. There will always be shoes. It’s not as if you can make them another way – I mean, it’s not as if you can print them, is it?

Seeing it differently. Future-proofing. It’s what we do.

What’s the difference between a headline and a trend? We all get a bit dazzled by hype. We tend to believe the headlines when the reality of a situation can be very different.

Trends are important when planning product and service development. Trends tell us what we may face as competition, as well as what the solutions our customers will be seeking might be.

Trends tell us how to anticipate how markets could evolve, be exploited and how we can influence them by delivering value.

Trends aren’t always easy to unpick, though. Here’s a current example: Amazon is the big news today. We see Amazon in every headline and we are told that the company will continue to be part of our lives, even if we can’t imagine how drones and no high street stores will change our world.

Anyone that follows Amazon knows that ‘fun’ is a big part of the corporate ethos and is probably a factor in its success. Who has begun to think that Jeff Bezos and fun go hand in hand? When Jeff goes, will the fun go too?

What we aren’t told is that Amazon is still, roughly, a fifth the size of Walmart. Amazon is growing at @50% year on year. Walmart is growing more slowly: about 2% year on year but from a much larger base. If the current rates of growth persist, Amazon won’t catch Walmart in size for almost half a decade.

Do we think Walmart isn’t already reacting to Amazon? That the largest grocery retailer in the world isn’t working on a strategy to ring-fence its business?

Another trend we read about is the experience economy: consumers spending money in places that offer a real and immersive brand experience (a bit like Walmart delivers). Amazon is a supplier of stuff we want, efficiently and without any real experience attached. In fact, almost none at all. Click and forget.

Once we get over the thrill of drones dropping off pizza and beer, we may want to go and see what’s new on the shelf. Maybe Walmart will develop a new reason for us to visit stores while delivering our groceries via their own drones. Maybe retail isn’t dead after all.

The future of the high street could actually be looking more interesting. Perhaps, when all the commodity chains have stripped their cost base so far that drone delivery and a website is all they have left, we’ll see an uprising of local, artisan, craft and quality makers. Maybe the rise of electric vehicles and taxation on mineral based fuels won’t be matched by the predicted range of batteries we’re told we should believe… or maybe batteries just won’t charge as quickly as we’re told they will so short shopping trips become attratctive again.

Perhaps quality producers of food, clothes, furniture, bespoke services… all the things we love to buy, but struggle to find among the coffee chains and estate agents, will start to look good to more people.

We could see a return to local specialisms based on produce available in an area. Maybe all those community experiments that have been tried over the years (see Transition Towns) will have their day. Maybe it’ll become easier for small producers to reach a shopping audience without the absolute need for e-commerce. Perhaps the trend towards taxing sugar in soft drinks will extend into processed foods and will persuade more people to eat better and shop more locally; shopping local begins to look good for another reason. Maybe shopping more critically will mean we need less plastic packaging.

Maybe we’ll all benefit from a hybrid of efficient delivery of staple items, and the experience of shopping and meeting people too.

I could go on. Trends are important, and it takes an enquiring mind to see past the headline and to where the unmet need is. Maybe we could have a chat about that.

Future thinking. Future proofing. It’s what we do.

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