If you want to stay on top of the needs of your customers, you need to stay on top of consumer and business trends. From the demands of time-crunched consumers to how aging boomers and the Internet are affecting society, your business will be affected by these trends, and if you're not up to speed, you'll be left behind.

It Takes a Prophet to Make a Profit Luckily, you're not on your own when searching for this information. C. Britt Beemer, with coauthor Robert L. Shook, has penned It Takes a Prophet to Make a Profit: 15 Trends that are Reshaping American Business, a guide to the most important trends in 2001. We've asked Beemer, the founder of market research firm America's Research Group, to help you understand how trends affect your business.

Entrepreneur.com: Why is it important for an entrepreneur to be aware of current trends?

C. Britt Beemer: In cases where we've seen entrepreneurs fail, the number-one reason is they created something that didn't have longevity. So if you're going to be starting a business, you need to make sure the basis for your business will be around for a while. Mr. Shook and I wanted to write a book that would show people there was a difference between a fad and a trend. A fad might be popular for 90 days, but a trend is going to have legs, build a momentum and last for many, many years.

You've got to understand all the forces in the marketplace so when you do create that service business or retail company, you've created something that's distinguishable [from the competition] and has a clear purpose. When it's clear and customers understand it, it's successful. When [your concept] is fuzzy and confusing, buyers can't understand it and more often than not, the company will fail. That's why you want to make sure you're creating a company that corresponds to a long-term trend or fills a niche where other people have missed the opportunity.

Entrepreneur.com: One trend that seems to feed into a lot of the other trends is Americans have less discretionary time. How does this affect small businesses?

Beemer: Most people don't appreciate the time crush Americans are in, and that results in consumers, for example, shopping at fewer stores and taking less time to browse. With more and more consumers buying at the first store they go to, you must, as I said in my first book, Predatory Marketing, "Be first, be right or be dead." If you're not the first store they shop at, in many cases, 50 or 60 percent of consumers are already gone. And with 25 or 30 percent buying at the second store, you can see that by the time you're somebody's third or fourth choice, you're now chasing only 10 or 12 percent of all shoppers out there. That's a small, small universe to go after.

If you have a service business, [the time crunch] brings people into your operation who are much more single-purposed and focused. If they're very single-purposed, you want to make sure that you finalize and finish [their primary] need before you jump onto something else.

Entrepreneur.com: How does the trend of people not wanting to pay full price correspond with the fact that people want the utmost in convenience and don't want to shop at four stores to find the best deal?

Beemer: Well, what happens is consumers just throw their hands up and say, "I'll just go to a discount store-a Kmart, Target or Wal-Mart-where I know their prices are discounted everyday" The customer feels so strongly about [not paying full price] that he or she drives to a store that's known to be a discount store. So you're right. On one hand, don't waste my time; on the other hand, I want you to save me money. That's why consumers are adamant that when [a business] says they're having a savings event, the savings are really real.

Entrepreneur.com: What can a smaller store do to compete against a superstore's deep discounts?

Beemer: The best thing to do is to not take Wal-Mart on in a frontal approach. Do it by having private sales events, private mailers and private offers limited to people who reside in the shopping radius of your store. You have to be a little more wacky or zany today.

I had a client who always has a very bad time retailing at Easter. So he closed his store during the day, and held a huge, four-hour event on Easter Sunday night. And this great event was equal to other large Sunday events [he'd held in the past] where he was open for eight hours. But he was creative.

And that's what I [think is important] today. Are we being really creative out there? And if we are, are we doing it in such a way that our customers really understand what we're talking about? Entrepreneurs have got to understand that their biggest opportunity is to give their customers the ultimate level of respect, treatment and service.

Entrepreneur.com: Are any trends affecting the hiring and retaining of employees?

Beemer: There's a chapter in the book that discusses how companies today build their reputations by involving themselves in the community, whether it's by sponsoring one Little League or soccer team or sponsoring 10 soccer teams. They're doing something on a proactive basis to support the community. And those companies' employees like the fact that the place where they work supports those types of events. What I would argue is that those community-minded companies are going to find more people wanting to work for them. And the people working for them are more likely to tell friends how good a place it is to work for because the company supports the community.