Getting Inside the Mind of the Gen-Z Shopper

Today’s youngest consumer generation—gen-Z—is uniquely heterogeneous, with 13-year-olds relying on weekly allowances and 21-year-olds about to graduate college. Yet despite being in varying life stages, they share a consumer naïveté that binds them together as they explore and develop their emerging shopping independence. 

Profiling gen-Z

Considering gen-Z at a granular level reveals important life stage differences that directly impact how these consumers shop. Younger shoppers’ (13-17 y/o) access to money, credit cards, and transportation looks very different than that of older gen-Z shoppers (17-20 y/o).

In the U.S., only 13% of 16 year olds are employed, compared to 55% of 20 year olds. Similarly, older gen-Z have significantly higher rates of credit card penetration and driver licenses/permits. On the other hand, the younger consumers are much more dependent, relying on allowances, gifts, and rides to get what they want. This intra-generational contrast reveals that gen-Z are in a highly transitionary period in their life, which suggests:

  • Limited money means focused consumption
  • Young consumers gain independence (and access to stores) at around 15-17
  • No credit translates to non-independent online purchases

When we shift our attention to the digital realm, this generation comes together to show a preference for video and image-messaging platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. This diversification of media options and increased multitasking may be at the root of “hyper attention”—a state of mind in which people switch focus rapidly among different tasks, prefer multiple information streams, seek a high level of stimulation, and have a low tolerance for boredom.

A comprehensive look at gen-Z reveals an emerging youth shopper with:

  1. Increased independence: They’re currently on the path to (but not quite at) independence. They soon will have increased agency for store visits and online purchases.
  2. Varied online habits, varied focus: Even compared to millennials, gen-Z have a distinct and rich digital footprint – and are at a particularly impressionable time of life.

The Emerging Youth Shopper

Gen-Z are in the early stages of their consumer journey. They’re marching forward in seeking independence and self-expression, but still rely on family and friends for guidance. The younger set unsurprisingly shops with their parents, but this quickly changes.

As they get older, they shed parentally-guided shopping and begin to explore the consumer world on their own and with peers. In fact, without the responsibility of providing for the household, gen-Z turn their attention to discretionary and conspicuous products as a means of self-expression.

A Unique Social Shopping Dynamic

Despite seeking consumer independence, shopping remains a new field for gen-Z, and they approach it with trepidation. Only 34% of them say they like to shop alone, compared to 50% of millennials and 61% of gen-X. Moreover, shopping carries an element of stress for them, especially for younger gen-Z consumers (35%). This is to be expected of any relatively new activity and as they gain experience shopping becomes easier. The older cohort is less likely to say shopping is stressful (30%) and more likely to say shopping is fun (62% vs. 54%).

Shopping malls, for example, remain a viable place for teens to spend time despite the rhetoric of their decline. Whereas shopping is largely functional for adults, shopping assumes a social and developmental role in the lives of gen-Z: it’s spontaneous, impulsive, and almost always with others. Make this emerging youth shopper feel comfortable by:

  • Offering an open and approachable atmosphere where group shopping is welcomed.
  • Incorporate a combination of digital and tangible features and events around the store.
  • Providing seating area and charging stations.

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