Not so long ago, when a teen decided he needed a new pair of sneakers, the first step in his process would be to plan a trip to the mall. Today, teens’ path to purchase for nearly any product, from buying shoes to picking a restaurant, is increasingly diverging from traditional retail processes. Technology has had an obvious impact on young people’s shopping habits, but so have key shifts in consumer mindset.
While Instagram has become the dominant social platform among teens, few could have predicted the role that it now plays in young people’s shopping experiences. In a recent focus group discussing teens’ purchasing journeys, one 14-year-old boy explained that if he were looking to buy new sneakers, he would go to Instagram. He’d start by seeing what the “experts” say about the shoes he’s interested in, and, having confirmed their approval, he’d explore further to see what store has the best price or if anyone that he’s following is selling a pair in his size—all without ever having to leave the app. Instagram serves not only as his inspiration for what to buy but also as the means to carry out the actual transaction. Young consumers can organize a trade with another Instagrammer who has what they want or negotiate with a boutique to pay using Square Cash or PayPal. The traditional retail process—in which stores lure customers in, online or in person, to buy products—never enters the equation. Instead, the focus is on getting feedback that their choice is the right one, confirmed by both their friends and the experts whose opinions they care about rather than an incentivized salesperson.
One of the most significant effects of social media is that it has given rise to the “social star,” a relatable personality who is replacing manufactured celebrities. Teens prefer these self-made stars because they are real people, and they feel they know them just as they know their friends. This attitude is carrying over into consumer expectations of marketing and retail. Rather than seem unattainable and exclusive, brands and products must strive to be genuine, forthcoming, and inclusive. This is particularly critical in customer service. Stores like Abercrombie & Fitch that presented a crafted image of perfection no longer resonate with teens; instead, these consumers are seeking stores (and alternative retail systems) that employ regular kids, just like them. They are more likely to seek out and trust customer service and shopping advice from someone they can relate to on a personal level. This way of interacting with companies and making purchases feels more natural, particularly given the more intimate relationships they’ve been able to form with their favorite brands on social media.
The general retail environment is another element that’s driving teens away. While many youth-oriented companies cultivate a party atmosphere in stores, 61% of 14-to-18 year olds say that loud and busy stores are actually a turnoff, our research finds. Being bombarded with music, scents, piles of products, and aggressive sales people is not the way that today’s teens want to shop. They prefer the cool serendipity of discovering a product in their social feed or immersing themselves in an experiential store that lets them explore a curated collection.
With teens now wielding $75 billion in spending power, according to Piper Jaffray, it’s imperative that retailers and marketers understand how to connect with teen shoppers in meaningful ways. They need to look at their various attempts to engage young consumers and question if they are clinging to antiquated models of retail and marketing that are based on assumptions about how teens “should” shop rather than evolving to address how they actually do shop. Today’s teens are only marking the beginning of the retail revolution, and they’re paving the way for more innovation as tweens and young kids follow in their footsteps.