Like many her age, college sophomore Teresa Meloni believes in shopping consciously, carefully selecting products and brands that represent her values. But don’t be mistaken—Meloni says she doesn’t care for online shopping.
“I really have not used Amazon for two years. The last thing I bought on Amazon was a bed—and that was because I wanted it shipped and it came in a box,” she said. “But I honestly hate online shopping.”
Often branded the “me” generation, Millennials would probably consider themselves “misunderstood”—and when it comes to their shopping habits, researchers say, they’re probably right.
Millennials, now ages 23-38, make quick decisions, and have high expectations and limited patience. These traits have led some to conclude this generation is unusually impulsive and self-absorbed.
But that’s not the case, according to Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents, a California-based market research firm. Rather, Millennials and the generation that follows them, known as Gen Z or iGen, grew up in an on demand world, thanks to the omnipresence of services such as Spotify and Airbnb. As a result, 60 percent of Millennials say they gravitate toward brands that speak to them as individuals, according to a 2018 survey.
Many businesses go awry, Brooks said, because they view Millennials as a monolithic demographic that can be targeted en masse. That may have been true of generations that came of age prior to the digital diaspora, back when everyone grew up watching the same three television channels. But with technology constantly at their fingertips, no two Millennials had exactly the same experience—even if they grew up next door.
“You can have two wildly different experiences in terms of the information that filters down to you,” Brooks said. “Millennials are an expansive generation…. The only thing really uniting them is their age range.”
These preferences mean it’s critical for businesses to go beyond demographics to understand the personalized interests of the individuals who buy their products, Brooks said. A brand or product built to appeal to everyone will, in effect, appeal to no one.
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Meloni, who worked for three and a half years in retail, agrees that many businesses seem to stereotype young people as impatient and impulsive. “I don’t fit into those generalizations, and I don’t know anyone who fits into those generalizations,” she said.
Because she was raised by a single mother, Meloni said, she has a deep understanding of the value of a dollar and loves shopping sales. But she dislikes online sales. Brands make claims on social media she can’t verify. They bombard customers with ads. Their return policies are difficult to understand.
At the end of the day, she prefers the experience of shopping in stores, where sales associates can answer personalized questions and help her find the exact product she’s looking for, such as a sulfate-free shampoo.
This is true of many young shoppers, according to Larry Thomas, who oversees North American consumer research for global consulting firm Accenture. Millennials tend to know exactly what they want in product, whether that’s a specific ingredient, color or fit. When they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’re quick to move on to another site or store. Life experience, Thomas said, has taught them to expect “an endless shelf.”
Their decisiveness doesn’t imply that they don’t do their homework, Thomas said. It means they expect to find answers to their questions faster. Both Millennials and Gen Z tend to do more research with each purchase, and make fewer assumptions, than older generations. For example, a young shopper may assume that if it’s been a while since they last shopped for a backpack, that a better, more innovative product is probably available on the market.
These expectations transcend product design, Thomas said. Shipping is expected to be immediate, and free. Customer service readily available on and offline. Marketing should be personalized and “incredibly relevant.”
This means the traditional method of making information available in the early stages of the customer funnel is no longer adequate. Millennials haven’t just altered the traditional funnel, Brooks says, they’ve “obliterated it”—forcing brands to adapt to an entirely new marketing and sales paradigm.
Today’s winning brands, Thomas said, “are more aware of individual consumer needs, of what a consumer wants, and come with a genuine, tailored promotion—a message of some sorts.”
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