Jim Storm's trends for 2014
It's December 2013 and every business pundit worth his or her salt is forecasting trends for 2014. I am not really a pundit, but for the last week or two I have been jotting down my own predictions for the year ahead. It all starts, of course, with the economy. As a well-known financial journalist asked: will the US economy add jobs or asset bubbles with Janet Yellen as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve? Will German Chancellor Angela Merkel become more generous towards southern Europe if she forms a coalition with the Social Democrats? Can Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang defeat the forces of reaction and repair the slowing engines of the world's second-largest economy? And how about Shino Abe, the iconoclastic Japanese prime minister: can he shrink budget deficits without pushing the economy back into deflation? My own view is that from an international perspective 2014 should be better than 2013... but not by that much.
Inflation and interest rates are low in most of the world, oil prices are expected to continue to fall, some companies are sitting on cash and there is plenty of pent-up consumer demand. I was interested to see that Barclays Bank's "measure of global business confidence" reached a three-year high in October. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund projects global growth in gross domestic product of 3.6% in the year ahead. If it happens, that would be a 0.7% increase from this year, although nothing like the 5% growth rates we saw in the period 2004 to 2007. What one has to remember is that, technically, the last recession ended in the United States in 2009, so that by next summer this run of growth, modest as it is, will have lasted longer than the average post-World War II expansion. Other issues to bear in mind are the fact that the US still doesn't appear to have settled the problems regarding the sequester and debt ceiling and no one knows the effect of China trying to rely less on investment and more on consumer spending.
Anyway, my overall view is that slow but steady is the way forward. And with this in mind, here are a few of my specific predictions.
I think we are going to see a couple of trends change during 2014. To begin with I forecast that hardback cookbooks are going to become even more popular. Last year, the webzine Slate declared the "pending extinction" of cookbooks. It felt that, as more and more people turned to the Internet for recipes and videos, cookbook sales would dive. However, I think demand is going to increase as a result of our new food culture, spurred by the rise of food television. I believe there are huge opportunities in cookbooks and food books in general. Both as a publisher and as a trader.
The second publishing prediction I am going to make for 2014 relates to the end of so much free content. If you remember, when the Internet was first launched the whole cry was for free content. Indeed, the Web has dealt a potentially fatal blow to traditional newspaper publishers and forced them to give away their expensive-to-create content for free. However, the weakened industry's survivors are determined to get readers to pay up, and they are busily erecting electronic pay walls around their news and entertainment to make sure that happens. The Financial Times was really the first newspaper to pioneer this so-called metered model, which allows readers to view a few free articles a month before they are prompted for a credit card, a method other newspapers such as The Times and Wall Street Journal use. Interestingly, the Financial Times' digital business now has considerably larger sales than its printed counterpart. Moreover, in the US alone over 400 other publishers, from the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times, now charge online readers. If you would like to know more about this, I recommend taking a look at the Press Plus site, which helps newspapers create digital subscription programs.
During the year, the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States lifted the ban on general solicitation, meaning that American entrepreneurs can now advertise publically that they are looking for investors. One research company believes that individuals have raised a massive $5.1 billion on crowdfunding sites this year - almost double that of 2012. The huge leader in this field is, of course, Kickstarter, a platform that takes a percentage of the capital being raised. However, there are now many other fast-growing sites, such as Crowd Hoster and Self Starter, that make it possible to run a DIY crowdfunding campaign. What's more, the newest platforms, such as Up Start and Pave, don't even require a solid idea or business plan. The latter sites basically involve entrepreneurs selling a percentage of future income to investors. It is an interesting concept and I think it is where the future may lie.
If I had to pick one continent on which to do business in 2014 I think it would probably be South America. If I had to pick one country, it would probably be Brazil. Brazil is South America's largest economy with a population of around 200 million people. As a result of government investment and steady economic growth, some 40 million of those people have entered the middle class over the past decade - a huge market by anyone's standards. Also, it has two major global events on the horizon: the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Note some new tax legislation has been mooted which would also give a huge boost to Brazil's stocks and publically traded companies. Although the rest of South America is by no means as hot a prospect as Brazil, I think there are huge opportunities throughout the region. I am very hopeful that Columbia is going to show strong, steady growth, too.
If I were to do anything in the fashion business in 2014 it would be to create a brand that used British fabrics and British workers. I think there is going to be a huge backlash against importing cheap clothing from developing nations such as Bangladesh. This is a trend that is happening in other parts of the world, too. Take a look at the website of Naked Sports Gear in New York to see what I mean. The other fashion trend I predict for 2014 is a move back to traditional, authentic fashions. I feel that Western apparel (as in the Wild West of the United States) may see a resurgence and if you want to know the sort of thing I mean take a look at Rockmount Ranch Wear's website. It's manufactured domestically and is highly authentic. Indeed, if I were looking for an international trade opportunity I think I would actually approach either Rockmount or one of the other Western fashion brands.
There is a lot happening in e-commerce. First and foremost, I notice that e-commerce companies such as Amazon, eBay and Wal-Mart are competing to improve their delivery speeds in the United States. The ultimate goal: to ship and drop off any item, anywhere, the same day it is ordered. Right now these companies are testing same-day delivery and my guess is it won't be long until they roll it out.
Another trend I suspect we'll see in the whole area of e-commerce is more and more software producers converting their customers from licences to subscriptions. What do I mean by this? I mean an end to having to make a fairly expensive, one-time software purchase (i.e. buying CDs in a box) to more of an online subscriber model. This costs customers more in the long term but reduces the initial investment. Worldwide software subscription revenue seems to have risen about 16% over the last year to approximately $65 billion a year. A good example is Photoshop Maker Adobe Systems, which moved its entire suite of applications to a subscription package called Creative Cloud. The box collection of the same programs used to cost £2,000. Subscribers can now have the same thing for £35 a month. Apparently, Adobe is selling around 25,000 subscriptions a week, up from 8,000 a year earlier, when outright purchase was still an option.
Talking of subscriptions, to my mind it is the way forward. Health snacks. Underwear. Shavers. Free cosmetic samples. Feminine hygiene projects. Dog food. Interestingly, Zuora, a software-as-a-service company that enables subscription and billing, raised a staggering £35 million in September in a round of finance that brings its total capital to nearly £95 million. Why is it so appealing? As I have said many times before it helps companies by providing a regularly recurring income with the option to up-sell at will. Businesses that depend on a subscription model essentially trade on the attractiveness of annuity revenue and annuity economics. For businesses, it is peace of mind; for customers, it is a reprieve from worrying about all sorts of things themselves. I see this going into more and more creative areas. Check out such companies as Bitters + Bottles (monthly shipments of rare spirits and classic cocktails), Love with Food (organic and all natural snacks every month) and HelloFlo (sanitary products for women).
Alcohol and beverages
In the drinks trade I see one major trend: artisan distilling. Search a little bit online and you will find hundreds of small producers creating everything from whisky, gin, vodka and rum to less common spirits such as absinth and schnapps. Why the growth? I think it is another piece in the whole artisan renaissance that is helping to reshape consumerism. We have seen it affect coffee, bakeries, breweries, cheese, vegetable growers and so forth... now it is the turn of spirits. I think consumers of spirits are getting increasingly interested in how they are made and are looking behind all the marketing and hype and recognising better-quality products.