Retailers told '90s customer will be tough sale

January 21, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The nation's retailers, still grooving on the high from the Christmas season, came face to face yesterday with a future that might not include many of them.

In one of the final sessions at the National Retail Federation's annual convention here, four "futurists" painted a picture of a decade in which angry consumers buy less but demand more, turn against mammoth retailers and hold merchants to ethical standards that haven't applied in the past.

Faith Popcorn, a well-known trend-spotter with Brain Reserve Inc. in New York, told the retailers that every merchant in the 1990s should wake up feeling "anxious or nauseous."

During this decade, which symbolically began yesterday with the inauguration of a president who repudiates many of the policies of the 1980s, consumers will be very demanding and won't care what merchants believe is reasonable, she said.

"They want everything, and if you don't give it to them, somebody else will," Ms. Popcorn said.

She predicted that the Nineties will be a decade of icon-toppling, in which "big is bad" and "vigilante consumers" judge merchants not only on products and service but also on how they treat

women, minorities and the environment.

Ms. Popcorn, who was one of the first to write about "cocooning" in the 1980s, said that trend will intensify into "burrowing" in the 1990s as people spend even more time at home -- and out of the malls.

Laurel Cutler, vice chairman of the advertising firm FCB/Leber -- Katz Partners in New York, said one reason people will stay home is that the family is increasingly "the center of their universe" as well as the sole source of fun for increasingly pessimistic Americans. And even in the home, everyone -- even the children -- is "frenetically busy."

But Watts Wacker, resident futurist at Yankelovich Clancy Shulman in Westport, Conn., said retailers should treat customers as "precious, irreplaceable clients." But it does not mean consumers want to be smothered in service.

"The Nordstom model is dead," he said. "People do not want to be pampered. They want efficiency."

Increasingly, he said, manufacturers will make products specifically tailored for individuals through computerized processes. He cited a company in Japan that makes bicycles to the specifications of individual buyers and a store in Cleveland that lets men see their projected images in different suits without ever needing to pull one from the rack.

Carol Farmer, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based futurist who has been following retail trends for a quarter century, warned the retailers that "we are in for four or five years of real economic contraction" as the nation deals with the budget deficit.

The presentation by three female and one male futurist contrasted with most of the sessions.

The other panels were overwhelmingly dominated by white male executives in an industry whose customers and work force are predominantly female and increasingly nonwhite.

That lack of diversity at the top could mean trouble for the industry. Ms. Farmer said one of the few clear-cut distinctions of the 1990s will be the gap between those who "get it" and those who "don't get it." The 20th century was about men, she said, but "the 21st century is going to be about women."

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