The Not-Too-Distant Future

3 Futurists predict business trends for 1997 and beyond.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the January 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

The '90s have been called "the Decade of the Entrepreneur." For many newly started businesses, it has been the decade of a lifetime, while others haven't caught that upward curve yet. New technologies and rapidly changing social conditions make the choices business owners face more critical than ever. What will the remainder of this decade hold for small-business owners?

We put that question and others to three business futurists--experts in spotting, at their inception, the trends that can make or break your business; in slicing through the confusion of cutting-edge technology; and at developing strategies to help the small-business owner sidestep the obstacles of today's fast-paced world.

Roger E. Herman, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), CMC (Certified Management Consultant), and president of Herman Associates Inc. in Greensboro, North Carolina, specializes in workforce and workplace issues. As a professional member of the World Future Society, he interprets business trends in practical ways that business people can use. Herman is the author of five books, including Turbulence! Challenges and Opportunities in the World of Work . . . Are You Prepared for the Future? and Keeping Good People (both from Oakhill Press, $22.95 and $15 respectively, 800-32-BOOKS). He has addressed audiences in five countries.

Faith Popcorn, Chairman and key strategist of BrainReserve Inc., a marketing consultancy based in New York City, is widely recognized as America's foremost trend expert. Popcorn uses her insight on cultural and business trends to develop new products, reposition established brands, and define areas of new business opportunity. She is the author of the best-selling books The Popcorn Report and Clicking (both from HarperCollins, $13 and $26 respectively, 800-331-3761).

Lowell B. Catlett, Ph.D. is an economist, futurist and professor at New Mexico State University. He works nationally and internationally with many leading corporations and organizations. In studying the impact of technology on careers, lifestyles and the economy, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Labor, Interior, Defense, Education and Energy all utilize his futuristic planning skills. He is the author of numerous textbooks and educational articles, as well as the forthcoming Investing in Futures and Options Markets, written with James D. Libbin, from Delmar Publishers, 518-464-3500.

BSU: Will the economic climate be a healthier one for business start-ups?

Herman: Yes, but things will be happening at a much more rapid pace than we've experienced in the past. The entrepreneur is going to have to be very much aware of what's happening in the surrounding environment.

Popcorn: Even right now it's pretty good for start-ups, as long as you have the right one. People just have to be smart and keep a finger on the pulse of society.

Catlett: I think it's going to be extremely healthy, not only for the next three or four years, but the next fifteen or twenty. Astoundingly healthy. We're seeing wonderful start-up opportunities for people who really zero in on what we call "deep marketing"--in other words, finding out what customers really want. Customers will pay money for that.

BSU: What challenges should employers expect from their employees?

Herman: Job-hopping will become a natural tendency. People are going to be looking for the best opportunity they can find. That opportunity might be focused on income, but more likely, it's going to be focused on learning, on a chance to make an impact, to be involved in an organization. That's where the start-up will have an advantage, because many of these people are going to be looking for what the start-up has to offer.

Popcorn: There's a real strain between employers and employees at this point. Employees have learned they need to take control of their work lives, to be prepared, to keep thinking about what their next move is going to be, because nothing is guaranteed anymore.

Catlett: The biggest challenge is to treat your employees as customers, not as property. There's going to be a continued critical shortage of well-trained, smart, creative people out there, so you've got to cultivate them.

BSU: Women have been starting small businesses in record numbers. Will they change the way small business operates?

Catlett: Absolutely. We'll see more opportunities to joint-venture and partner-up, but not necessarily by ownership, not in the traditional format. Joint ventures and partner-ups are ways in which individuals and businesses can use their own talents and, rather than trying to develop other talents, team up with someone else who has the other talents they need. It's the most refreshing, exciting thing that's going on in the business community. Women are certainly driving that change.

We'll also see more linkages-- more information about what consumers want will be linked to individuals who will use that information to provide the customer with what they want, when they want it, and where they want it. It's what Sam Walton started with Wal-Mart. The computers in all the Wal-Mart stores are linked to Proctor & Gamble, which can actually gauge production based on which products are selling in certain parts of the country. It makes their system more efficient and quicker to respond to their customers' needs.

Herman: There's a strong camaraderie among women business owners that we don't see among other groups of business owners. Women have been socialized differently in this country than men have. The way little girls play builds nurturing, communications, relationships--the core of business today. Men, on the other hand, are becoming more sensitive to the need for nurturing, for communicating more with the people around them, and for being more sensitive to all kinds of relationships, and are building long-term relationships in which customers will buy from someone because they know and trust that person--in addition to the fact that the person has a valuable product or service to sell.

Popcorn: Women will change the way all business operates. They're managing their companies like families instead of hierarchically. You're going to find people working more smoothly in that family situation, where they feel like they're all working toward the same goal. And that goal may not be money, it may be selling a really good product.

BSU: How about the home office? Will telecommuting be as important as we've heard?

Herman: Technology will make it possible for people to work from home to serve employers that are nearby or across the country. That's going to be a boon for the entrepreneur, because now they'll be able to get the resources they need without having to put out a tremendous amount of money or having to find somebody who is close by.

Popcorn: People are finding how important their families are, and their priorities are shifting a little bit. Some companies are establishing virtual offices, in which every employee has a locker rather than an actual office. They have meeting rooms, which are dedicated to particular projects as the need arises. Most of their work is done from home. When employees come into the office to work, they carry a mobile phone or a pager. They seem to be getting along quite well.

Catlett: About a third of the labor force now works outside of a traditional office environment--about 42 million of us. Part of that is in vehicles, part is at home, and part is, surprisingly, in public spaces, such as coffee houses or Internet cafes. Homes and offices are becoming nontraditionally defined spaces. They're more fluid and can be adapted and used differently. There are wonderful business opportunities for people who understand the changing way in which people are working.

BSU: What new demands will consumers make?

Popcorn: Consumers have been more savvy about products for the last several years, finding they don't need so many of the things that people tell them they do need. A perfect example is the failure of the New Coke, which we at BrainReserve predicted. Companies are going to be taking another look at some of their old products and may be revitalizing them, rather than creating new products that will only get lost in the marketplace.

Catlett: The Baby Boom generation is demanding more customized products and fewer mass-market products. A phenomenal business opportunity over the next 20 years is that the Baby Boomers will continue buying goods and services at an increasing rate until about age 45 or 49. Then they'll quit buying and start saving more, but they'll want the products they buy to be tailored exactly for them, and they'll be willing to pay for them.

Herman: The consumerism movement of the '70s has returned. People will demand quality service from knowledgeable employees. People have so much to do, they just don't have time to put up with substandard service. This is going to push up competition between merchants and will drive more people to purchase from television, the computer, interactive disks that will be used for direct mail, and from the Internet. The same kind of attitude will float over to business-to-business relationships.

BSU: Social trends create many new business opportunities. Using the current "mini baby boom" as an example, can you show us how that opens new markets?

Popcorn: It has already opened up some opportunities, such as Baby Gap and Baby Dior. Everyone has a baby line. It's also affecting people's leisure time, the places they go, how they vacation when they bring along the kids. Child care is going to be important, as will elder care, as people have both children and parents to care for.

Herman: We're going to see more of a market for the kinds of goods and services that provide for families with young kids. It will create a deeper and broader market for child care. It's going to fuel the movement for at least one parent to work at home. If you were opening a restaurant and wanted to reach that market, maybe you'd want to look at providing home delivery. We used to do more of that type of thing, and I would suggest we're going to be getting back to it.

Catlett: This new baby boom is actually creating phenomenally lucrative opportunities in terms of nannies and day-care centers that do more than just pass the time for the children. We don't want to just drop kids off at a day-care center; we want education, we want entertainment, we want something that is tailored exactly for our young children.

BSU: How can business owners become more trend-savvy?

Catlett: The best way is to be an eclectic reader. Every month, buy an array of magazines that you don't usually read, totally outside your field. You'll be surprised. Something in there will trigger you to say, "So that's what they're doing." It forces you to think beyond the scope of your own business.

Herman: There are a number of books out there on trends. Request a catalog from the bookstore of the World Future Society (7910 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, MD, 20814, 301-656-8274). Read newspapers and magazines. Be sensitive to things going on in your field. Read industry publications. Let your mind grow with them a bit. Dream.

Popcorn: Pay attention to what's on the best-seller lists, the top movies. Go into grocery stores and examine the shelves, listen to the conversations of people who are unhappy with what they see there. It's just a matter of keeping everything you read and hear in mind. It's really like working a jigsaw puzzle all the time.

BSU: What will some of the hottest new business opportunities be in the next few years?

Popcorn: We see a lot of stuff opening in the health-care area: new kinds of physical therapists, whether they're masseuses, yoga practitioners or aroma therapists. Also, whole-body consultants--nutritional guides who will help us take our stress levels down by what we eat and maybe help out with exercise programs. With so many people doing so many things, the service industry is going to be important.

Herman: Child care's going to be there, especially with an educational component. The Boomers are going to be aging. There will be a great opportunity for educational vacations and travel tour guides--there are going to be all kinds of opportunities in those fields. The one I really love is the neighborhood concierge. Suppose you and your spouse both work. There is precious little time for typical chores that families face, so the neighborhood concierge may take the clothes to the dry cleaner and pick them up, may even do the grocery shopping, or run the kids from Little League to Scouts. The emerging job of a neighborhood concierge differs greatly from that of a special events planner. Several companies are already working with this. You could have a number of people doing it part-time.

Catlett: Education is a phenomenally untapped growth industry, from the standpoint of providing all kinds of people with little ways to upgrade their skills. Putting together link systems is a growth market. Every small business will have to be linked to the world, so that when trends change, you can respond to them. Also, anything you can do from the standpoint of promoting or marketing something on the Internet. The Internet is a tool that can take a pretty traditional product and change the traditional ways of moving that product. It behooves everyone to look at the Internet as a marketplace they've never dreamed of. The next few years will be lucrative. There's so much growth going on in this economy, it staggers the imagination.

Kris Neri, who writes on business and psychological issues for many national magazines, is also a published author of mystery fiction and currently serves as president of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Contact Sources

Herman Associates Inc., 3400 Willow Grove Ct., Greensboro, NC 27410, (910) 282-9370.

Lowell Catlett, Ph.D., (505) 646-2504.

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