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What Do Customers Expect From Retailers? 3 Myths (and Truths) From 4 Generations of Global Shoppers

If you think that Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen X all shop alike, think again. What you don’t know may cost you.

Father holding his son while shopping on his phone in a pharmacy
Across all generations, brick and mortar and ecommerce are more intertwined than ever. [SEAN LOCKE/Stocksy]

In the past 15 months, we’ve learned that sweatpants are not just for the gym, toilet paper can be a luxury item, and cats are what virtual courtrooms need. The surprises don’t stop there. A survey of nearly 12,000 consumers shows reality doesn’t always match expectations – including for retailers. Read on to see how retailers can separate fact from fiction in social media, in online and in-store shopping habits, and in the loyalty and retention of Gen Z.

Who uses social media?

Myth: Social media is only a playground for younger generations

Truth: The 40+ crowd is increasingly social-savvy, using social apps to both browse and buy

For generations raised on social media, it’s no surprise that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are popular digital hangouts for social interactions and commerce. Eighty-five percent of Gen Z’ers make purchases directly inspired by social posts — and 30% say it happens often according to our research. But that’s not the whole story.

Salesforce’s Shopping Index, which aggregates the clicks and taps of over one billion shoppers worldwide, reported a 40% year-over-year increase in new online shoppers in 2020. Many older generations turned to ecommerce in droves for essential purchases while stores were locked down. 

This behavior translates to social platforms as well. Six-out-of-10 Gen X’ers said they’d purchased an item after having seen it on social. Eight percent of them said they often make purchases directly within a social media app. The trend can also be seen for Baby Boomers. One-in-five have shopped directly within social apps at some point.

While headlines often fixate on Gen Z’s digital shopping habits, retailers need to consider their audience and make use of first-party data to better understand new visitors. As we’ve seen, older generations are also drawing inspiration and buying from social.

Where do people shop?

Myth: Pandemic online shopping habits will make physical stores obsolete

Truth: Brick and mortar and ecommerce are more intertwined than ever

Prior to the pandemic, 85% of retail purchases were made in person, compared to 15% made online. The balance has since shifted across sub-verticals. Grocery is a prime example. In 2019, approximately 97% of grocery sales were in person. In 2021, 20% of consumers said they are most likely to buy their groceries online — even as stores reopen.

Our data also shows that digital penetration is even higher in other categories like apparel and footwear. Our research found that 34% of consumers plan to make purchases primarily on digital channels like online marketplaces (including Amazon, Instacart, Facebook Marketplace, etc.) and brand or retail websites. And these numbers are more pronounced across younger generations. Less than half of Gen Z’ers and Millennials are most likely to buy apparel and footwear in store, preferring to shop across channels like apps, websites, and marketplaces. 

That doesn’t mean stores will phase out. While younger generations are drawn to digital properties for product inspiration and purchase, they choose the store for fulfillment and returns. When it comes to returning online orders, Millennials choose in-store returns over other methods like mail or collection points. 

Similarly, over a third of Gen Z’ers relied on brick and mortar to return online items. Nowadays, the store is more than a place for product discovery and purchase. It also adds convenience to the ecommerce experience. The opportunity for retailers is to make the two channels feel seamless, and use it to create opportunities for further engagement. For instance, when shoppers are online, retailers can encourage store pickup to save on shipping and promote new product discovery.

After all, 67% of consumers admit to going to a store to return a product and walking out with something else. When in store, retailers have a shot at promoting new products and social engagement.

Do young shoppers value loyalty programs?

Myth: Gen Z’ers are not loyalty driven

Truth: Gen Z loyalty is more nuanced – and nascent

When it comes to loyalty programs, all generations appreciate special discounts. In fact, for Baby Boomers, it’s the most important factor by a wide margin. While discounts matter to Gen Z;ers, so, too, do the intangibles. Compared to Baby Boomers, Gen Z’ers are twice as likely to crave events and community.

Similarly, when it comes to choosing between brands, Boomers’ preferences are clear. Seventy-five percent say quality is the top factor. For Gen Z, product quality and discounts are most useful in choosing brands. But other considerations like availability, convenience, and sustainability all factor in equally. This could reflect that Gen Z has a diversity of interests. Or it could be the fact that Gen Z’ers are young and still working out their preferences. Or both.

The shopper journey is no longer a straight line, but rather an infinite loop of touchpoints across myriad channels and devices. As a brand or retailer, understanding and engaging every generation of consumers can seem nearly impossible. This is where the value of data becomes critical. A complete and unified record of your customer is more important than ever. Retailers must rely on the data that their customers provide to anticipate their wants and needs. With a single source of truth for every customer, brands and retailers can get closer to treating every customer – in any age group – as an individual.

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