Trend spotters watch and sell

October 02, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

The trend-trackers say we're heading toward war within the former Soviet Union. They say we're in for a decade of unparalleled affluence. They say, "Two words: crunchy raisins."

You keep reading about the trend toward healthier lifestyles, the trend toward outlet shopping, the trend toward ethnic foods, the trend toward microwave dryers, the trend toward eco-consciousness, the trend toward family values.

Where do they come up with this stuff?

We talked to a variety of trend-trackers, from Ph.Ds to Kmart dilettantes, to discover how they do it.

It turns out most forecasters are trackers and hackers -- surfing the data bases looking for that big trend wave, dissecting the hearts and minds of Ma and Pa Consumer, and occasionally letting their own imaginations run wild to ride that vision thing.

Some of the things they use are as esoteric as this newspaper. Newspapers are the favorite tool of professional trackers.

Bruce MacEvoy has been a trend bloodhound for four years at SRI International's Values and Lifestyles Program in Menlo Park, Calif. Like other professional tracker organizations, SRI sells its conclusions in reports to businesses that want to know what makes us tick and buy.

Mr. MacEvoy trolls the human landscape for emerging types, using a variety of methods, from consumer surveys and focus groups to computer data bases. But he also uses some personal leading economic indicators, such as what he finds on sale when he's on business trips and the women's magazines he reads on airplanes.

He also pays attention to the themes in popular movies. "I've noticed themes like the role of women in 'Terminator II' and 'Aliens' -- women as killing machines."

While he does not think violent women are a hot trend, the theme has piqued his interest. "I don't know what to make of it. Women are getting angry.

"Maybe it's a little bit of impatience with the glass ceiling not moving. That would be one hypothesis I'd check out with women executives -- to see if women are getting impatient."

He offers another glimpse of the tracker mind as he talks about how businesses are focusing now on what he calls GenX, short for "Generation X," the first definable group since the baby boomers. "The boomers' garages are full with a lot of junk, so they're not buying as much, but their dollar clout puts the GenXes to shame."

He sees boomers re-emerging in retirement as "a guerrilla population who will buy RVs and stay in touch by cellular phone," roaming the land in high-tech re-creations of the '60s flowered VW vans. "They'll have generational meetings," he says, envisioning the future as a kind of geezers' Woodstock.

"Seriously," he says, "You have to push an idea as far as you can and then see what you can salvage."

Another way of pushing the trends envelope is by talking to the smartest, most diverse and most far-out people you can. This is the method favored by Peter Schwartz, president of Global Business Network.

Mr. Schwartz develops future scenarios by swapping information with 100 people around the world, from rock star Peter Gabriel to Sun Microsystem's Bill Joy to performance artist Laurie Anderson.

He says, "We see remarkable pessimism about the future. The Cold War is over and the world is depressed, except Asia."

Cheryl Russell believes this extreme pessimism is a sign that the economy is about to change toward a new and more golden age. "The last time people felt this way was before World War II," she says. The former editor of American Demographics, Ms. Russell now edits the Boomer Report for Find/SVP, a New York-based business intelligence firm. Ms. Russell reads all the U.S. Census Bureau surveys that track Americans. "I scan them with my eyes and my brain."

She puts this data together with business news and obscure academic reports. "No one else cares about trends but the business world, except for fun," she says.

As the trend-tracking business has grown, Ms. Russell suggests, there's a lot of junk trend-tracking out there.

Some accepted "trends," such as that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, are simply not true, she insists. She also dismisses another trendy trend -- that we have less free time.

One way to separate the charlatans from the true truth-trackers is to be wary of predictions from special-interest groups. Beware of the American Society for the Promotion of Tomatoes telling you tomato sauce is a big trend. Also, says Ms. Russell, beware of anyone who says, "If current trends continue . . ."

Current trends never continue.

Having just co-written "The Official Guide to the American Market Place," Ms. Russell is writing a book on the trend that she feels most confident about: the incredibly affluent '90s. This is what makes Ms. Russell a pro and the rest of us a bunch of whiny paranoids.

But her best trend calls -- on what came to be known as "yuppies" and "cocooning" -- did not put her name on the trend map.

"Don't trust the cute names," she says adding, "I wish I'd come up with cute names."

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