The generation with the most buying power sets the trends in retail and Generation Z is stepping up for their time in the sun. Gen Z will represent 40 percent of customers by 2020 and, as they come of age, its quickly becoming apparent that the way we think about industry and fashion trends needs to evolve to mirror their purchasing mentality. This generation doesn’t take fashion and retail norms at face value, so doing things the way things have always been done is a death sentence for retailers. Growing up in the Golden Age of social media where the next hot thing is always being advertised has made Gen Z skeptical of trends. Refinery29 reports, “The old rules that the fashion industry has lived and died by (like status symbols and mass trends) ring hollow to them.”
Gen Z isn’t into flaunting their economic status by buying clothing that is needlessly expensive without serving a purpose. Buying products to fit in or to flex equates to conformity for Gen Z consumers, and conformity isn’t looked favorably. This means we are going to see less of a push for everyone to own the same brand or product. There will be no mass exodus to Abercrombie, or a store that’s an Abercrombie equivalent – like there was for us older millennials – and the only must-own-it items I’ve seen catch on with Gen Z consumers are Kylie lip kits and the Fjallraven Kanten backpack–which was actually designed for Swedish schoolkids in 1978, but caught on with Gen Z after being featured in the feeds of trending young art bloggers on YouTube.
Since Gen Z is growing up in an era when many major environmental changes are beginning to take effect and radical climate change will happen during their lifetimes, they are concerned about the environment out of self-preservation. The consumer mentality is one of “Change needs to happen now, or else,” and the products Gen Z gravitates towards will reflect this shift in mentality. There is no denying the environmental impact of their choices for Gen Z, which is why they are more likely to stay loyal to retailers that champion sustainability. Mainstream retailers will need to start getting very concerned and transparent about their supply chains if they want to remain mainstream after the changing of the guards.
The way Generation Z sources and responds to trends is also different. Gen Z is focused on being the first to discover obscure brands and products by following influencers who are in the know, or by doing independent research online. Trends will more be individualistic and less about brand identification as they come into their own, but there will still be trends. Retailers will just need to dig a lot deeper to identify them.
Typecasting Teens Into Subcultures Is no Longer a Thing
Remember the bit about Gen Z consumers being highly individualistic? That’s because Gen Z customers don’t fall into high school and college subculture roles- those Breakfast Club tropes such as hippy, goth, jock, prep just don’t resonate anymore. There was a time in the early 2000s when Hot Topic and Spencer gifts could count on sharing the sales that weren’t taking place at Abercrombie, but that time has long since passed. We’re living in an era of choices. Instead of locking down a teen or early 20-something’s tribe to predict their purchasing behavior, retailers now need to use a Venn Diagram of past behavior and future trends to find the sweet spot of merch that their Gen Z consumer will find exciting… they need to do it every time, for every single customer that shops their brand.
A lot of publications have come out saying that Gen Z looks to influencers instead of traditional celebrities for purchasing inspiration. This is true, but it’s not as cut and dry as celebrity marketing was with prior generations. Recent celebrity influencer scandals, such as the now infamous Fyre Festival debacle and the social media maelstrom that went down when Jameela Jamil called out the Kardashians for promoting dangerous detox teas have brought some harsh realities of the influencer marketing world into a very unflattering light. Namely, that certain well-known influencers not only never use the products they get paid to promote, but that the products aren’t even necessarily of decent quality or safe for use/consumption. So sure, Gen Z consumers identify with the influencers they follow, and they may even look into the products promoted on their channels, but transparency and call-out culture mean that blind consumption will soon be a thing of the past. In the end the product needs to be strong enough to live up to the hype.
There’s a Divide Between Frugality and Luxury
There’s an interesting dichotomy when it comes to what Gen Z customers are willing to pay for goods. On one hand, they grew up during a recession and are freakishly frugal. On the other, they’re singlehandedly resuscitating a luxury goods market that their millennial predecessors brought to its knees. WSL Strategic Retail reports that 55 percent of the Gen Z population is spending more time in dollar stores and mass merchandisers and around 40 percent say they’re spending more time in consignment shops. Yet Gen Zs are also frequenting stores like Vans, The North Face, and UGG, revealing an affinity for mid-market luxury brands that isn’t shared by millennials.
At first glance it may seem difficult to understand a generation that will switch retailers over a 25-cent price difference on a pair of socks but will also shell out $250 on a North Face jacket without batting an eye. But for the Gen Z consumer it’s simple: it’s all about value. It’s true that Gen Z consumers aren’t willing to pay a premium for everyday goods that they can get cheaper elsewhere. Like millennials, Gen Z has no qualms about putting some groundwork into researching products to find the best possible deal. Yet the value of a product is more important than the product’s cost alone. Nextgen consumers have had the experience of buying a product that deteriorates after a few uses and they have seen the environmental aftermath of the fast-fashion crisis. Gen Z equates product longevity with both value and sustainability–their two biggest priorities when deciding what to purchase. The longer a product lasts and the better it is for the environment… the more Gen Z consumers will be willing to invest to make it their own.
New Standards are Being Set for Diversity
Nearly half (49 percent) of Gen Z is non-white and they expect to see themselves reflected in the online catalogs and Instagram stories of the brands they patronize. This doesn’t mean that brands should use 18-year old, size 2 models with chemically straightened hair either. While millennials may have gravitated towards airbrushed images from brands on social media, Gen Z wants to see unique, realistic-looking models of all different shapes, sizes, gender identities, and ethnicities– and they want brands to sell products that encourage them to embrace their natural look instead of products geared towards trying to alter their appearance. The shift in purchasing mentality is especially evident in the cosmetics and lingerie industries.
Gen Z consumers spend more on beauty than they spend on apparel, so brands need to rethink how they approach beauty manufacturing and advertising. Things that were “can’t touch it, won’t touch it” issues for brands in the past, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, political stance and religious beliefs are table stakes for brands today. Mainstream cosmetic brands like CoverGirl and Maybelline are shaking up gender norms by using male beauty influencers to promote products. Gen Z targeted brands are coming out with bold and playful products that encourage consumers to express themselves in their own way, as well as products that can help young customers get selfie-ready in a flash, such as quick contouring sticks, mattifying face spray, and makeup brushes designed for quick applications on the go.
In the lingerie sector, it’s worth noting that supermodels will no longer be stomping down the Victoria’s Secret runway for the annual Fashion Show on network TV this year. While this was publicly attributed to the fact that footage of the show was being leaked on social media before the event was aired, it’s unrealistic to think that Gen Z’s distaste for all things airbrushed didn’t play into the decision to funnel marketing resources into new concepts. Harper’s Bazaar reports that the flailing lingerie behemoth will instead be focused on “developing exciting and dynamic content and a new kind of event.” And if Victoria’s Secret wants to stick around, the new event and future products will be more focused on diversity and inclusion that on maintaining beauty standards that don’t resonate with young shoppers. Padded bras and angel wings could give way to comfortable products customers can actually move in, for instance, and relatable-looking young influencers could be added to the mix of supermodels.
No generation is completely immune to the influence of trends. Yet Generation Z expects retailers to work with them to create products that are good for their wallets, for their self-esteem, and for the planet. To provide this, retailers need to loosen their grip on how things used to be done and start looking forward to what next-generation consumers might expect from brands in the future– which rest assured will be even more diverse, more affirming, more sustainable, more connected and more authentic than what they’re purchasing today.