Gen Z has a spending power of over $140 billion and accounts for about 40% of global consumers. What’s so staggering about these numbers is that the majority of this generation -- currently between the ages of 9 and 24 -- are too young to work full time.
You probably already know a lot about Gen Z, like that they love the environment, they live and breathe TikTok, and they never, ever use the smiley face emoji. And while all of that is accurate, perhaps the most interesting thing about this generation is that they evade generalizations.
Sure, they’d like to save the world. Yes, they care about sustainability. True, they’re bullish on circular fashion and they value secondhand shopping — and yet, millions of them are shopping on Shein, Gen Z’s go-to fast-fashion retailer that has recently ousted Amazon as the most downloaded app in the United States and worldwide with 17.5 million downloads. How could this be? Let’s dig into Gen Z, in all of their shiny contradictions, and what you should consider about young consumers as you’re thinking about next year (and beyond).
1. BRANDS OR FRIENDS
When logomania took hold in the early aughts, brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren became more than just clothing labels; they were a signal to others that you got it — whatever it was. It was a cool kids club, and anyone could be a member (or anyone who could afford to buy the brands, at least). While flashy logos no longer have the same appeal, many new DTC consumer upstarts have managed to similarly transcend being mere brands and are building movements much in the same way that logo-heavy labels of yore. A pair of panties from Parade, or running tights from Outdoor Voices, or lipgloss from Glossier isn’t simply another possession. It’s a membership to a club — a club of people just like you.
Gen Z needs to wholeheartedly buy into a brand. Consumers of all ages these days expect the same things from brands as their friends — not only authenticity and reliability but also the feeling like the brands understand them. But this sentiment is particularly true among Gen Z, who values these values above anything.
2. IRL > ONLINE
Though Gen Z is inherently omnichannel, they value in-person experiential more than other generations — and coming out of the pandemic, we’re going to see physical experiences become even more important to this consumer. According to a study just published last month, 70 percent of Gen Z shoppers are planning to do most of their holiday shopping in-store this year. Despite being digital natives who have grown up in front of screens and 10 hours a day online, Gen Z overwhelmingly prefers shopping in person. And lest you think this is because of screen fatigue caused by Covid-19, this has been the case since before the pandemic.
At the same time, Gen Z expects an interactive, entertaining experience, whether in person or on a device. The stakes are higher for this generation, as they’re far more likely to exit out of an e-commerce tab or walk out of a store that doesn’t have a vibe to their liking. Tech startups, particularly those in the livestream shopping space, are hoping to bring the offline online, and as innovations evolve around, we’ll see these previously distinct experiences become increasingly connected.
3. CIRCULAR MATTERS
Despite fast fashion’s undeniable hold on Gen Z, the generation is acutely aware that they are inheriting a very broken world, and, as such, care deeply about sustainability. 70 percent of U.S. Gen Z consumers said they shop more sustainably now compared to pre-pandemic, and 90 percent say they have made changes to be more sustainable in their daily lives. It doesn’t hurt that many young people, by means of circumstances, are on limited budgets, making thrift shopping a win-win. (Unfortunately, those same financial constraints are what drive young people towards fast fashion.)
Right now, the secondhand clothing market is worth 30 billion and it’s expected to triple in value in the next 10 years. Encouragingly, secondhand is expected to be twice the size of fast fashion by 2030. Young consumers are driving much of circular economy growth, and their enthusiasm for resale has helped shift the collective mindset around “used” goods. Boomers, for example, are far less likely to embrace secondhand, with only 20 percent having purchased something secondhand in the last year, compared to 40 percent of millennials and Gen Z shoppers. Many future-thinking brands have introduced circular fashion efforts in the last year. In the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Madewell partnered with Thredup to open a secondhand brick and mortar, powered by Thredup’s Raas Resale-as-a-Service software; mall staple PacSun launched PS Reserve, a resale initiative focusing on sneakers; and Urban Outfitter’s developed their own Depop-like resale app called Nuuly.
4. GAMIFICATION OF EVERYTHING
Shein’s astoundingly low prices — $7 for a dress; $10 for five tops — mean that young people can buy an entire week’s worth of outfits on an after-school babysitter’s wages. But cost isn’t the only reason young consumers can’t stop buying Shein.
The app rewards every second and cent spent on the app. It turns the shopping experience into a game by giving the shopper points for everything from writing reviews to watching video livestreams to opening brand emails. Consumers can earn up to 2,000 points a day, with every 100 points amounting to $1. It’s like gambling, except everyone wins -- especially Shein. The Chinese fast-fashion retailer, of course, didn’t introduce gamification in the consumer space.
We’ve seen the gamification of trading with Robinhood, the gamification of health with Oura rings and Peloton bikes, the gamification of fashion with Balenciaga X Fortnite, even the gamification of life (AR/VR). And it’s only getting started.
5. MONEY ≠ MONEY
In 2021, PacSun — the mall chain for surfers, skaters, and young people aspiring to be either of the above — became the first major retailer to accept crypto. Gen Z shoppers are not lining up to pay for their boardshorts with Bitcoin (and least not yet), but establishing oneself as the first mainstream store to accept alternative currencies signals to consumers, both existing fans as well as untapped audiences, that they’re future-thinking and tech-savvy.
Beyond being a smart marketing opportunity, though, young people are interested in forms of payment that their parents aren’t using. There’s a general skepticism around credit cards among both Gen Z and millennials. Research indicates that half of Gen Z has a credit card — though 76 percent have reduced their credit card usage through the pandemic — and half use crypto.
Another way in which Gen Z defies generalization: While they’re credit card-shy, they’ve wholeheartedly embraced Buy Now Pay Later services like Klarna, Affirm, and Afterpay. More than 45 million people ages 14 and older in the US will use BNPL services this year, up 81.2% from 2020, and almost 75% of BNPL users are Gen Z or millennials.