Retail game-changers: Millennial and Gen Z shoppers are brick-and-mortar’s essential future
At first glance, millennial and Gen Z shoppers might seem to be sounding the death knell for the beleaguered brick-and-mortar retail industry.
After all, these demographics are spending more of their time (shopping) on smartphones and mobile devices than any other generation. And while it may seem easy to draw a connection between this trend and the number of retail stores closing, it turns out that’s not always the case.
Millennials and Gen Z buyers actually represent the future for retail stores, but they’re different from other generations in that they’re seeking a more personalized experience with the products they shop for.
Although these behaviors seemingly conflict, they’re ones that both brands and retailers must put at the forefront of their marketing strategies by providing in-store, interactive technology experiences that fulfill mobile-savvy consumers’ desires.
Forward-looking companies have already started implementing ways to stay ahead of the curve, utilizing various technologies to create digital, personal experiences that these young generations crave when they head into a store.
The game isn’t over, but the rules have changed
Physical retail store closings have been dominating headlines, with Toys “R” Us being the latest to announce store closures (and in this case, bankruptcy), due to intensifying competition and changing market tastes. In fact, Fung Global Retail and Technology, which tracks retail openings and closures, reports that store closings have increased 182 percent from last year, seemingly painting a bleak picture for brick-and-mortar.
But reading between the lines shows there’s still tremendous opportunity for physical stores. The same Fung Global report shows store openings have increased 58 percent from last year — not exactly an indicator of an industry in its death throes. Some analyst groups, such as IHL Group, even report that more stores have opened than have closed this past year, and retail sales in physical stores are up $122 billion year-over-year.
It’s undeniable that the nature of physical retail stores and how consumers shop is changing. In short, the supercomputers in consumers’ pockets we call smartphones have disrupted traditional retail, and stores will have to reimagine the way they deliver value to consumers to stay relevant to an always-connected market.
Plenty of companies believe retail can do this, too. Despite the undeniable impact e-commerce has had on retail store closures, it’s important to acknowledge that online shopping sites are actually beginning to open physical stores themselves.
Consider Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods, for example. It’s a clear sign that if an e-commerce giant like Amazon sees value in traditional retail and in the technology to improve the in-store consumer experience, others will, too. The personalization advantages online shopping sites like Amazon offer on their websites can easily translate into a more robust retail experience for a tech-loving in-store shopper.
In general, the consensus of these reports and examples is that shoppers are seeking experiences when they go out. For example, GShopper noted 86 percent of US consumers surveyed preferred “experience” stores where they could try out products in-store, or otherwise interact as they shopped.
If you build it, they’ll still come
The big question for retailers, as they nervously eye the upcoming holiday season, is if shoppers will go out to stores at all. A survey from consulting firm AlixPartners found 71 percent of respondents plan to do half or more of their holiday shopping in stores, and at least 88 percent will see the inside of a physical retail outlet during the busiest shopping season of the year.
This means that businesses should use the holidays as a time to connect with shoppers and build experiences with them to keep them coming back. While a number of people shop with a “get the gifts and get out” mentality, more shoppers still will be milling the aisles trying to find that perfect gift — and in-store, digital technology that helps them in that quest might just leave a lasting impression.
What’s true during the critical holiday shopping season also holds true throughout the year, particularly for younger consumers; 67 percent of Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy their items in-store most of the time, according to IBM’s “Uniquely Generation Z” study. This holds true for millennials as well, 50 percent of whom will shop in-store as their preferred method, according to SmarterHQ (PDF).
In addition, more than 90 percent of consumers use their smartphones while shopping in retail stores, according to SessionM’s “Retail Shopping White Paper: Connecting the Multichannel Shopper.” Roughly 54 percent use their devices to compare prices, while 48.4 percent search for product information and 42 percent search for reviews.
It’s critical for marketers to capture the attention of these two generations, given that they make up about half of the American media-consuming audience.
Technology to drive personalization
Interaction with shoppers’ digital devices is key, and technologies like beacons and near field communication (NFC) are a vital way to create this kind of interaction. They allow the user to control when that interaction happens and what information they want to share with a brand or retailer.
Recent industry in-store digital experience experiments show their continued growth and the urgent need to test out and learn from the results of new technologies. Modern retail is not one-size-fits-all, and each store will need to find the technology method that is the best fit.
And for a lot of young shoppers, they have yet to form brand or retailer loyalty, so engaging with them and forging a direct connection during an initial visit can be paramount toward earning a customer for life.
Retailers need to recognize that the future of shopping will be as much about the consumer’s journey as it is the end result. They must deliver on anticipated in-store experiences by experimenting with new technologies — flexible marketing platforms — to keep pace with their fast-moving customer base.