Consumer Trends Lottery

Is prediciting consumer trends, simply a numbers game … like a lottery?

January is always full of predictions. Popular favourites include ‘I’ll never drink that much again’, ‘I’m definitely going to lose weight’ and ‘I definitely want a new job’. But the world of food and drink loves predictions more than anyone. Every year we descend into a trendfest where food watchers tell us what we’re going to be eating and drinking over the next 12 months.

Last week, The New York Times wrote an interesting feature on what it described as the ‘Dark (and Often Dubious) Art of Forecasting Food Trends’. It dug into the science behind what makes a good food trend and met some of the people making them, like former Food & Wine editor in chief Dana Cowin, who came out with this beauty: “A good trend is like an Impressionist painting. It’s something that looks like one thing, and then you dive in and see it’s really a collection of many little points of paint”.

Or it’s just some kimchi. Anyway, she was a food trend predictor for 21 years, so can be forgiven for overthinking the process, and she’s obviously still sharp, archly dismissing vegetable butchery as “so five years ago”. No doubt that’s true in New York City, but it’s less so in South London, when the novelty of a vegetable butcher (someone who offers to spiralise your courgettes or make ‘boodles’ out of butternut squash) made headlines in the UK last summer when Sainsbury’s trialled a vegetable butchery in Wandsworth.

Another feature on also took a wry look at the practice of predictions, ending with an 81-strong list of all the things that will be big in food in 2017, like amaro, jackfruit and sorghum. However, it lost points for including some already quite popular things, even in Wandsworth, like yoghurt, tacos, porridge, noodles and ‘Italian food’.

Perhaps that goes to show that the whole predictions thing is a lottery. Or as Lynn Dornblaser, who has been trend-spotting for 30 years and is now director of innovation and insight for Mintel, told The NY Times: “You do it long enough and you’ve seen everything.”

You probably even know what sorghum is. But if you’re new to the game of predicting popular foodstuffs, and want to be a bit more ‘out there’ than suggesting pizza might be a hit, you won’t go far wrong by suggesting African food, which features in lots of lists and also happens to be part of The Grocer’s Top 10 Tips for 2017.

What else is on there? All will be revealed soon, although we are able to take a wider look at what will happen in the industry rather than being limited to wondering which vegetable will turn purple this year. And no one will be surprised to hear that Brexit makes an appearance thanks to its tendrils worming their slimy way deep into the food and drink business. Throw in the political upheaval over in the US and, as Clive Black puts it this week, “political uncertainty will most likely prevail as a new world order emerges, which isn’t great for food industry business planning”.

Still, as he also points out, “volatility can bring opportunity”. Which is great, as there is plenty of volatility on the way. Happy New Year, everyone.