Features, Next Generation

Can Retailers Pander to Gen Z Without Scaring Off Boomers?

It’s easy to talk about different generations as though they are diametrically opposed. Especially when those generations are on opposite ends of the age spectrum–like Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and Gen Z, born during or after 1997. Although the reality of Boomer and Gen Z consumer behavior is less cut-and-dry than you’ve probably been led to believe; there are a few important differences (and misconceptions) when it comes to Boomer/Gen Z purchasing behavior, where it diverges, and where it overlaps. The good news is that it’s entirely possible for retailers to benefit from financially flush Baby Boomers while still securing their future by recruiting Gen Z. The bad news is that won’t be easy.

The Basics on Boomers (They Aren’t Who You Think)

Boomers have a right to be angry. Their total dollar spend is $548.1 billion a year, yet advertisers only seem to care about millennials and Gen Z. Epsilon calls Baby Boomers “spending heavyweights,” since they spend the most across categories and they spend the most per transaction. Boomers prefer to shell out for premium brands, travel experiences and cars than to hunt down off-price merchandise (to the delight of full-price retailers worldwide). Travel is a huge area of spending for Boomers. They’re highly mobile and any advertising geared towards them needs to reflect that. Boomers are also the second heaviest internet users and over half of them are on Facebook. Despite their mobile usage and wanderlust, Boomers aren’t particularly interested in the whole sharing economy craze that’s taken over with next-gen consumers. They’d rather own their own car and stay in a hotel room than rideshare and shack up in some stranger’s home, thank you very much.

Am I dispelling some of your preconceived notions about Boomers yet? The ideas we have about who is and isn’t shopping in-store are also all wrong. Boomers with kids are less likely to shop in-store than younger consumers. Instead, Boomers with families are buying on laptops and mobile devices. And while other generations may not view Boomers as environmentally conscientious, Boomers themselves say they’ve never been more green.

How Gen Z Consumers Are Different

Gen Z as a whole may spend just $8.2 billion a year, but Gen X and Gen Z shoppers actually lead the way in retail-specific spending. While active Gen Z consumers spend more per year than any other generation, inactive Gen Z consumers are still only seven years old and getting shot down by their parents for a sugary cereal purchase at the grocery store. Gen Z is coming of age, though, and it’s not a demographic that retailers can afford to ignore. Gen Z consumers are twice as likely to shop with online-only retailers than other generations and their camera phones are a part of the social shopping experience. Generation Z consumers demand control over their shopping experience and much of that control happens via their camera phones–sharing photos of potential purchases with friends and family, looking up real life photos in consumer product reviews, scanning QR codes in-store or sharing images to social media–it all takes place through images for the next-gen.

Gen Z recently dominated everyone’s social media feeds by leading the Climate Change Walkout, but that’s just the beginning of Gen Z’s global mindedness. Gen Z are more conscious consumers than any demographic that has come before. But it’s out of self- preservation–they’re going to be stuck with surviving in the environment we’re creating today. This might explain why a whopping 65 percent of Gen Z consumers try to learn the origins of anything they buy, including where it’s made, what materials it’s made from and how the product is created.

Cause-Based Purchasing Isn’t Age Prohibitive

As we have seen, Baby Boomers are concerned about the environment. They aren’t necessarily willing to shell out the big bucks for something with an “organic” sticker slapped on, but they do care about the reputations of the brands they patronize. A recent study by MakerSights found that while 71 percent of Boomers would pay at least 10 percent more for sustainable apparel, nearly 30 percent of Boomers say that they “would not spend another penny” on sustainable retail purchases. Many Boomers just haven’t been willing to financially inconvenience themselves for the good of mother earth when shopping or investing, and few have been willing to pay more for sustainable products– up until now. Yet this will soon change as the more undeniable aspects of climate change come to the forefront. After all, Boomers are parents and grandparents. As the next generation continues to speak up about climate change, and Boomers grow more altruistic with age and volunteer work, more will wake up to the realities of the world they’re leaving for their progeny–and their purchasing behavior will come to reflect this shift in priorities.

As for Gen Z, there’s a reason why they favor brands over retailers: brands can tell a compelling story in-store and on social media. A brand is especially adept at pointing out the positive impact their company is having on the world-at-large. Retailers that carry multiple brands face more of a struggle, but retailers like REI have managed to resonate with consumers largely based on their ethical stance while carrying multiple brands. It’s a winning combination when consumers can get sustainability and value in one place. The bottom line: Environmental conservation will soon no longer be seen as a partisan or demographic concern, but a humanitarian one. Retailers can’t just throw out a few recycling baskets and call themselves sustainable anymore, because consumers of all ages are going to be watching to hold them accountable.

Comfort and Value Rule for Both Generations

Boomers and Gen Z seek similar things from apparel. Comfort and value are priorities. Morgan Stanley projects that the activewear sector will gain 2.5 percentage points of wallet share from general apparel over the next five years, with athletic footwear leading the charge. In fact, Gen Z is more loyal to footwear brands than any other apparel or accessory category, which is evidence of the generation’s predisposition for comfort. But it’s not just Gen Z consumers who are seeking athleisure and streetwear over traditional styles. RetailDive shares data from Euromonitor, which attributes recent and future U.S. apparel sales growth to “changing consumer lifestyles” centered on health, wellness and activity.

While Gen Z consumers, like Boomers, are notoriously value-oriented, the definition of value is changing yet again. The cost-per-wear model is having a resurrection. Cost-per-wear refers to evaluating a potential purchase based on how much it will be used/worn instead of just what’s on the price tag. With the cost-per-wear model, a $15 fast-fashion dress that is typically only worn once is of lesser value than a well-made $150 dress that the customer will wear 20 times before donating (the fast fashion item is $15 a wear vs. $7.50 a wear for the full-price dress). Boomers never stopped purchasing brand name items, but you can also expect more brand name shopping from Gen Z as they come of age, only when the brand name in question represents quality.

Gen Z and Boomers aren’t all that different when you take a look at their priorities and purchasing behavior. Sure, Boomers may prefer Facebook to Instagram, they have less of an affinity for online upstarts and they prefer their favorite retailers over popular brands–but the differences end there. Both generations prioritize omnichannel marketing campaigns that utilize their favorite social media platforms. Both prioritize comfort. Both want value (and sometimes that means shelling out for bigger brands). Both generations are highly mobile. Both prioritize travel (although where they stay and how they get there may be a little different). Both care about the environment…and both generations want to be heard by the brands they patronize. So, let’s stop talking about marketing to Boomers and marketing to Gen Z like they’re mutually exclusive. And let’s start tapping into the full potential of inclusive cross-generational marketing.

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