In our personal lives, people always say that kids can be a ruthless reminder of the passage of time: one minute you are changing their diapers in the middle of the night and suddenly they are leaving the nest for college.
As the years fly by in my career, I think the same holds true for our work lives as well. It seems only yesterday that we were studying the spending and shopping behaviors of Generation X, the generation that followed us Boomers into the mall. Then the other day I found myself preparing for a webinar where I will present the results of my research into the spending, shopping and social habits of the Centennials, a group of 70 million “kids” born between 1996 and 2011 that represent not just one, but two full generations beyond Gen X.
I can’t describe the anxiety I felt as I faced the reality that I had somehow transitioned from marketing’s “young gun” examining the shopping habits of Gen X to the “old marketing guy” trying to keep pace with the behaviors of Centennials, all in what seemed to me a blink of an eye.
Mobile Digital Natives
My anxiety, however, was quickly tempered by my enthusiasm for the opportunities these kids represent for all of us in the retail industry. Shoppers of this generation are not just “digital natives” as we refer to their Millennial predecessors. Centennials are truly mobile digital natives. They literally grew up with smartphones in their hands: the oldest Centennials were merely 10 years old when the first iPhone was introduced.
These kids also represent the first generation of people who only know retail as omni-channel retail. The rest of us lived through the many buzzword-driven transitions from “brick and mortar plus e-commerce” to “multi-channel” to “cross-channel” to “omni-channel.” Collectively and individually, we experienced a sense of wonder and awe as we were given the chance to shop in our pajamas, 24 hours a day. Soon, our browsing experiences were enriched by complete inventory and price transparency and we were given the option to have our orders delivered in a matter of hours.
Bearing witness to this transformation from single-channel to omni-channel has, I believe, given us “old folks” a certain tolerance for less-than-seamless omni-channel experiences. We still remember a time when catalog order delivery times were measured in weeks. We have all felt the frustration that came with calling multiple stores to see if a popular item was still in stock anywhere in our local area. For many of us, I believe that sense of wonder we felt as things began to get easier (and faster) still lingers, and hence most of us are still likely to forgive the occasional misstep or shortcoming in our omni-channel experiences.
Seamless or Bust
Centennials? Not so much. Always on, always available, instant gratification retail is all these kids have ever known. Think about that for a minute: they grew up with the buy button in the palm of their hands. They don’t know – or care – how far we’ve come, and even small missteps in their increasingly complex journeys lead to big frustrations. They simply have no tolerance for friction.
Not only do they have little tolerance for friction, they have little time for fooling around. They multi-task across five screens a day, spend as many as 10 hours a day actively online, and are bombarded by thousands of marketing messages every day. Their attention spans have shrunk to a paltry 8 seconds, and they have no patience for distraction.
If their shopping journeys are not seamless – personalized, empowered and efficient – they just aren’t interested. These kids have too many choices that are just too darn easy to access.
A Word of Caution: Millennials vs. Centennials
Before we jump in with both feet in an attempt to attract and engage this emerging generation, however, a word of caution: don’t assume that what worked with Millennials will work with Centennials. While much of what we learned about Millennials can serve as the foundation for our Centennial strategies, we really need to understand the differences. Centennial motivations, attitudes and influences are distinctly their own.
A couple examples can help to highlight the nuances of this mobile digital generation:
- The 2008 recession has been the defining financial event for Centennials, and the fiscal trauma those years inflicted upon these kids and their families will likely shape their attitudes toward money for years to come. They are much more inclined to save – even the teenagers – than preceding generations, and they carefully weigh the price/value equation before purchasing.
- Attitudes toward fashion and apparel have shifted. Being “on trend” means much less to them than it did to previous generations of teenagers, and apparel’s share of wallet has fallen almost 15% in the last decade.
- As previously discussed, they expect seamless interactions across devices channels and locations (and know no other way), and breaking through the noise to reach them is an enormous challenge.
- Social platforms like YouTube represent a straight line to their smartphones. More than half watch YouTube videos multiple times a day, and they flock to personalities that resonate with their sensibilities. The Washington Post reports that the top 5 (yes, top 5) YouTube stars have double the followers of all US cable TV viewers combined.
So Much to Learn, So Little Time
There is so much more to learn about these 70 million shoppers (or soon-to-be shoppers). Over 15 million members of this generation are age 18 or older, and collectively they wield almost $200B in purchasing power and influence. Understanding them – and doing so quickly – will be the key to long-term success for retailers in almost every category.
If I’ve motivated you to learn more about this generation, register for my upcoming webinar. I compiled an extensive review of their attitudes and behaviors, which I will share during the webinar. I encourage you to follow the link to register, because I don’t think you will want to miss it. I invested significant time and energy into the project because I really believe it’s time to get moving so that we can get to know these Centennials and effectively attract, engage and convert them into shoppers for the long haul.
And, despite my initial anxiety, I definitely intend to enjoy the journey.