Your Next Big Thing: Profitable paradoxes

Written by Jim McElgunn

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As Target’s VP of trend, design and product development, Robyn Waters helped drive the “upscale discounter” to US$48 Billion in sales. Now, as a leading trendmaster, Waters says such oxymorons are fertile ground for business ideas.

PROFIT: In The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape, you write that trends and countertrends now flourish at the same time, such as the concurrent booms in fast food and health clubs. How can entrepreneurs capitalize on this?

Waters: It’s not just about the trend at one end and the countertrend at the other end, but about how you can be inclusive. An example is “luxurious commodities.” There are a lot of commodities out there that fill a need on a daily basis, and they’re pretty much a price game. At the other end, the luxury business is huge, and people are willing to pay a premium, whether $300 for an iPod or $1,000 for a Movado watch. But in the middle, there’s some unique ground-and that’s where I tell people to explore. Look at the inconsistencies in the marketplace and see if there’s a nugget of an opportunity there, something that can be developed.

PROFIT: So, the key is to tap into both the trend and the countertrend?

Waters: Yes. Starbucks, for example, is expensive in the world of coffee; but in the realm of luxury products, it’s a very affordable treat.

It’s also about mass customization. Starbucks pours four million cups of coffee every day, and there are 19,000 drink combinations you can order there. It has found a way to customize the experience. I know many people who go into their local Starbucks and they know the barista, and the barista will ask, “The usual?” And that’s pretty amazing. So, [Starbucks is] big, but small; it’s luxurious, yet a commodity; it’s a product for the masses, but customized for the individual.

PROFIT: How can somebody who’s not a trendmaster like you spot promising new business opportunities?

Waters: It’s about observation, about being in very close touch with customers. And that means learning to ask the right questions, not just “How does this work for you?” but “What does this mean to you?”; not just “Do you like this colour?” but “How do you feel about it?” It’s about empathy, about connecting. It’s about observing, then asking questions that probe the value system of your customers-what’s in their hearts, not their heads. You need to find out what they’re passionate about, what really matters to them.

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