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Why Generation Y isn't buying your products

As a 23-year-old consumer, I can tell you this: my attention is short, my demands are great and my purchases are diverse. I live in a day and age where social media apps, slogan tees and even Nike sneakers can be customized to fit my lifestyle.

I represent Generation Y, or Millennials as we are often called. While we may seem fickle, limited and spoiled to most retail professionals, we're quite the contrary. Our lifestyle and shopping habits will determine the sales revenue of the retail industry, affecting everyone from big-box retailers to mom-and-pop stores, for the next 15 years. We are responsible for the return of our nation's thriving economy.

To put it bluntly, if you're uncomfortable with marketing to Generation Y, or refuse to understand our unique demographic, your store will not see 2020. To understand Generation Y is to overcome many obstacles in the retail industry.

The retailers who are embracing and adapting to our needs are the retailers from which we are not only purchasing products and services. They also are the retailers we are recommending to our parents, the Baby Boomers. Our generations combined account for more than half of all Americans, and while Generation Y purchases $150 billion in goods a year, we influence another $50 billion of Baby Boomer's family purchases.

Understanding Generation Y

Studies vary, but Generation Y is typically considered to be made up of people born between 1979 and 1997. We are racially and ethnically diverse; one-third of us are either African-American or Hispanic. There are 113 million of us shopping in malls and boutiques 54 times a year, and we have approximately $100 a week in disposable income burning a hole in our pockets.

We tend to live with only one parent, which makes us more open-minded than our predecessors. Conversely, traditional values and parental approval are very important. Our Baby Boomer parents, born just after World War II and former hippies, taught us the importance of being socially conscious. For that reason, we believe in giving to and participating in nonprofits. We believe sustaining the environment is a team effort. Ninety-one percent of Generation Y supports companies that support good causes.


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Generation Y is also, of course, the most technologically savvy generation yet. Social media Web sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook have been incorporated into our daily lifestyle and define us digitally. Online research, online price comparison and social media marketing play an important part in our purchasing decisions.

Where the money comes from

In August 2009, the unemployment rate for workers between the ages of 16 and 19 reached 25.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But if we were unemployed, where did our money come from?

Although our access to credit is limited, Generation Y has a love-hate relationship with credit cards. We love the instant gratification they bring when purchasing goods; however we later hate having to suffer the financial consequences. Our education expenses, our social desire for luxury goods and our inability to save money make us very cash-poor.

Additionally, we influence the purchasing decisions of Baby Boomers because our shopping patterns are somewhat similar. We have a very close relationship with Baby Boomers. We're Mama's boys and Daddy's girls, and as a result we have financial ties with our indulgent parents. They are a financial support system, and they are the reason we stay single longer.

Shopping patterns of Generation Y

Because our generation responds and adapts rather quickly to social changes, we have emerged from the recession as "Recessionistas," informed shoppers who stick to tight budgets while still managing to stay trendy and cultured. We're looking for inexpensive versions of the items we desire and durable versions of the items we need.

In addition to buying necessities and spending as Recessionistas, we continually strive for goods that express our individuality. In just a decade we've influenced the production of monogrammed screen tees, colored laptop computers and rhinestone cell phone accessories.

How to market to Generation Y

If you're able to keep these strategies in mind when marketing to Generation Y today, you'll secure a lifelong customer in the future as we evolve into mature adults and parents.

  1. Appeal to our ego, our parents, AND THEN our senses. Your products and services should appeal to our individuality, but they should also be something we can share with our Baby Boomer parents. Again, brands such as the Gap and Nordstrom have successfully managed to offer products that both generations find appealing. Another reason these brands have been so successful is because their strategic choice of music, lighting, color palette, layout and visual merchandising appeals to Generation Y.
  2. Minimize the television ads. We were glued to the tube as kids. We've learned to tune out traditional advertising methods. Convey your funny or emotional messages to Generation Y via guerilla, viral and social media marketing first, then supplement with traditional advertising. Another tip: We love word-of-mouth referrals and celebrity endorsements.
  3. Offer a new take on promotions. If your store is at or near a location where we spend the majority of our time (shopping malls, concert arenas, theme parks or movie theatres), incorporate these locations into your promotions. Consider cross-promoting with these venues as well.

What we've learned

We're self-important. We're spoiled. We're passionate. We're multitalented. There may be multiple attributes to our personality, but retail remains the constant means through which we express ourselves. Yes, excellent customer service and quality products are important, but we're buying products from companies whose campaigns are expansive.

If James Cameron's box-office bonanza "Avatar" taught us anything, it's that studying is the first step toward profiteering. Like the Na'vi, for many retailers Generation Y are aliens that leave them confused. The only thing that's predictable about us is our unpredictability. Our personalities and shopping patterns are so vastly different from what was previously exhibited by Generation X. Sorry, but we turned out to be nothing like our older siblings.

Christine Carter is the owner of the retail marketing firm Epps Consulting. She consults a variety of retailers, from big-box retailers to independently owned boutiques. Photo by fast eddie 42.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Angie Lee
    116909546
    Well you got a couple of things right....they are spoiled and self important. The type of people that want raises and promotions for showing up, most days, and doing most of the job they were hired to do. Threaten all you wish, but if the tap from mummy and daddy dries up and they have to actually fend for themselves their attitudes will change pretty quick. Remember all you mommies and daddies, they can get a loan to pay for their tuition, but no one will loan you money on which to retire. Turn off the tap and let the chips fall where they may.
  • Garrett Silverton
    82022692
    While I may agree on most of the description of the generation Y people, I would also like to add that the danger of Gen. Y attitude is that when things did not go their way or not according to their plan, or when the world fail to deliver the high expectation that they had, it’s very easy for them to fall down to depression and succumb to their nature of non-perseverance. The most recent generation of adults, having grown up through the Great Recession, are mostly worried over the time of their retirement at which point they haven’t saved enough to be able to spend a decent life at their old age and rather have to cling to whatever menial work they can still find to support themselves. Millennials, Generation Y, 20-somethings, call them what you will, are found to be generally pessimistic about their future security and are less confident of finding a way to prepare for their old age. (Source: Generation Y pessimistic about financial future and worried about retirement). They have the technological advantage of being knowledgeable with computers and new medias, but without the right mindset the potentials are in danger of just going to waste.
  • Beth Northcut
    76888376
    No Generational description is going to be a catch all. Falling between the cracks of Baby Boom and Gen X, I would say I identify with neither. In addition, you can find as many differing parameters on this group as any other. As a group they are more tattooed and pierced and racially/culturally diverse, but spoiled and self important? We, the older generations, have been reckless with our economy and our environment. We have put materialism on the pedestal. They have grown up in broken families and, as children watched the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, 9/11 and the widening of the income gap. So, they find little comfort in the world around them and turn instead to embrace their individuality. They are coming up with their own tactics and definitions and, to me, that looks like resilience. Yes, the Daddy's Girls may eventually be rushed with crushing reality, but they are not the norm in this generation. In fact, they are probably the kids of the infamous 1%. The rest of these kids have faced plenty of challenges both social and financial. That they are a generation that can be more accepting of each other's differences and celebrate the moment. I have seen open mindedness in this group more than any other. In our current climate we should all be thankful that they are the road ahead.
  • angelina clack
    71153103
    I'm sensing a chip on Angie Lee's shoulder... What do the article's say about your generation? Can't all be wonderful.
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