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Spotting Trends

Experiment with new ideas and don’t be afraid to ask, “What if?”
October 18, 2017

​CHICAGO – Planning ahead for the next big trend in convenience is possible, even when that trend hasn’t yet been identified. Thursday’s education session “Strategizing Under Uncertainty” will challenge attendees to consider whether their companies are equipped to take advantage of the next big trend, if their current culture and structure will prevent them from recognizing and taking advantage of that trend, what their customers will want tomorrow and how the company will deliver.

“A trend is not reality; it is a potential reality. It needs to be monitored. You must collect more and deeper information. Then, investigate the potential impact and risk of the trend,” said session panelist Oliver Schlake, Ph.D., clinical professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Schlake will share two important strategies with attendees—experimentation and rehearsing the future—to help c-stores of all sizes spot trends on the horizon. Schlake reminds retailers that no one in the convenience industry was thinking about the foodservice trend 15 years ago. Today, however, almost every convenience retailer is either in or getting into foodservice.

Experimentation gives your organization an opportunity to try new ideas before you make large-scale changes. The strategy reduces future risk and can reveal flaws and new opportunities. Experimentation can include testing new products, new loyalty systems, new business models, new hours and more.

Rehearsing the future is an exercise in, “What if?” While predicting the future is usually a futile endeavor, rehearsing it is a worthwhile approach. A simple exercise is to ask, “What if?” every time you see something that might occur. The Question should stimulate two thoughts. One, how would this trend, event, technology or regulation playout for the industry in general? Two, is your company strategically prepared if this trend becomes reality?

“Planning is more important than the plan itself,” Schlake said. “If you don’t anticipate the future, you can’t create a winning strategy.” Schlake offers several tips for strategic planning:

  • Utilize key observations and heightened senses to prepare for the future needs of consumers.
  • Define and identify the “excitement needs” of consumers (things consumers don’t expect in a product or service that create a lasting preference for the product).
  • Identify changes in behavior and risk thresholds that must take place in anticipation of future needs, potential behavioral changes and emerging risks before you redesign your strategy.
  • Create innovative approaches to benefit from early indicators.

Additionally, Schlake encourages c-store retailers to be curious, surround themselves with inquisitive people, get ideas from everywhere, think about different scenarios (have a plan B and C) and reward crisis prevention, not crisis management.

“If you see it on TV, it is too late,” said Schlake. “To find precursors, organizations and individuals must lower their threshold level for detecting the future. Trend signals are weak if the trend is in its early stage, so you have to be more sensitive. In other words, you have to investigate the new and unusual ideas when others would ignore them as ‘noise.’”

The key to recognizing precursors to a new trend is to look outside your industry, Schlake said. Industry change usually starts elsewhere. If you believe the trend isn’t likely to take hold, continue monitoring it. However, if the trend indicates a major shift in how you conduct business, you will need to create a future robust strategy that includes strategic actions offering flexibility and capacity to adapt change within your organization.

“To check how robust or flexible your strategy is, play the ‘What if?’ game once a month with a new key trend to be analyzed,” Schlake said. “Read and inform yourself from different industries, and think in scenarios. Plan your industry in 10 years and how you would adapt or evolve. The biggest risk is to be surprised, and that is only a good thing on your birthday or on Christmas.”

Attend “Strategizing Under Uncertainty” tomorrow at the NACS Show.