Trend-spotter extraordinaire: Mintel's research has launched a thousand stories. Roger Trapp reports

'ONE of the things that always surprises people is how small we are,' Paul Kelly, head of sales at Mintel, says.

Indeed. The firm that has launched a thousand stories ending '. . . according to a survey by market research group Mintel' eschews the glass palace approach of certain rivals. It lives instead in a dreary building just around the corner from London's Smithfield meat market.

The modesty extends to staffing. Despite his title, Mr Kelly has just one full-time salesperson to boss around.

In all, Mintel employs only about 50 permanent staff. Total annual turnover has not even reached pounds 5m and profits have been negligible lately, although this year is expected to see an improvement.

Somehow, though, Mintel manages to spot the things that people want to know about and produce reports that claim to tell them. Last week's Youth Lifestyles 1993 was a typical grabber of newspaper column inches. Thanks to Mintel, we know that the youth of today are big consumers of Lycra, snacks and cosmetics.

Such information does not come cheap. The full report of Youth Lifestyles - one of about 30 'specials' to be published this year - costs pounds 795. Not surprisingly, the reports sell in handfuls to large-scale purveyors of Lycra, snacks and cosmetics. Youth Lifestyles has sold about 20 copies so far and will continue selling steadily for the next six months. Others may only sell that amount in total.

Mintel normally covers its costs, but since the business is totally speculative it sometimes falls flat on its face, Mr Kelly says.

He recalls the recycling report that was forecast to be a big seller. Although there was a great deal of interest, those involved did not buy it, for the simple reason that they could not afford it. 'We probably should have produced a smaller report and sold lots,' he says.

But sales - both of expensive specials and cheaper hardy annuals such as British Lifestyles - are only part of the overall business. Many of the company's regular customers, ranging from newspapers (not the Independent) to grocery chains, receive a computerised version of Mintel called Harvest which is constantly updated with fresh market data.

Another part of the group is IIS, a 400-strong, part-time field staff spread across 128 countries. They are 'normal people' who go shopping on Mintel's behalf as part of the effort to establish trends.

But they are also used by the company's customers for testing quality or the appeal of certain goods in particular markets. 'IIS people may buy the product and send it back for analysis or just report on it,' Mr Kelly says.

But it is Mintel market analysis that is the central part of the operation, giving the company its reputation for trend-spotting consumer attitudes and spending habits. Some 300 reports are prepared each year for corporate clients, drawing on consumer research commissioned from an outside firm.

They are all based on three main sources of information. The first is consumer research - usually carried out by a company such as the British Market Research Bureau, with additional detailed work done by Mintel itself with the help of trade customers.

Mintel's added value comes from two other sources - first, its own extensive information centre, ranging from a basement full of government statistics going back to the 1930s - useful for establishing trends - to on-line computer databases and other published sources.

'We buy just about every book and magazine you can imagine,' Mr Kelly says. Wherever one goes in the building there are computer screens, microfiche machines and, above all, rows of filing cabinets.

Then there is the human factor - 'lots of people who do nothing but know how to find out things', as he puts it. For instance, you were watching a television commercial and wanted to know what type of crash helmet was being worn by the motorcyclist featured, Mr Kelly would be able to call on somebody who could help you.

But having the resources is one thing; knowing what to apply them to is another. And he acknowledges that is the hard part. Although there are sometimes 'brainstorming' sessions involving customers and other outsiders, most of the ideas for reports on 'hot subjects' to augment the regular diet are generated internally.

Not only must the topic be intrinsically interesting, it must be as enticing - if not more so - at the end of a nine-month production cycle. Even with regular reports, the company is concerned to discover fresh angles without being gimmicky. 'We're not trying to find novelty products. We're trying to find products which are useful,' Mr Kelly says.

Just as these circumstances can produce failures, so can they lead to surprising successes. Earlier this year a special report on catering achieved 'spectacular' sales of about 70 copies at pounds 800 each.

But this unpredictability makes a tight rein on overheads vital. Great use is made of freelances while a handful of full-time staff with knowledge of broad areas, such as finance and retail, will be running a number of reports at the same time. They commission experts on the particular documents and act as editors of the results. More importantly, the company uses state-of-the-art computers and copying equipment to do all its production in-house, reducing the chances of a disaster if a report fails to make its mark. Instead of piles of unwanted reports mouldering in a warehouse, copies can be run off by a Mintel employee, according to demand.

With sales increasing dramatically so far this year, the Mintel Group is feeling more confident and set on expanding its global position, which so far consists of a sister company in the United States.

As part of this drive, next month it will launch one of its most ambitious projects to date - three large studies selling at up to pounds 5,000 each, covering grocery distribution in East Europe, consumer behaviour and attitudes in the European Community, and quality of life in the EC.

Mr Kelly does not expect to make a lot of money out of the exercise, since many customers will opt for individual country reports rather than the complete set. But at a time when most competitors restrict themselves to small geographical areas, he spots an opportunity. Next month's print runs should tell him quickly whether his hunch is correct.