Book Review: GEN BUY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings are Revolutionizing Retail

Kit Yarrow & Jayne O'Donnell

Review by: H. Blount Hunter

gen buyGEN BUY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings are Revolutionizing Retail is highly recommended to Downtown professionals, marketers, and retailers as a primer on the impact of a youthful generation on culture, fashion, social trends, and the world of retailing. The book is an excellent introduction to GEN Y and is thought-provoking for those who must keep up with-or stay ahead of-this fast-moving generation of consumers. Admitting that their book neither celebrates nor condemns consumerism, Kit Yarrow and Jayne O'Donnell describe the importance of Gen Y as a consumer segment and provide evidence that Gen Y will only become more important as they move into their prime spending years. "They are, in short, the future of every company, so we'd best get to know them now."

The book’s premise is simple: Marketers need to delve beyond the superficial to understand Gen Y because shopping plays such an important role in helping this generation connect with one another, learn about and understand themselves, and feel more in control of the future. Products and services play an increasingly important role in satisfying Gen Y’s social and emotional needs. Retailers (and Downtowns) have a great opportunity to be a central part of these customers’ lives.

Gen Y consumers were born between 1978 and 2000. U.S. households with at least one member of Gen Y represent the third largest buying group in this country, accounting for nearly 84 million individuals and 37 percent of total dollars spent. Gen Y is the first post‐PC generation. As trendsetters in an increasingly youth‐ and technology‐oriented society, their influence is pervasive; Gen Y spending patterns are influencing the spending decisions of every generation.

There is great diversity of personal expression within Gen Y, yet four unique characteristics define members of Gen Y and ultimately impact their buying patterns:

  1. Confidence
  2. Connectedness
  3. Choices
  4. Instantaneousness

Gen Y is empowered by mastery of technology and the global perspective it brings. “To Gen Y, a mobile phone is like life’s remote control.” Thanks to technology, Gen Yers enjoy the gift of resources. “Gen Y’s unique relationship with brands, their powerful influence on marketers, their peers and their friends, their love of technology, and their speedy, visual world are reshaping retailing. Their confidence in self‐expression, lickety‐split decision making, and desire to have it all now have had a notable impact on the way they shop….” Technology allows for learning about the full array of options and then facilitates customization.

Shopping is a social activity—often a group activity and a tie that binds Gen Yers. Downtowns and retailers must ramp up their technology and make it mobile and interactive. Tastemakers in the youth market are deeply involved in social media. Branding trumps marketing, and the most successful brands are those that offer a collaborative relationship that allow an individual to influence the product. Authenticity is a requirement for continued consumer loyalty.

Of note, Gen Yers often equate “shopping” with a “mental vacation” that is soothing and relaxing. When shopping, they are confident and in control. This feeling of control is especially important during times of life change (i.e. getting married, changing jobs, moving). Buying goods makes consumers “feel prepared” for the future. People buy in anticipation of something—a hope for something better—whether the purchase is transformative or simple. Members of Gen Y are more hopeful than previous generations. “New” is better; “tried and true” equals “tired. Savvy retailers empathize with their customers and understand their deepest needs and wants while contributing to their customers’ exploration of self and selfimage. Merchants can offer solutions to people who are defining their role in society through their work, interests, and hobbies.

Shopping is an intensely social experience for teens. More so than older shoppers, Gen Y shoppers have a sense of ownership of the places they shop and the brands and products they are considering. “As such, the feel it is their right to expect retailers to cater to them—and pity the shop or web merchant that disappoints.” This generation of consumers uses its instant ability to connect and communicate as a way to spread praise or gain revenge. Visual and symbolic communications are potent; tolerance with boredom is low. Retail sales associates without deep product knowledge face being dismissed as irrelevant. Retailers are creating selling opportunities that capitalize on the greater presence of males in stores and on the tendency for Gen Y consumers to shop with a member of the opposite sex when exploring outside of their traditional interest areas.On the darker side, Gen Y has been branded as over‐indulged and self‐important. Many have a distorted sense of entitlement. Some confuse “wants” and “needs” while others are difficult to please in light of unrealistic expectations. And, short attention spans can make it difficult to maintain the interests of Gen Y consumers.

Gen Y has impacted the retail environment in fundamental ways:

  1. Apparel selections in stores now change 6‐24 times per year instead of 5 times per year.
  2. Retailers have publically embraced causes and charities.
  3. Dressing rooms have grown in size to accommodate shopping as a group activity.
  4. Shopping has become more mobile while internet shopping has become easier.
  5. More and better‐quality low‐end merchandise responds to “fast fashion” mentality.

As for shopping, tweens and teens often “style sample” while twenty‐somethings have already found their personal styles. Stores and marketing can appeal to each life stage. Gen Yers are particular about what they want; they know their options and they crave specific things that are just right. Gift cards have soared in popularity in recent years precisely because gift givers are aware that Gen Y recipients want to select the perfect item for themselves. Among the many psychological rewards is the satisfaction of finding a bargain on something special and unique.

Using specific examples, Downtown retailers can learn how to respond to opportunities associated with the Gen Y market. Target, Kohl’s, and JCPenney are cited as examples of retailers who seek the Gen Y market for its own spending impact and for Gen Y’s influence on parental spending patterns. Tiffany and Company was praised for its decision to initiate a merchandise line designed with “entry point” pricing appropriate for young consumers; Apple’s stores are magnets for male shoppers because they offer direct product engagement and an opportunity for guys to “play” with the latest technology without feeling pressured to buy. By treating customers as family, Barnes & Noble cultivates early impressions that form the basis of a bonding experience that translates into on‐going loyalty. Urban Outfitters consciously creates merchandise juxtapositions to create in‐store treasure hunts that succeed based on an element of surprise. Best Buy’s “community forum” enables company experts and consumers to swap stores, thereby increasing the brand connection. Merchants are appealing to all of the senses to connect with shoppers. Sony Style stores have a proprietary scent of vanilla and mandarin orange to relax shoppers and encourage lingering just as music and lighting are critical to setting the mood inside Abercrombie stores. Playing to Gen Y’s fear of missing out, Zara, Nike, H & M, J. Crew and others deliberately limit the availability of hot‐ticket merchandise to increase the stature of items, generate buzz, and give shoppers immediate buying motivation.

For Downtown organizations and individual retailers, the authors remind readers that the experience people have with a brand becomes the brand. Events that engage shoppers tell customers that they matter. Entertainment programming is critical to maintaining Gen Y interest. And, never underestimate the power of “new.” Fast retailing requires merchandise that changes frequently and stores that are re‐invented frequently as well.

Gen Y consumers appreciate their brand/retailer relationships and eschew advertising as manipulative. They are more interested in interactions that feel like collaborations. As a result, businesses are encouraged to use websites, social networks, blogs, and virtual worlds to get consumers involved with their brands. “Using social media effectively requires humility and a genuine desire to add value to the lives of your customers.”

In conclusion, the successful retail store of the future (and by extension, the successful Downtown of the future) cannot merely be a dispensary of goods but a place that can offer a sense of discovery, aspiration, and community. This generation of consumers is seeking an array of value‐added features that make each purchase a deeply personal experience.

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