A couple of decades ago, forward-looking investors found it easy to research consumer trends: they’d slip their kids a few bucks, drop them off at the shopping mall and get a report at dinner on the hottest trends at Urban Outfitters or The Sharper Image.
If you had trendy, spendy teens, you had an informational advantage over investors who didn’t. Granted, that’s only a small consolation for having teenagers in the first place, but it’s the small things that count.
It’s more difficult to track the Digital Generation’s evolving purchasing habits but that is the new group to watch. Baby Boomers don’t spend as much as they did in the 1980s. Generation X was a baby bust and Millennials, well, who on Earth knows what they want other than to perpetually post selfies.
The beginning and end years of any generation are ill-defined, but the Digital Generation’s most prominent feature (aside from having no interest whatsoever in talking to their parents) is that it has never known a time without computers. That implies they were starting to be born sometime around 1996. Unlike their parents, who are busy saving for education and retirement, the DigGen kids — for at least a few fun years — will have disposable incomes, and shifts in consumer discretionary spending patterns can and do make and break companies.
Institutional investors spend fortunes on research attempting to get in front of consumer tastes, because there are serious profits to reap when they manage to hop on the right trend at the right price. Since most individual investors don’t have infinite research budgets, we have to be more creative — think the MacGyver of investment analysts.
We could eyeball Amazon’s sales rankings but, by the time a product climbs the ranking high enough for us to notice, there might not be much upside left in the trend. Those rankings might also have led us to buy fidget spinners (a fad that lasted for all of 12 seconds) or hoverboards, which spontaneously exploded only slightly less often than Sheldon’s temper on "The Big Bang Theory."
Since today's kids live most of their lives digitally, maybe we could gain some investor intel by tracking their internet activity. Good luck on that. Unfortunately, this generation is far savvier about internet privacy than we can ever hope to be. We’re still on Facebook sharing cute cat memes while kids hide their social networking behind apps that, at first parental glance, look like they were made to track homework or volunteer time at the local shelter. If the NSA hired a few more teenagers, our national secrets would be far less at risk.
Another possibility might be to track DigGen kids’ movements, but they don’t move. Ever. They just sit there and occasionally snort at us or whatever is on their screens. We could ask them what’s hot, but they don’t talk either. Don’t even bother to look at television ads; this generation doesn’t watch TV and distrusts brands and any sort of conventional advertising.
If by now you’ve given up all hope of being able to spot hot products, don’t quite yet. Taking the view that “if you can’t beat them, join them,” I am sacrificing my evenings and weekends to watching lively YouTube stars’ mad hijinks and will report in a later column, provided my sanity holds up for another couple of weeks.
Evan Guido heads a wealth management team in Sarasota focused on retirement planning. He is a director in the Private Wealth Management Division at Robert W. Baird & Co. Contact him at 941-906-2829 or email@example.com. Read more of his insights at finance.heraldtribune.com/category/ask-guido/.