After a recent trip to learn about the spending habits of young people in China, Larry Thomas, who oversees North American consumer research for global consulting firm Accenture, returned convinced the world is on the cusp of another retail revolution. “Ecommerce,” he said, “no longer exists.”
Social media is the new shopping mall, with 15% of consumers seeking holiday gifts on their favorite platform last year. But Millennials, and especially the younger Generation Z, don’t see the internet as a distinct place that exists outside the real world. Successful brands, Thomas said, are following international leaders into an omnichannel future where online shopping is indistinguishable from the brick-and-mortar experience in terms of customer service and ease of use.
On social media, Thomas explained, purchasing decisions are made within minutes. A Millennial might notice a new makeup trend—say a new color of eyeshadow—while surfing Instagram, They will quickly research key ingredients, compare prices, maybe even watch a few how-to videos. Then they’ll place an order and expect to pick up the product on the way home.
“In prior generations, you would shop for things on the weekend, when you had free time,” Thomas said. “Nowadays, younger consumers shop nonstop. It could be in a bus, on a break, during class, on a plane.”
While some have branded this behavior “impulsive,” Rebecca Brooks, founder of Los Angeles-based market research firm Alter Agents, thinks this trend is more closely tied to the value young consumers place on experience.
“People might be pushing to make decisions quickly because they have a lot of things they want to do with their time,” Brooks said. “There is this move toward your time being the most critical thing that you have, and recognizing that time has more value than money.”
The challenge for brands, then, is learning how to be present when the consumer wants to shop, wherever they want to shop. “When they come over to your Instagram and talk to you, they want you to be there,” said Jessica Thompson, founder and CEO of Yogo, a manufacturer of sustainable yoga products. “That is 100 percent an extension of your store. You have to be able to give them 100 percent full presence wherever you have your virtual media, because people expect it. If you’re not super responsive or helpful, you could lose a customer for life.”
Guaranteeing consumers a consistent, frictionless experience across ever-proliferating social platforms can be “a little bit like chasing cats,” Thompson said. But she doesn’t blame her customers for their short attention spans.
“It’s definitely happened to me,” she said. “The worst part of shopping online is when I have to get off the couch to get my credit card. I have to be in a supine position watching Netflix for the conversion to happen.”
Keeping up with it all is a lot harder than The 4-Hour Work Week implied, Thompson said. But Yogo has found success by making social media and other online channels “the bedrock foundation” of the company.
As an ecommerce company, she said, “you’re actually a media company, and that’s a ton of work. You want to have a streamlined production system, where you’re able to strategize and push out assets in a really systemic way. You have to really take the time to focus on all the tiny little details that will drive up conversion rates.”
Simply having a social media account isn’t enough, Thomas said, because the ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality doesn’t really work for today’s consumers. Rather, brands need to go to the customers, wherever they may be—not just in stores or in their homes on a website, but on the commute, even at the restaurant where they hang out with friends.
“If you walk into a restaurant and as you walk in, you get a coupon, that’s pretty cool,” Thomas said. Three in five customers say they prefer retailers who make relevant recommendations, according to a survey by Accenture, and other firms have seen similar preferences for personalized advertising and more direct interaction with brands.
That can be hard for a small company, Thompson said. Yogo itself still lacks a physical headquarters, opting instead to invest in new technology and media trends.
“That’s how a scrappy upstart can steal market share from the incumbents,” she said. “By being really friendly, really present, and being really fresh and relevant.”
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