Carla Carlisle on predicting the future

It is a truth that goes universally unacknowledged that, if you marry a man without a large fortune, but in possession of a farming estate, you will eventually get the idea that diversifying is key to survival. Somewhere in the haze of dreamy optimism-weddings in the barn/offices in the stables/
buffalo on the arable plains-comes a light bulb moment: a shop!

Your role model may be the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whose shop at Chatsworth forever raised the standard when she created a treasure house filled with books by her sisters and sweaters made from the wool of her Jacob sheep.

Oh, what fun. It’s like planning a wedding. White walls, Farrow & Ball shelves, birds-on-a-wire lights, seagrass matting and wooden floorboards. You vow to sell only things you like until, just as in marriage, reality arrives, when the ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’ extends to ‘in boom and bust, with things you love vs things that sell’.

What begins as passion quickly becomes duty. Staying faithful means you have to keep filling your shop with stuff. If you open for Christmas, it also means that, just as you’ve recovered and packed away the last unsold nutcracker, you’ll begin the annual pilgrimage to the NEC in Birmingham, where you and your shop manager, and 60,000 other buyers, will trawl the 17 halls, in search of something that says Christmas, but doesn’t fill you with despair.

It’s strangely disorientating, like working the graveyard shift, to shop for Christmas in February. You have to ignore the news that January was the worst in retail since 1995 as you begin your quest for Christmas 2010. Big companies such as John Lewis have teams of buyers. They also have ‘futurists’ who advise them on trends. When you’re an Independent Retailer, you have to be your own futurist, which is like drilling for oil with a flashlight. For instance, I foresee more uncertainty and harsh economic times.

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Two decades ago, a professional futurist called Faith Popcorn predicted that recessions lead to ‘cocooning’. In consumer-speak, that means staying in and making the home a sanctuary against the tough, unpredictable world. For shopkeepers, this translates as: more lamps, wool throws, pottery and church candles, fewer clothes.

Cocooning thoughts came back to me as the recession deepened. Two years running, I’ve shifted my shop budget away from personal indulgences (what futurists call ‘pleasure revenge’) and into the comforting safety of homeware. I’ve also cut the budget for Christmas decorations, convinced that, in hard times, people want to buy presents, but are less inclined to spend on baubles and boughs. My ‘Christmas ‘look’ was tasteful simplicity, more Shaker than Harvey Nicks.

But, last week, under the hard glare of LED lights, I had a different vision for Christmas 2010. I persuaded Sarah, my talented shop manager, that, in 10 months time, we will all be yearning for cinnamon red, lime green and gold. For sparkle and optimism. The Glimmer of Hope. Going against my philosophy of Pure and Simple and with fear in my heart I committed thousands of pounds to my golden vision.

It’s one thing to predict trends, quite another to understand the economics that will determine  our future. Consider this: all of the billions of gold balls, fake ivy wreathes and stuffed polar bears on sale in Birmingham have one thing in common.  They may be designed in England, France and Denmark, but they are made in China. In fact, Christmas, the most English thing there is, is Made in China. To update John Reed, I’ve seen the future, and it’s Chinese. Does it work?

This amateur futurist is wary. When the day comes that nothing is made here, who is going to be the customer in our shops? How long can we go on cocooning before we wake up?