HE HAS a short attention span, an optimistic outlook and a tendency to absorb information from everyone he comes into contact with.
William Higham, has always been “a great believer in people” and is, he claims, “a fantastic dinner guest”.
He is also one of the UK’s pre-eminent futurologists, and his firm, Next Big Thing, has advised companies including RBS, Standard Life, Budweiser and Universal Music on what may trend for the consumer in the future.
He explained: “Ten years ago we used to be called ‘Cool Hunters’ – but no one really likes that term now. A futurologist is a trend forecaster – it is about looking at what people get excited about.”
Higham started his career in the music business and once worked as Michael Jackson’s personal assistant in the UK.
Working for record firms meant he was always looking for the next big thing – but over time his interest grew in the science of predicting public wants.
“I started finding out more and more about research - and in the end I decided to jump ship and concentrate on that,” he said.
“It is really about looking for some sense of change, anything odd, new, slightly different.” Higham wrote a book – called The Next Big Thing – which advised companies how to anticipate consumer trends. “There were a lot of books about trends – but not surprisingly they tended to become out of date very quickly,” he explained. “There hadn’t been a practical guide – telling people if you want to work out what trends are, this is how you do it.”
Working out which new trends are significant – particularly in these days of information overload – is the key.
He said: “Increasingly there is so much access to so much information – what companies need now is for somebody to wade through it and tell them what is most relevant for their industry.”
Sometimes the key thing is to question assumptions – for instance, advising banks that the “recession generation” is becoming more conservative and financially prudent – and much less likely to take risks with drink, drugs and financial products. By contrast the baby boomers – fifty plus – have a more devil may care attitude to finance – born of living through a period of high employment and soaring property prices.
Understanding trends in technology and the way the internet is changing the world is a key part of what Higham does.
One of his top tips is that we are on the verge of a huge boom in interactive travel guides, guidebooks which can be programmed according to a person’s interests and which will work with the global positioning system in a mobile phone.
Higham said: “It is going to be enormous and it is going to help both the publishing and travel industry.”
When it comes to retail Higham believes online and high street retail will inevitably work together – but that bricks and mortar shops will have to work harder to entice people in.
“What we are going to see more of is shops that are incredible experiences – in terms of ‘retail theatre’. It is one of the reasons department stores – such as Harvey Nichols – are doing well. They make people want to go there.”
He believes virtual retail will become a feature of the high street – perhaps in book shops where you can plug in your laptop or mobile phone and watch an interview with an author – then choose whether to download or physically buy the book.
He added: “The electronic world has become such a part of our world you have got to integrate it. Book, record and DVD shops are going to have to offer downloads – there is no way they can survive unless they do.”
Also on the horizon are virtual shops – such as those already found in underground rail stations in South Korea. These offer video walls stacked with projected images of ‘real’ products. Customers scan the walls with their smart phones and choose a basket of goods which will then be delivered to their homes.
Tesco already has the UK’s first virtual shop at Gatwick airport – aimed at returning holidaymakers with empty fridges.
However Higham predicts the rise of the internet will also see people swinging back to smaller shops – which offer personalised service and tailor-made advice.
Higham said: “There is definitely room for independent retailers. In fact virtual shopping may help them by allowing them to get rid of some of their physical stock.”
Perhaps it is a requirement of his job but Higham believes the future is bright. “I have grown up believing that people do good and that people find ways of making things better,” he said.Paradoxically, he believes technology is being used more and more to get people together, in real life and real time.
He explains: “One of the biggest trends has been the get together trend.
“There are more festivals than ever before. More and more people are going to events and using the internet for “friending” – looking for new friends.
“We are not using social media because we are attracted to the technology but because we have an urge to speak to other people and meet other people.”
And he believes consumers are showing that they need to take control: “One of the main things we have seen is for consumers to take control of things where they can.
“The last five years have been difficult. There is nothing you can do about the global economy but people want to take control where they can.”
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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