Using trends to create a sustainable future

Thinking like a futurist in this era of constant change provides an incredible opportunity to create the future we want. By staying on the lookout for trends and weak signals shaping the world around us, futurists can identify future opportunities that lead to consequential disruption.

But what happens if you miss these trends?

In the best-case scenario, missing these signals may simply leave you reacting to disruption and working hard to catch up. At worst, however, you are in danger of becoming irrelevant and going out of business. The corporate graveyard is littered with companies that didn’t react fast enough to the changes in the world around them.

Blockbuster

Founded in 1985 by David Cook, Blockbuster was an entertainment staple in the 1990s and early 2000s. At its peak, there were 9,094 stores globally. Consumers would flock to their local stores to rent movies and buy snacks for their Friday nights, making Blockbuster a fixture in households worldwide.

After a few CEOs and missteps, Blockbuster made its biggest blunder when it failed to acquire Netflix in 2000. Netflix saw the rise of DVDs as a significant opportunity and launched its original mail-based DVD rental business in 1997. Because DVD players were not yet standard in the average household, Netflix partnered with HP, Sony, and Toshiba to offer free DVD rentals to new DVD player buyers. Netflix grew in popularity but wasn’t yet profitable, so its leadership approached Blockbuster to propose an acquisition, which the movie-rental giant declined.

Netflix persisted, confident that DVD players would gain popularity, and that confidence paid off as the company became profitable in 2003. The following year, Blockbuster began its DVD-by-mail service seven years after Netflix. From 2007 to 2010, Netflix continued to monitor trends and take calculated risks that majorly paid off, starting their on-demand video streaming service and signing deals with industry giants from Disney to Paramount.

On the other hand, Blockbuster failed to innovate in time and had to play catch up with Netflix while rapidly losing customers. That failure to embrace change, paired with severe debt, became the unraveling of Blockbuster, which declared bankruptcy in 2010 and closed all but one store.

Toys “R” Us

Later considered a category killer, Toys “R” Us had a humble beginning as a baby-furniture retailer in Washington, D.C., in 1948. Initially named “Children’s Bargaintown,” founder Charles P. Lazarus changed it to Toys “R” Us in 1957, dedicating the store entirely to toys and moving it to Rockville, Maryland. Throughout the next half-century, Toys “R” Us experienced incredible success, building a powerful brand, exploring spin-off clothing stores, and assisting in the launch of several pop culture games and toys.

By the late ‘90s, Toys “R” Us began to feel the pressure from growing competition, like Walmart and Target, which eventually led to the closure of its spin-off, Kids “R” Us, in 2003. While competing companies created their e-commerce sites, Toys “R” Us entered an exclusive 10-year partnership with Amazon in 2000. This partnership, while successful, prevented Toys “R” Us from developing autonomy over its online presence, which became a severe problem when Amazon elected to grow its toy category and allow competitors to sell on its platform.

Toys “R” Us sued Amazon and won, but it was too late. The once powerful toy seller had lost out on the essential opportunity to create its e-commerce website, and by the time it had one, it fell far behind what competitors had to offer. Toys “R” Us not only failed to keep up with e-commerce, but it also ignored changing consumer habits and buying preferences, instead focusing on offering the lowest prices, which proved unsustainable. Finally, Toys “R” Us failed to create an enticing in-store experience, instead deciding to cut costs. Unable to provide a satisfying in-store experience and struggling to keep up with e-commerce innovation, Toys “R” Us filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and closed all stores in 2018.

In 2019, the company rebranded as Tru Kids post-bankruptcy, opened new stores, and partnered with Target to sell toys. By 2020, the agreement had lapsed, and Amazon took on Target’s role as a fulfillment partner. In 2021, the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic closed its stores again. In 2022, the company plans to open stores within all U.S. Macy’s by October 15.

Borders

The first Borders bookshop opened in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1971, by brothers Tom and Louis Borders. The company didn’t open its second store in Beverly Hills, Michigan, until 1985 and was subsequently acquired by Kmart in 1992. Three years later, Kmart spun off Borders into a new company named Borders Group. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Borders Group expanded globally, with stores and franchises everywhere from Singapore to Puerto Rico.

Initially, Borders stayed ahead of innovation with a robust inventory system that could predict consumer behavior. However, when the industry began to go digital in the early 2000s, Borders began to lose its grip, leaning heavily into CD and DVD sales instead of working on its internet presence. Competitors like Barnes & Noble focused on online sales and digital innovations like e-readers, while Borders chose to outsource its online operation to Amazon, which rapidly became a competitor.

As competitors grew and embraced innovation, Borders steadily lost revenue, and its last profitable year was 2006. After constant financial trouble, Borders filed for bankruptcy in 2011, closing all its stores except those operating in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Malaysia, which other owners took over.

In the examples above, it’s clear that while some companies missed the boat on specific innovations, others were on the right track. They did this by paying attention, listening to the true needs of their customers, and prioritizing learning from all failures.

So how can you avoid missing trends?

I may sound like a broken record, but thinking like a futurist is the best way to avoid being left behind by innovation. Pay attention to weak signals, explore emerging trends and technologies, and adopt an innovative mindset. You need to have a good sense of what you want in the future. Ask yourself:

  • What outcomes am I looking for?
  • What inspiring vision and goals do I need to put in place?

Your goals need to be bold enough that they cause you to work backward to discover what disruptions will get you there, rather than taking today’s solutions and incrementally improving them over time.

Visualizing outcomes is essential, and so is having an open, innovative mindset and attitude. Success is 95% attitude. Make peace with failure and learn from it instead. Think boldly, and never give up. Having the right attitude is essential to staying ahead of all this change and creating the future you seek.

Finally, remember: the future hasn’t happened yet. The future is something that we all get to create. It is the result of all the choices that we make today.

What future will you create?

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