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Beyond the Pale: Why Color Forecasting Is No Longer Relevant

Color forecasting is a 100 year old industry and it's broken. Data suggests a better way to understand consumer demand and plan for new season palettes.
Beyond the Pale: Why Color Forecasting Is No Longer Relevant | EDITED

The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ only works so long as whatever ain’t broke stays ain’t broke. And if this is our litmus test, color forecasting fails.

After a century of unaltered life, ye olde traditional color forecasting is about 90 years overdue for a tune up. After all, consider how far color forecasting’s centennial peers like bras, pop-up toasters, talking motion pictures and fortune cookies have come. Well, maybe not fortune cookies.  

In the case of color forecasting however, the antiquated process has remained standard practice for making serious decisions in an industry that has otherwise come a long way. Coming back to the fortune cookie, it’d be like turning your love life over to its paper strip advice in the age of Tinder. It just doesn’t click.

Certainly, color is critical.  It has always been a way to get consumers to invest in the new. Seasonal color palettes help the industry churn over the old product and drive shopper demand. Ever wondered how each season so many designers have the same new shades on the runway? There’s a whole industry behind that. But it’s an industry that probably needs a rethink. After all, not much has changed since the days of WWI.

Here, we’ll gaze back into the early days of color forecasting industry, before whizzing into the present day and the changes in retail which have surpassed color forecasting’s scope. We’ll then explain how forward-thinking retailers are replacing color forecasting.

So yeah, back to World War One. See, it was during that great war that, along with much more nefarious things, the fresh supply of fabrics to the USA was halted. Scrambling to find a way to keep fashion industrious and fresh colors in department stores, The Color Association of The United States was founded to advise  the industry on color through the textile drought.       

And they’re pretty much still doing that today, with about as much precision. CAUS’s committee is formed of 8 to 12 anonymous members, all experts in different product fields,  from interiors through to apparel. Meeting twice yearly to reach consensus on seasonal forecasts, each committee member presents research and examples of colors they see promise in. Rosanna Roberts, Director of Color Trends at CAUS spoke to Time in February 2012 and raised eyebrows but, curiously, not red flags with quotes like this: “We’ve had committee members come in with a stone they found on a street, a scrap of fabric, a flower, a spice, anything that really has a color.” Further, she said that forecasts were made two years in advance of each season. Two years. Want to take a guess at who will scoop Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards in two years time? Your guess is as good as ours.

Now all this would be kind of funny if it weren’t still the case. These days retailers move so much faster, and yet some still invest in color 18 months ahead of it being popular, waiting for it to peak, or ‘self-fulfill’. In reality, shouldn’t it be possible to manufacture closer to season, and only stock the products they know will be a hit? Well, yes. And it is.

“There are no analytics measuring success of color forecasting—how would one even accurately measure such a thing?” stated a Slate article April 2012. Winky face, we emote. We’ve been doing it since 2009. But it’s cool, we love Slate.

These days, our customers use real-time market data to make more informed decisions relating to color. Data reveals some pretty exciting consumer behavior – for example, sell outs of green, blue and white surge as temperatures soar.

And then there’s the trends that turn on a dime over in the social mediasphere. Colors can surge simply because Rihanna happened to step out in khaki green, or Cara Delevingne fronted a campaign in  head to toe silver. Forecasts can’t pre-empt that stuff typical of the social media age, but data can help retailers optimize upon demand.

These days, retailers can see exactly what is selling well, can spot new color trends at their source and can steer away from those shades that get discounted. And you’d be surprised – some of the colors touted as ‘Fall’s top shades’ can end up being a total miss when it comes to retail.

EDITED color software here showing the shades of new product arriving on the luxury market in the last month.
EDITED color software here showing the shades of new product arriving on the luxury market in the last month.

Major American color forecaster Pantone touted Radiant Orchid (aka lilac) as Color of the Year in 2014. Data says you didn’t buy it. Instead, pink was the leading trend color of 2014. Navy, pastel blue, brown and reds were all better selling than Pantone’s orchid. In fact, successful sell outs of lilac tones were down by 24% in 2014 compared to 2013. Even more frightening is that there were three times as many unsuccessful lilac womenswear products in 2014 as there were hits.

Times they are a-changing across the industry, and color analysis  is too. Thankfully, it means retailers are able to make color decisions suited to now, not two years in advance. Palettes can also closely reflect specific segments of the market, more attuned to customer and not marching to the beat of the entire industry. Hell, the future is bright. Or, as some guy buzzed on sugar once said, ‘taste the rainbow’.