Getting to Grips with Gen Z

Gen Z consumers are neither easy to define nor predictable in their shopping habits. The consumer cohort born between 1996 or 1997 and 2010 and 2020 (there is no complete agreement here) is hard to read and reach because they are a product of the world they have been born into, one where change is constant, frequent and often unexpected.

Among the many influences on their behaviors has been technology, because they have grown up with fixed and mobile screens. It is assumed that they are more adept at using the technology in their hands and that this facility will inform their consuming behaviors, which McKinsey refers to as “seamless and intuitive adoption of online shopping and transactions.”

This much is known; however, this single insight may already have led to simplified assumptions about how to sell to Gen Z or Zoomers.

Bear in mind that some are already valuable consumers while some are still at school, so putting them all in the same bucket is difficult, particularly as those still at school are sure to alter the assumptions already made about their elders. Many still live at home, unable to afford to buy property, so are dependent on the bank of Mom and Pop. And yet, at the same time, world events have made them question what their parents told them even more deeply. The effect of living, working or studying at home has caused them to question careers, workplaces, work habits and community interactions.

They are also less certain than their elders about the future of work and the planet — and this affects their values. GenZers buy more as an expression of individuality; they think the world revolves entirely around them and they are more vociferous as to their likes and dislikes than any previous generation.

In the case of GenZs, these insights are purely for guidance and should be acted on with caution. It is easy to see that the picture is unclear; it keeps changing, and everyone has different views that can conflict. The challenge for brands in reaching this consumer, whose trust is not easily won — and maybe even harder to retain — involves which views they will act on.

First, for Gen Z, location is no longer immutable but fluid; it is wherever the brand is, so it is less about brick-and-mortar and more about cyberspace. However, this is contradicted by the fact that Gen Z use stores for clothes more than millennials, although those physical locations may be more about a 24-hour pop-up than a four-story, stone-clad traditional department store. McKinsey estimates around one-third (35%) of Gen Zs shop alternatively, opting to shop somewhere that is not a modern or traditional grocery store, a mass merchandise store or a club member store.

What we can generalize about is brands have to win every purchase, particularly as Gen Z are not typically repeat or subscription buyers; they want to be wowed every time in order to convert.

The keys to success are data and unified commerce, enabling brands to be omnipresent and deliver content and communications sensitive to each scenario and customer type. These interactions need to give the customer more control, placing them at the center of the experience and making each step frictionless.

The good news is that the capabilities are mostly already in place. This is not about abandoning the tactics brands currently use for all other cohorts. For instance, Gen Z shoppers still divide into price-, quality-, and value-conscious, and should be marketed to accordingly. However, it is essential to monitor how each tactic performs in each sub-category so that, over time, building deeper knowledge will enable brands to move to personalized communications and marketing and respond better based on cumulative feedback.

This does not depend on building new systems but making better use of what technology infrastructure is already in place, using APIs to embrace composable commerce that will have the agility to take advantage of what is happening in the market right now, and to act more quickly on new and unexpected trends as they emerge.

Ultimately, this approach also enables brands to be brave enough to challenge what they are doing currently and try new ideas. Informed by data and armed with intelligent processes, brands can keep pace with the enigmatic Gen Z consumer as they move further into the commercial mainstream.


Dave Howard is a Senior B2B Growth Marketing Strategist for Intellias. He has 15 years in senior roles defining new growth opportunities, orchestrating complex collaborative marketing initiatives and focusing on and building high-performance marketing teams closely aligned with sales departments. Before joining Intellias, he held leadership and senior marketing roles at Retail Insight, DWGH, Austin Fraser, Brand View (now Acuity), International Food Information Service (IFIS), The National Strategies (Capita) and World Advertising Research Center (WARC). He is a keen advocate for using emotion and logic to communicate a persuasive vision and connect with people.