Trend-Spotting - Chasing the Future With a Butterfly Net

A large ad appearing on Boston buses this month makes a case for the enduring appeal of Levi's 501 jeans. These perennial favorites, the ad claims, were ''Born before trends were made.''

The clever slogan raises an intriguing question: Just when was the first trend made, anyhow? Is this a 20th-century phenomenon, the work of marketers and futurists and change-loving youth? Or can it be traced back to the first cave dweller who painted a bison on his wall and pronounced it the latest trend in interior design?

Whatever the answer, one thing is sure: No one can go very far wrong in calling the '90s the Decade of Trends. Trend-spotting itself has become a trend, and a highly lucrative one at that. From mega-futurists such as John Naisbitt and Faith Popcorn to lower-profile forecasters, the race is on to study economic, social, and cultural barometers and predict Americans' behavior.

What's in, what's out? What's hot, what's not? For a price, these prognosticators will tell - in books, newsletters, and services. From $374 a year for 10 issues of a newsletter forecasting trends among women consumers to the $1 million some companies shell out for Ms. Popcorn's trend analysis, there's definitely gold in them thar crystal balls.

Even people who are merely curious trend-observers or timid trend-followers are encouraged to learn about the cutting edge of consumer trends. Mr. Naisbitt recently sent me - and probably thousands of other Americans - an urgent mailing, explaining how to ''profit from the coming changes'' by subscribing to his Trend Letter. For $99, we could receive 24 issues of a newsletter plus three other publications. (''List price $460.95. Save $361.95!'') Subscribers will ''know what's likely to happen months, even years, ahead of the uninformed and the unprepared.''

But there was a catch. We had to mail the reply envelope quickly - ''BEFORE IT BECOMES OBSOLETE!'' If it wasn't postmarked by 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, the deal was off.

Well, count me among the uninformed and unprepared. Yesterday came and went, and I never made it to the mailbox. Instead, I decided to play trend-spotter myself and invent my own list:

First, now that corporate downsizing has been a nationwide trend for several years, I'd forecast a brighter period of ''upsizing'' and hiring. Many ''downsized'' employees would be reemployed - a boon not only to them but to the overburdened colleagues left to handle a double workload. As one corporate ad recently warned, ''You can't shrink your way to greatness.''

Second, as ''upsizing'' gives more people a paycheck and spreads the workload, thus cutting down on overtime, people will start another trend - ''hatching out.'' This is the opposite of ''cocooning,'' Popcorn's phrase to describe a trend in which overworked Americans retreated to their homes.

Off with the fuzzy slippers, old terry-cloth robes, and home-delivered pizza eaten in front of the TV. On with dinner dresses and party clothes and first-run movie tickets. It's time to get reacquainted with cocooning friends and to revisit museums, parks, and restaurants. ''Hatching out'' may never turn many of us into social butterflies, but it could represent at least a modest improvement over self-imposed isolation. Greater socialization could also promote a return of manners. Rudeness will be Out. Politeness will be In.

Finally, these new trends could also bring about a welcome decline in telemarketing. As more people head out the door to enjoy an evening on the town, no one will be home to answer those dinnertime ''courtesy calls'' for aluminum siding and roofing and credit cards.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But who knows? If other entrepreneurs can capitalize on trend lines, maybe there's room for one more newsletter, tapped out at midnight by a trend-spotting journalist. Watch your mailbox for an offer you just can't refuse.

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