I wrack my brains to remember when I last bought new clothes in-store. 2019? Definitely pre-Covid.
Time to get up. Soy latte. Smashed avo on toast. Single Mum school drop off duties for my Gen Z daughter before hitting the desk for work.
I’m one of the 1.8 billion Millennials worldwide. A generation born from 1981-1996 and often maligned as the “Me, Me, Me” gen.
Obsessed with showcaser signalling and blinded by status. A generation that aligns its identity with brands and proudly wears them as badges. A generation that sees shopping as binary: “I want brand X, therefore I need to shop at store Y”. A generation that loves to shop online because it’s fun and convenient – and also because they are juggling work-life (im)balance, kids and life in the ’burbs. The first generation to be born into ‘Internet of Things life’, Millennials are influenced by both those seated at the dinner table, and their peers on socials.
However, above all else, Millennials are known creatures of habit. We like familiarity. We are predictable. We trust the brands in our lives. Harvard consumer researcher Professor Susan Fournier would say that our brands are akin to our best friends, acquaintances, lovers, and dalliances. Reliable stalwarts, in one way or another, through the journey that is life.
But as predictable as I am, something in me is changing.
I’m feeling more brand-promiscuous than usual. I’m searching for inspiration more frequently and I’m not doing it via the usual brand websites. I’m doing it via TikTok, Insta and an array of circular resale communities like Depop, where I feel more immersed and entertained.
I’m being increasingly guided by socials, following influencers, and I am also being influenced by other consumers online, whom I perceive to be ‘just like me’. I’m seeking out novelty, variety, uniqueness. The other day, I bought a denim jacket from cult brand Wren + Glory within one hour of seeing the label on an influencer, and then on Paris Jackson. I had never heard of the label before clicking ‘buy’.
Where I once hid my habit for thrift store shopping and slinked into charity stores incognito and inconspicuously along the walls, I now proudly thrift every second weekend with my Gen Z kid and tweet about it afterwards. Mixing up labels and buying channels is now my thing.
Do I feel uncomfortable in this newly found promiscuity?
Absolutely. I feel like I am betraying the best friends that I have been loyal to for decades.
Am I having a Millennial mid-life crisis?
Am I becoming more like Gen Z?
Meet the Gen Z revolution
For the past 10 years, retailers have been scrambling to meet the needs of the Millennials, a segment that has been blamed for killing off everything from department stores to FMCG, and a segment that made brands redefine online retailing. Now, brands are faced with meeting the needs of the formidable Gen Z.
With a purchasing power of over US$143 billion ($197.1 billion) and 72 million in global numbers, Gen Z are gamechangers. They are young, born between 1997 and 2012, and they have serious earning potential, as they are starting their first jobs and getting their first paychecks. They’re set to account for 40 per cent of the global luxury fashion market alone by 2025.
But that’s just the tip of the generational iceberg. Understanding what makes Gen Z tick is the interesting part. Unlike predictable Millennials, Gen Z are a proverbial jigsaw puzzle.
Meet Olivia. She’s 21, from the well-heeled eastern suburbs in Sydney, and has a daily shopping habit. From browsing the trash-to-treasure thrifting trove that is Depop, to coveting sneakers from Veja, Olivia lives two lives. She has one foot in the real world and the other firmly planted in the digi-verse.
Olivia is hyperconnected. She craves organic video content and streams 23 hours worth a week. She expresses herself through social media, where she learns about new brands, following an average of 10 influencers (“the micro not macro type”, she says). Some brands she follows to buy from, but most she follows to draw inspiration from. Despite her appetite for content, her attention span online is eight seconds (half that of Millennials).
Olivia loves a bargain because, in her words, she’s ‘skint’. If she buys something she changes her mind on, she resells it the next day. As a self-defined price-sensitive ‘super creative’ ‘cool-hunter’, she loves to thrift, especially if the shop is in a hip suburb with unique, vinty pieces, and next to a café with plant-based organic snacks for after. She will go in-store when there’s a cool activation or pop-up shop on offer. But more often than not, she will buy online.
Brand loyalty? It’s not in Olivia’s vocab. She’s into reinvention, revolution and every other ‘R’ there is – recycling, renewing, reusing, repurposing. After all, her Zoomer buddies brought back Y2K, nostalgia-core and indie-sleaze fashion subculture. Her wardrobe? It’s eclectic, transient, and changes daily just like her tastes.
But the clincher? Authenticity and sustainability are non-negotiables. She expects her brands not to just sell ‘stuff’, but to be more, do more, and say more. She’s not alone – 9 out of 10 Z’s believe brands should detail their stances on environmental and social issues.
Gen Z is not merely Millennial 2.0. They are perhaps the most distinct and diverse market, in terms of both beliefs and behaviours, that the retail world has met to date.
So how do retail brands target the seemingly un-targetable?
Engaging on Gen ‘We’ terms
There’s a revolt happening and it’s right under our nose.
In Gen Z land, Millennials are being disregarded as a generation too keen to define themselves by their own individual interests, labels, and identities. Millennial brand loyalty, obsession with the ’90s and political orientation is viewed as too fixated when, according to Zoomers, we should be more focused on social movements, philosophies, and visionary ideals. Millennials are ‘cringeworthy’ and ‘confused’ about who they are, Gen Z would say.
Yet Gen Z is by no means conundrum-free. On the one hand, they are trend-focused hyper-consumerists driving the success of fast-fashion giants, looking for cheap, cheery gear that’s light on the wallet. Affordability is king (or queen), since cash is tight.
On the other hand, they are philosophical idealists driven by deep-seated eco-conscious values. Engaging with Gen Z requires retailers to look beyond the products and craft a strong public narrative around what makes the company tick. Gen Z want to know how your brand is building a better community, society, and world. Not just what your mission statement is, but what your actions are.
Gen Z will support brands that reflect their own philosophical values. They are looking for brands that understand who they are – their vibe, their Z-ID.
Gen Z are the cool kids’ table down at the local café. A group comfortable self-expressing in their own skin, and a segment cultivating their own unapologetic identity. They want to see brands engage with them through transparency, and through real action on inclusivity, diversity, social justice, and the environment. Gen Z are driven by conviction and brands can’t fake their response.
First Insight research found that 73 per cent of Generation Z were willing to pay 10 per cent more for sustainable products. They want something that they love, at a price that is affordable, that is personalised for them, and which tells the story of where their dollars go. This need for authenticity of engagement sets Zoomers apart from other generations, which looked at CSR in a more tokenistic way.
For Z, trust matters.
Living a life through the virtues of sustainability and a circular economy epitomises cool for Zoomers. They are less ‘Gen Me’ and more ‘Gen We’.
Need for newness, not ‘new’
Targeting the Zoomer mindset requires retailers to deliver ‘newness’, not ‘new’.
As the most photographed selfie generation, they have a desire for image. But not the sort of Millennial ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ image that we are familiar with. They don’t hang on to one icon, one brand, or one outfit like previous generations. They are obsessed with uniqueness, individuality, and diversity, and they do it through a revolving wardrobe.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, we used to talk about the variety-seeking segment, packed with consumers who had an insatiable need for novelty. It was all a bit nebulous. Until now.
Non-traditional business models such as rental, resale, recycling, and repurposing meet Gen Z’s increased hunger for variety, affordability, and newness, whilst at the same time helping them address their concern for the planet. Non-traditional models of shopping, like rental, resale, and thrift are on the rise. Savvy retailers on board this trend, such as Airrobe, Rent the Runway, Glamcorner, and the digital buy, sell and connect campfires that are Depop and Poshmark, have tapped Zoomers’ voracious need for ‘Nownership’ (wear today, return or sell tomorrow). Research by Bain confirms this: 75 per cent of Depop users are happy buying second-hand and 65 per cent want to do so affordably.
Gen Z’s need for variety and uniqueness is also fuelling the growth in niche brands as the culture creators hunt for ‘non-normal’. 5WPR’s research found that 77 per cent of Gen Z shop online because it allows them to discover products from new or small companies they wouldn’t find in person. ‘Difference’ equals membership for Gen Z. They are diversity embodied and they own it.
But what about big brands and the plight of seeking brand loyalty from Gen Z? Gen Z will seek you out if you personalise, customise, and individualise the experience. Brand collabs like that of Depop with Adidas Originals and Ganni, are examples of that. Depop designers and sellers pair with brands to rework, restyle, and resell classic pieces; for example, by customising Ganni’s oversized collars. Gen Z dig celebrity collabs, pop-up stores and influencer meet-ups, in real life or online – opportunities to engage with their peeps and build social capital. They live and breathe community. They want to feel like they know the designer. They want to feel like the brand knows them. For Zoomers, retail isn’t about just buying, it’s about connecting. They are the ultimate social beast.
You have to make them want you
Yet reaching Gen Z and resonating with them is no easy task. They’re fragmented across channels, they don’t let brands define them and on top of that, they are fickle. If you manage to capture their fleeting attention and convert that to purchase, there is no guarantee that they will stay loyal. Equally, if you make a big CSR promise and then break it, you are yesterday’s news.
But just as it has become a must for brands to be where their consumers are, so too is understanding what makes them tick.
Gen Z is its own brand. They don’t need you in their life. But, if you give them a compelling reason to engage, value beyond purchase, then they may just take you up on that offer.
Brands willing to experiment in their connection with the Gen Z tribe will have the opportunity to build a relationship with them that will pay dividends for years to come. Love them or loathe them, Gen Z are the new kid on the block and for today’s brands it really is a matter of, ‘Get on board the Z high-speed train or risk being left behind’.