Algorithm (image from Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/23507877733)
Algorithm (image from Flickr)

Two of America’s largest department stores – JC Penney and Macy’s – have announced they are replacing their procurement officers with an algorithm, according to a report in Forbes Magazine.

According to the report, the stores will rely on real-time customer data based analytics to predict the next fashion trends and will use that information to make their purchasing decisions.

In doing so they are taking a leaf out of the Amazon play book and are attempting to gain efficiencies by using previous shopping behaviour to predict future purchasing decisions. Which raises the question if they are looking ‘backwards’ to past data to predict the next big thing –  who is actually creating these trends? Where is the role for the creative individual or team in this process?

Listen to Sandra and Kai discussing this on The Future This Week podcast @9.10

In truth fashion merchandisers have been outsourcing these decisions since the 1990’s when trend setting shifted from high street shops into the control of one organisation – WGSN. Worth (now World) Global Style Network is a fashion forecasting company set up by British businessman Marc Worth. It claims to ‘predict’ fashion trends up to two years in advance.

To do so it draws on information from a range of influences – work, lifestyle, music, even tech gadgets – and distils that data into millions and millions of purchasing choices. Its judgements cover everything from hemlines, to fabric choices, colours and designs.  WGSN’s forecasts impact an ever increasing range of interlinked businesses – farmers, miners, paint companies, interior decorating companies – who in turn make decisions based on those predictions. In effect WGSN has built a fashion ecosystem and the logic of this power is that rather than passively making forecasts it is instrumental in creating trends.

What if lots of other creative industries – not only fashion but retail, food, movies – conclude the best way to manage business uncertainty is to outsource decisions to the mathematical exactitude that algorithm management seems to offer? If science rather than art or artistic impulses are shaping industries what trends will emerge then?

And are these industry players leaving the task of creating trends to industry outsiders in the form of agencies, such as WGSN, who claim to predict trends, but de facto emerge with the power to shape and create them?

To hear Sandra and Kai discussing these stories, tune into this episode of The Future This Week.