Can Retailers Keep Pace With Millennial Consumers?

By Glenn Taylor, Associate Editor   •   February 2, 2016

Retailers know they have to adapt marketing and advertising messages to target each new generation of shoppers. But the evolution of technology over the past 20 years has forced merchants to speed up their understanding of today's more technologically advanced Millennials.

The Millennial generation has grown up with the technology revolution and is now gaining more buying power, motivating retailers to tap into more content-based campaigns that are focused on a personalized customer experience.

Some of these retailers, such as Best Buy, TOMS and Saks Fifth Avenue are rolling out campaigns that appeal to Millennial shoppers, by leveraging mobile and social marketing, brand advocacy, and experiential commerce.

So What Really Differentiates Millennials From Other Generations?

Millennial shoppers — consumers born between 1980 and the early 2000s — are the first generation of people that have grown up with digital media permeating their everyday existence. Personal computing, mobile communication and social media all have originated and flourished within this time frame, influencing the lives and daily habits of a generation that does not know how to live without these technologies.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Millennials are consumed by these technologies and their personal gadgets. In fact, reports from Pew Research Center and The Media Insight Project indicated that:

consider technology usage to be their generation’s most unique trait;

sleep with their cell phone right next to them; and

use Facebook and 37% use Twitter.

With these rapid technological advances in mind, one aspect is clear: Millennials expect quicker, more personalized service and communication than prior generations.

Not only are these consumers expecting retailers to meet them at every point of the shopping journey, but their coming-of-age is finally hitting stride when it comes to heavy spending habits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported that in 2012 there were are 80 million Millennials in the U.S., accounting for approximately $200 billion in annual purchasing power and $500 billion in indirect spending, influenced largely by baby boomer parents.

As Millennials continue to age and gain full-time employment (and in turn, spend less conservatively), retailers in all categories must take the steps necessary to evolve to these consumers’ growing presence and buying power.

Millennials aged 18-24 view these items as the most important part of their daily lives.

mobile phones
social network sites

It’s Time To Accept It: Millennials Are Spurring The Mobile Revolution

Millennials are certainly not shy about their use of mobile phones, whether for shopping or anything else in their daily lives. Bank of America has gone so far as to report that 96% of Millennials aged 18-24 consider their mobile phones to be the most important product of their daily lives. If the 2015 holiday season is any indicator, these trends appear to be reinforced by the performance of mobile commerce, which generated $800 million in sales for Cyber Monday alone.

“A gigantic trend that happened on Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the following (Green) Monday was that mobile become a primary method people used to shop online on those specific days,” said Rodney Mason, General VP of Marketing at Blackhawk Engagement Solutions. “Millennials started that, and other people are following them. [As many as] 89% of Millennials have a smartphone that they use every day, and most of them engage with it every 15 minutes.”

Such a proliferation shows that going forward, retailers must take the entire mobile presence into account when crafting campaigns. This includes the mobile site, the mobile app and the appropriate deployment of both in the store.

“Consider your web site design,” said Link Walls, VP of Product Management at ChannelAdvisor. “Is your text readable on mobile devices without tapping or zooming? Does the site’s layout on a mobile device take away from essential product information? It’s easy for users to immediately close out of a mobile web site that doesn’t function well — because they can easily find another one that does.”


of Millennials planned to use mobile shopping apps or were considering using them during the holilday season.

— Wanderful Media Survey

Millennials Don’t Just Browse Social Sites, They Share

Like mobile, social media represents an enormous opportunity for retailers targeting Millennials: 55% of Millennials say they learn about products, special promotions and shopping news from social media, according to data from Blackhawk Engagement Solutions. This total beats out the 45% that learn most of this information from Google and the 39% that learn from Amazon.

“It’s all about creating good content that will get shared,” Mason said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Retailers shouldn’t be afraid to talk about price, or reward or gamify sharing a bit. If a consumer and their five friends share this content and click and buy in the next two hours, give them a code where they can save extra. They should become more engrained in the media versus talking about themselves and simply listing their seasonal collection.”

Sharing is a large aspect of the social media experience, with 60% of Millennials posting, tweeting or sharing an event or experience. For example, consumers use Facebook, Amazon’s review section and Yelp, for example, to inform others of the positives and negatives of a brand experience.

Case In Point

TOMS leveraged the social sharing concept effectively through Instagram in May 2015 for its One Day Without Shoes campaign, donating 296,243 pairs of shoes to children in need. TOMS pledged to donate a new pair of shoes to a person in need for each person who posted a photo tagged with #withoutshoes.

The campaign worked effectively in that it tied the brand directly to a simple objective for its followers to help a charitable cause. Without having to put in much effort, social media-savvy consumers could create their own user-generated content (UGC) that stands out to a crowd.

social sharing

Of Millennials used smartphones to compare prices, look for deals, research products, make lists, find store locations and post on social networks during Black Friday 2015

— Retale Holiday Shopping Survey

Entering The Era Of Brand Advocacy

Millennials listen to their peers. Retailers can take advantage of this opportunity by using brand advocates to promote the company in a way traditional advertisements cannot.

While 85% of Millennials trust recommendations from people they know, and 70% trust consumer opinions posted online, online ads don’t fare as well, according to Nielsen. The weak performance of online video ads (53%), search engine ads (52%), social media ads (51%) and mobile ads (48%) all reveal the importance of bringing a sense of authenticity to the social media experience.

“Millennials consume media differently than their older counterparts, exercising greater control over when and where they watch, listen and read content — and on which device,” said Randall Beard, President of Nielsen Expanded Verticals. “But even if they rely less heavily on traditional channels, their trust and willingness to act on these formats remains high. While an integrated, multi-channel approach is best across all generations, it carries even more importance when reaching Millennials.”

Case In Point

Best Buy sought to relate further to Millennials in partnering with YouTube stars that could serve as social media ambassadors for the brand. As part of this #BestCollege challenge campaign held in summer 2015, the ambassadors filmed videos sharing tips on enjoying the college experience, and posted them across social media channels.

The ambassadors encouraged viewers to upload a video showcasing their own tips regarding best technology for college, with the winner for best video receiving a dorm room makeover from Best Buy.


67% of females appreciate brands that make them the hero of the campaign.

— Harmelin Media and Womankind Study


Men connect more with ads that feature "normal" men in extreme situations.

— Nielsen

Learn To Build An Experiential Retail Strategy

Although the Millennial generation often is associated with the newer technologies that drive retail sales, these shoppers remain very interested in the in-store experience. As many as 82% of Millennial consumers still prefer to shop in a brick-and-mortar store, according to research from Accenture. More than two-thirds (68%) of these shoppers desire a mixed, seamless channel that integrates the in-store experience with their favorite technologies.

Case In Point

Retailers such as Tommy Hilfiger, lululemon and Saks Fifth Avenue are taking the “experiential” concept to the next level in their Fifth Avenue store locations, providing added-value propositions that can’t be replicated on an e-Commerce site.

In October, Tommy Hilfiger launched a virtual reality experience in its Fifth Avenue store which gave shoppers a three-dimensional view of its Fall 2015 Hilfiger Collection runway show, held earlier in the year. This virtual experience can be a big deal to shoppers who otherwise might never attend a fashion show to view and shop the season’s runway styles.

When opening a flagship store in New York in November, lululemon expanded its experience to include a Concierge floor space designed to help shoppers beyond the sales floor. The Concierge recommends nearby yoga and exercise classes, and can even book them for consumers while they’re shopping.

Crafting a modern experience can even come in the form of the clever merging of retailing and restaurant and beauty services. Saks Fifth Avenue is embracing this strategy during the renovation of its flagship store. The retailer is opening several dining spots in 2018. Saks also is set to offer alternative dining experiences such as juice bars or champagne bars, and will offer massages, makeovers and haircuts to in-store consumers.

“We are designing the store with a decision filter geared towards driving customer experience, not just shopping,” said Marc Metrick, President of Saks Fifth Avenue, in an interview with Fortune. “Our beauty offering is being expanded to include services like nail bars, brow bars and other spa treatments. It’s no longer about the ‘act of shopping,’ it’s about the ‘experience of shopping.’”


Women prefer fashionable, knowledgable sales associates that wear the store's merchandise.

— Boston Consulting Group


Men make 5 trips on average for electronics per year and spend $77 per trip.

— Nielsen

Lessons Learned: How To Capture Millennial Loyalty

Millennials have every method of accessing, browsing and purchasing from a retailer at their fingertips, and as such have more buying power than any previous generation. To keep up with the evolution of the modern consumer, retailers must be proactive and provide the type of environment that will capture the hearts and minds of today's Millennial shoppers.

While Millennials may have a reputation for being fickle buyers, and even being disloyal to brands in favor of price consciousness, as many as 63% joined a loyalty program from October 2014 to October 2015, according to COLLOQUY. This indicates that many young consumers do want relationships with their favorite brands; they just want the brands to work for their loyalty a little bit harder. With this in mind, merchants must continue to be creative and innovative when it comes to content and promotions.

Whether through developing a consistent mobile presence, a scalable social presence or a seamless overall omnichannel experience, today's retailers must ensure that each touch point is an experience the Millennial consumer won’t forget.

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