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Summer 2005 Trendspotting

In 1963, one in ten Americans owned a pair of Hush Puppies, the tan or black brushed-suede shoes with the crepe sole. They were the casual shoe for men, women and kids.

Fast forward 30 years: Hush Puppies as a brand is nearly dead. In 1993 only 30,000 pairs were sold nationwide. Demand was so low that the manufacturer, Wolverine, was considering stopping production. And that’s exactly what would have happened if two executives at a fashion shoot a few months later hadn’t heard that vintage Hush Puppies were the “in” thing among New York City’s “clubs kids.”

As Malcolm Gladwell reports in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002), the execs thought the rumor was crazy—until two New York designers, John Bartlett and Anna Sui, called to ask Wolverine for Hush Puppies to use in their upcoming fashion shows. Once the shoes were seen on the runways and in tony designer collections, word-of-mouth quickly put the shoes back in vogue. In 1995, 430,000 pairs of Hush Puppies sold, and in 1996, more than 1.6 million. Hush Puppies were hot again—this time in candy colors.

However, not all products gain enough momentum to be trendy. Take pet rocks, or mood rings, or mullet haircuts. They became part of the pop-culture landscape but were a fad, not a trend—”a flash in the pan,” to quote Richard Laermer, author of Trendspotting: Think Forward, Get Ahead, and Cash in on the Future (Perigee Books, 2002). “A fad is cute, seasonal—it’s not going to affect our lives,” says Laermer, whereas “a trend affects us in some way… it teaches us something and means something for us.” Trends are evidence of a larger-scale shift in one direction or another, shifts that can significantly impact consumer behavior.

Obviously, being able to recognize a trend just as it’s taking off can have very real, very lucrative consequences for specialty retailers. Spotting subtle changes in how consumers spend their money, how they spend their time—and where, and what issues are a concern for them, whether it’s the relative security of their job, their health, or how little time they spend with their children, can all give businesses clues to market shifts that will impact them.

Anatomy of a trend

So how does a trend start? In the case of Hush Puppies, it started with teens in New York City’s East Village who dared to be different. They began buying Hush Puppies inexpensively from consignment and vintage shops in Soho. No one else was wearing them then, which was a large part of their appeal. The shoes caught on, and soon more kids were hunting for them and buying them up. Designers caught wind of it and, wanting to be on the leading edge of a possible trend, incorporated them in their shows, where leading fashionistas and media noticed them. Soon celebrities just had to have them, and in a matter of months Hush Puppies went from cast-offs to the hottest shoe in town.

Hush Puppies had a lot of things going for them, very little of which the manufacturer could have initiated or controlled. First, young consumers started buying. Tweens and teens have incredible purchasing power and definite likes and wants, and so they shape much of what becomes popular. Second, these kids were in the number-one fashion city in the country, where word-of-mouth travels at the speed of light. Had youngsters in rural America started it, it’s possible no one would have noticed or, had they noticed, would have considered them cool enough to want for themselves. Third, designers became raving fans—and these are the people who shape what Americans find fashionable. The rest is Hush Puppies history.

Is there a definitive element that turns a something—or a nothing—into a trend? “There is no one trigger,” says Laermer; and no one signal. The fact is, there are so many factors at play daily that sometimes it’s hard to connect any dots to identify a growing trend.

Demographic changes—the graying of the boomer generation, for example, or the large number of college grads still living at home—can shape trends, says Anita Campbell, trendspotter, futurist and editor of Small Business Trends. Likewise, the political climate and related legislation can impact what Americans are thinking about, value, and spend money on. Media attention plays a role in building momentum for a trend, of course, but that’s often the story’s last chapter; word-of-mouth, which happens sooner, is often far more powerful. “These are all pieces of the puzzle,” Campbell says. They drive trends, but to varying degrees.

For example, consider home sales in the US. Even without doing much research, you could probably come up with reasons for the increase in the last few years. Lower interest rates made it possible for buyers to take on bigger mortgages, and for renters to buy. September 11th and its psychological, emotional and physical impact motivated some consumers to move, and others to stay put, all spending more time at home and money on feathering the nest—and the nest’s value rose. Then with the stock market’s poor performance in recent years, real estate either as a home or as an investment seemed to large numbers of people a safer and more profitable bet than Wall St.

Among other factors are the ever-increasing TV shows that turn a home into a rehabbed haven or make a fixer-upper flippable—driving even more real estate sales. Savvy trendspotters—including retailers selling products for the home—did very well anticipating and meeting the market’s needs.

Another example: eBay. What started as a forum for buying and selling Beanie Babies (mostly) is now a mainstay marketplace. Think about how, in a relatively short time, eBay has gone from an insider tool to a trend to a paradigm shift, changing the way millions of people are making a living, or selling, or shopping… and how it might trend from here. Worth brainstorming.

Cultural clues

Analyzing trends that have already peaked or passed is, of course, much easier than predicting them. Fortunately, there are ways to sift through the massive amounts of available information so that you’re a better trendspotter. “Know a little bit about everything. For example, don’t limit yourself to reading only the sports section in the newspaper—skim everything,” says Laermer. And then try to see connections between individual but unrelated bits of information. Clues are everywhere—you just need to get in the habit of noticing them and throwing things together to see what sticks.

Successful trendspotters “have finely tuned antennas for popular culture,” says Campbell. In particular, they’re great observers of what young people are doing or what they think is hot, she says. Since trends frequently emerge in the teen-to-20-something market first, some forward-thinking companies go so far as to interview them regularly for hints about what’s next. You don’t need to go that far, but you can pay more attention to them for a tip-off to the next big thing.

Identify places where your target market is likely to congregate, so you can get an idea of what’s on the minds of trend leaders or early adopters. Depending on the demographic of your customers, that place could be a café or a skateboard park or a jazz bar. Taking time to watch people or tuning in to what they discuss over a latte can be revealing. What products are they talking about? What situations? What are they wearing or carrying? Any of this may tell you to pay attention to those things, and may even present a market opportunity. Do this with enough regularity, and you’ll start to recognize patterns.

Do some celebrity-watching. Campbell recommends watching what they’re doing and buying as one guide to what may become a trend. “If a celebrity is doing it today, a few weeks from now teens may be trying to do the same thing,” she says. Think monster trucks, PSPs (Portable Sony PlayStations), lipstick-sized cell phones: all of these were recently purchased by well-known Hollywood stars. If you don’t live in prime celeb-spotting cities like New York or LA, monitor what they buy, wear, drive, etc., by way of pop magazines like People, Us, InStyle, Esquire and Maxim.

Another avenue: Stay on top of retail industry happenings. Read trade magazines and visit websites that specialize in your niche and in retail in general. They can tell you what consumers are buying and where, as well as new products or technologies in development that may be a great fit for your business. General business magazines and newspapers are good sources, too.

Finally, keep an eye on your competitors. Sometimes they have clues to where the market is headed based on new product initiatives, new marketing campaigns or new expansion programs. You may miss those clues if you aren’t watching.

Insight pays

Trendspotting is very much an art form, says Campbell. It takes a fair amount of work, a measure of intuition, and some practice, but it’s worth the effort. And it can be fun.

Being able to predict a new trend or where a market segment is headed is an invaluable skill. If you knew, for example, that American households were spending larger amounts than you’d expect on their pets—food, clothing, toys, designer carriers, even therapy!—you could position your business to take advantage of that by stocking products to meet those owners’ needs. Or if you knew that rainforest fragrances were starting to make their way from South America to North America (and they are), you might want to get a jump on an emerging trend by carrying rainforest-scented candles or bath-and-body, thereby profiting from the situation as it builds, not after it crests. But you have to recognize it first.

You don’t have to lead the way, though. Being a follower can give you a strategic advantage, too. By watching what the major players are selling, you can profit from the trend by finding ways to differentiate your offerings or your marketing approach. What you don’t want is to wait too long and be on the trend’s downward slope.

Spotting trends is a process, not a one-time activity. It can take a while. But as you keep an eye on popular culture and learn more about your target market and what they’re interested in, it gets easier to pick up on emerging as well as full-blown trends, take advantage of their timing, and profit from them.

Marcia Layton Turner -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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