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Picking at the hearts and minds of America

They smile in your face, but all the time they want to stake out your values, needs, beliefs _ the trend-trackers. What they say?

They 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 databases 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.

As you read this story, somewhere a tracker is putting it together with anecdotal and statistical material to see if there's a trend-tracking trend.

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.

MacEvoy trolls the human landscape for emerging types, using a variety of methods, from consumer surveys and focus groups to computer databases. 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.

"Their cars will probably be powered by ethanol because of all the flying saucers landing in cornfields in Iowa," he says, laughing manically like a futurist who's seen one too many campy '50s sci-fi movies.

Is this really the way a doctor in social psychology whose "main focus has been the tension between technology and social behavior" thinks?

"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 far-outest people you can. This is the method favored by Peter Schwartz, president of Global Business Network.

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, Russell now edits the Boomer Report for Find /SVP, a New York-based business intelligence firm. 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, 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 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, Russell is writing a book on the trend that she feels most confident about: the incredibly affluent '90s. This is what makes 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."

Faith Popcorn, whose nose for cocooning made her a trend, describes the phenomenon in her book The Popcorn Report. Although her company, BrainReserve, uses a talent bank that includes doctors, lawyers and an actual Indian chief, she says, "I ask people in airports and bars if they're happy. That's my trick trend question. I learned that people are happier at home than at work. I based cocooning on that."

Most trend-trackers look at long-term trends _ social and political and economic phenomena that span a decade.

"We take a longer-term view," says Tim Clark, executive editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac, which has been forecasting the weather and other trends for 200 years.

"The secret of our success is that for 200 years we've said that winter will be cold, followed by a warm spring and a hot summer. We remind people that in spite of all the changes and crises and anxieties, every year is basically the same."

In 1987, even the Farmer's Almanac took a turn toward the trendier by adding a section on consumer trends by Kim Long, author of The American Forecaster Almanac. Long's main sources of information are the newspapers he reads and "the Kmart test."

If he sees an item such as stone-washed jeans at Kmart, he knows the fad is over. "Kmart doesn't sell leading-edge products," he observes.

Long predicts fads _ short-lived fashions _ rather than true trends.

"The speed with which it develops, especially with a consumer product, tells you it's going to be short-lived," he says. Such was the case of the Cabbage Patch doll, whose imminent demise Long predicted on the front page of USA Today at the height of the fad.

When he said sales of the little darlings would be off 75 percent in one year, he received threatening letters from the manufacturer's lawyers. Sales ended up off by that much in six months.

"All I did was take a guess. The average consumer-product fad lasts less than a year," Long says.

Lillian Maresh's research for Generation Insights, a Minneapolis firm that sells trendfomation has taken her from "mini-forums" _ five-person focus groups _ to going "mano a mano" with consumers to using her eyes in parking lots. Several years ago she spent her research time in Gemco lots, photographing the cars and particularly the bumper stickers of consumers. Her instinct was that affluent consumers were shopping at discount places just to feel clever.

"I examined bumper stickers, which reflected Saabs with "Baby on Board' or Hondas with "Save the Whale.'

"

Gerald Celente is never far from the T-word. He's written a book, Trend Tracking, directs the Trends Research Institute and edits the Trends Journal. He spends six hours a day tracking, largely reading newspapers, trying to make connections between trend categories and watching as stories fade in and out of the headlines.

"We don't find trends by interviewing people _ people don't know. "Read the paper,' we tell our clients."

He shuns television as a source of trendfomation. "I only watch the shows at the beginning of the year."

He also dismisses the political talking heads.

"Sunday morning psycho-babble is a total waste of time. The special interests use these to set up trial ballons to push their own positions."

But while he reads the newspaper, he is very specific in searching out trendworthy information. "I don't read about Woody and Mia, Hurricane Andrew, Marion Barry's sex life. I mark up the papers and put them in categories such as: Crash II/Panic."

He buys into a trend when it's out of the public eye and sells it to a client when it's clearly going to happen. A real tracker buys low and sells high.

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