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Einstein may have said: “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough,” but this is a luxury that today’s marketers cannot afford. For them, thinking of the future has to be second nature. Identifying the desires of tomorrow’s consumer is the key to designing the profitable products and services of the next millennium.

So who will the consumers of the 21st century be, and how will they behave? According to Foresight, the Government’s own group of economic trend-spotters, about 25 per cent of the population will be over the age of 65 by the year 2020. There will be a falling birth rate and more single-person households because of the rising divorce rate, the increase in life expectancy, women’s growing financial independence and the tendency of both men and women to settle down later in life.

Researchers predict that the growth of self-sufficiency, accompanied by increasing selfishness and loneliness, will allow organisations which bring people with similar interests together, such as the National Trust, to take the place of the communities and close-knit family structures of old.

With more women working than men, single thirtysomethings acting like teenagers at the weekend and fiftysomethings travelling the world in their early retirement, the old social groupings and stereotypes based on class, gender and age are becoming redundant.

Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at The Henley Centre, says: “The same people want to be treated differently at different times and that’s the challenge for marketers. You are not targeting the person, you are targeting the mood of that person or the “mode” – the circumstances they find themselves in.”

Keeping up with the ever-mutating consumer has already prompted brewers to test “chameleon” bars, that change their offering or “colour” during the course of the day, selling coffee in the mornings, serving bistro-style lunches at midday and turning up the music and dimming the lights in the evening.

Similarly, shops will have to change throughout the day rather than according to the seasons while tailor-made services will become the norm.

Simon Jordan, business development manager at McCann-Erickson’s youth agency, Magic Hat, says: “Retailing environments will have to change daily or weekly or even throughout the day to suit the particular mindset or occasion.”

Increasingly, shopping and spending is going to be about choosing the preferred experience, not about need. With the advent of TV shopping, trend watchers believe that the regular grind of buying the essentials – such as disposable nappies – can be eliminated, liberating consumers to do more shopping for the things they enjoy – such as wine or clothes.

John Andrews, managing director of Retail Futures, which manages Internet shopping projects for retailers, says: “The ramifications of online retailing, combined with the effects of the Euro will be huge. Consumers will have the ability to shop throughout Europe, with directly comparable prices. Establishing a unique selling point in that kind of environment will be the key to success.” According to Datamonitor, more than 2 million UK households are online and it is estimated that this will increase to well over 8 million by 2003.

Andrews also says that greater advances in manufacturing technology will enable producers to supply products which have been tailor-made for individual consumers. Specifications will be chosen from an online menu and the completed product could arrive in a matter of days.

But the “shopping experience” is by no means expected to die with the growth of Internet-based retail – some even predict a resurgence in high street shopping.

Tim Greenhalgh, creative director at Fitch design, anticipates high street retailers creating a shopping environment with entertainment value. Borders’ chain of book shops, which provides tables and chairs for relaxed reading, is an example of this new trend. Over time, shops could change beyond recognition.

Greenhalgh says: “This could lead to some remarkable combinations such as a nightclub working with a music retailer or a sports manufacturer working with a fitness club.”

Computers are destined to take more of the slog out of consumers’ daily existence, increasing our capacity for doing the things we want to do. Jon Van Duyne, UK general manager of consumer business products organisation for Hewlett-Packard says: “There will be a new era of consumer electronics with smart devices making consumer living and home management much easier.”

He says research is being conducted into the use of servers in the home which control the heating, lighting and security systems. Tests for the development of medical self diagnostic kits for the home are also being undertaken.

Super computers, or “personalised intelligence agents”, through which digital technologies converge, are the vision of London Business School’s Professor Patrick Barwise and Dr Kathy Hammond.

They argue that these computers will be so sophisticated that they will almost be part of the family. The computer will recognise family members by palm print or voice, they will be able to read e-mails aloud, order groceries, give directions in the car and help sort out family finances. They will also control the temperature of your house, set the burglar alarm if you forget and select a choice of films for you to watch.

Voice-recognition technology is seen by consumer electronics manufacturers as one of the “key enablers” which will open up the digital world to ordinary members of the public, and will do away with many of the little grey and brown boxes used for phones and computer peripherals such as keyboards.

Consumer electronics manufacturer Philips predicts that we could eventually be wearing washable electronic clothing which will have tiny implants woven into sleeves and collars, so eradicating the need for mobile phones.

Manufacturers are also developing programmes where images can be projected onto walls – a technology which could bring about the demise of television sets and computer monitors.

The “third generation” of mobile phones, which follows on from analogue and digital, is scheduled to arrive in 2001. They will allow convergent technologies to become mobile, so time and place will become irrelevant.

Mobile manufacturer Nokia says we will be able to find out which films are on at the cinema and download clips from the movies on to our hand-held mobile “communication device”.

Many trend-spotters believe that the frighteningly fast pace of technological change together with increased life expectancy may prompt growing concern over health and spiritual well-being. Some point to the present popularity of practices such as feng shui, as people look for other ways to find meaning in their lives other than the pursuit of money.

Ira Matathia, chief executive of the Brand Futures Group at Young & Rubicam and the co-author of “Next: The Flow of the Future”, identifies an overarching trend – a desire to find antidotes to the accelerating pace of change.

He says: “Consumers will be asking ‘What makes me feel comfortable and grounded?’ They will be looking for reminders of their past and their childhood.”

Matathia and his co-author Marian Salzman argue that in the future, ultramodern will be passé. “True luxury these days lies in the comforting patina of the past. From corporate retreats in ancient castles to fashions crafted from vintage fabrics, we’ll see the past take on a value that far exceeds that of what is to come.”

They also suggest that drug- based solutions to our problems – from Viagra to Prozac to “miracle” diet drugs – will become more prevalent because of the growing intolerance for anything but the quickest of fixes.

Others suggest a growth in “Instant Soul” products – drugs you can buy off the shelf to alter your state of mind – that will be marketed as “Prozac for the Soul”.

Meanwhile, increased health consciousness will contribute to the growth of a preventative view of health and beauty, according to Cato Consulting managing director Emma Fric.

Fric says new health and beauty products will prevent disease and postpone ageing, with the growth of new categories – nutriceuticals (food with added health benefits) and cosmeceuticals (a cross between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals).

Functional foods which confer health benefits, such as Johnson & Johnson’s yet-to-be launched low cholesterol margarine Benecol, are expected to grow in popularity.

Angus James, market analyst at Leatherhead Food Research Association, says: “Functional food sales accounted for 830m of the total 400bn spend on food in 1997 in Western Europe. We predict that the European market will double by the year 2003.”

Nestlé, Unilever and Danone are all understood to be conducting research into products in this area, which is currently dominated by dairy products. Consumers’ increasingly hectic lifestyles will mean that they won’t have the time to eat a balanced diet and are likely to take more vitamin supplements. Food manufacturers are also expected to respond to this demand by producing convenience foods reinforced with vitamins.

Katherine Hannah, planning director of McCann-Erickson, suggests that there will be a trend towards health “delicious” food, such as vitamin-enriched chocolate. In an effort to make children eat what is good for them, food researchers are also developing tastier vegetables, such as chocolate-flavoured carrots and pizza-flavoured corn.

But consumer concerns about animal welfare, the environment and the effects of genetic modification are expected to become increasingly pressing.

If new food and drink categories, such as nutraceuticals and functional foods, grow over the next 20 years, traditional sectors will have to change quickly to find and capture new groups of consumers.

Take that most masculine of sectors, the beer market, which has been in slow decline over the past decade. Men have either been drinking less or choosing other types of liquor. In a shrinking market the biggest challenge for brewers is to find new drinkers. As the industry moves into the 21st century, women are emerging as a hitherto untapped market.

If simple divisions according to gender are becoming less clear cut, some trend-spotters believe that there is also less consensus over the future values, attitudes and behaviours of young people. Dr Jonathan Reynolds, Oxford Institute of Retail Management at Oxford University says: “Far from being confident, optimistic or well-informed, he or she may be alienated, pessimistic, disillusioned and disengaged. Emerging gender roles are also much more ambiguous.”

Amid the blurring of the old-fashioned stereotypes defining what sort of consumer we may become, the growth in our ambitions and expectations (even the poorest ten per cent of households spend 35 per cent of their income on “discretionary” purchases) and the new and more varied range of choices on offer to us, one blindingly obvious fact remains – there are still only 24 hours in the day to take advantage of these possibilities.

Some trend-watchers forecast a growth in the types of company and service that don’t actually produce anything, but instead makes our decisions for us over time-consuming and complex issues such as buying a pension or choosing a mortgage.

The imbalance between the amount of free time we have versus the number of choices we have to make is vividly illustrated in the way we consume media. The explosion in the number of new TV channels, magazines, albums, video games, radio stations, books and Websites has effectively created “a Niagara of supply and a pint pot of demand”, according to Siân Davies, a director at the Henley Centre. Screen-based media for example, will soon have home-shopping and banking, pay-per-view events and video-on-demand encroaching on the same piece of the media pie.

Davies argues that media brands will have to fight for survival in the future. Different brands will have to anticipate the trade-offs consumers make with their time and money between one medium and another. They will have to steal market share from each other, and exploit their best content – hits which are effectively brands – across multiple media.

These hit records, films, authors and TV channels will become more important. Successes relieve bewildered consumers of the burden of choice and guarantee enjoyment. For media owners, hits give short-term financial return and secure successes in the long term.

Despite all the uncertainties of the next millennium, the future for brands looks relatively healthy. As Martin Hayward of the Henley Centre says: “We see an increasingly optimistic role for brands, because they will help people deal with the growing complexity of life and the problem of ‘overchoice.'”

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