What Gen Z Really Wants from Retailers

By Nicole Leinbach

With 68.6 million Generation Z individuals in the United States, their importance is an understatement when it comes to making them a priority and marketing to Gen Z.

Brands and retailers alike need to consider what motivates Gen Z consumers to shop with one merchant versus another, how they prefer to make transactions, and what persuades them to stay loyal — or not — regarding where they shop.

Representing those born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is unlike any generation seen before. Exploding Topics shares some of this generation’s top concerns, interests, and priorities. They include:

  • Climate change is Gen Zers’ greatest fear.
  • More than a third of social media influencers are from Gen Z.
  • 64% of Gen Zers use Instagram at least once per day.
  • 40% of Gen Zers want to leave their current job within the next two years.

The Z Suite is an exclusive network of diverse Gen Zers who serve as some of the most powerful voices in the consumer space. Conversations with them show their insight is revealing, honest, and the reality check many retail operators — possibly even you — need to hear to better accommodate this influential group of customers.

More marketing advice 9 tips: Click here

Marketing to Gen Z: The Path to Purchase

All consumers have choices when it comes to navigating where and why they want to shop. Keeping this in mind, Gen Z customers take twists and turns on their paths to purchase that may not be what one would expect.

Clay Lute, a 21-year-old student at LIM College in New York City, is led by the idea of investment. “When I consider making a purchase, I ask myself if I need this item. And can I afford it? Plus, I evaluate if it is something I will benefit from short term or will it spark joy for me multiple times,” he said.

Raanya Siddiqui, a 22-year-old student at Emory University, said her purchases are based on experiences or needs coming up in her life. “I would say that my typical path to purchase is definitely occasion-based. It would likely be a gift for a special occasion, such as birthdays, weddings, graduation, etc.,” she said. “I would start looking for ideas online, most likely. Some sources I frequently rely on are Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, alongside viewing online reviews. If I am preparing to make a purchase ahead of time, I would make an online order, which would drastically increase my choices. However, if this is a last-minute purchase, I would likely go to a physical store.”

Read this story and more in the magazine, January 2023 issue

Lauren Klein, a 21-year-old senior at Stetson University in Florida, calls Colorado home when not in school, and she reinforced this way of thinking.

My path to purchase may seem somewhat unconventional to some; however, in the social media world we live in today, I think my process is similar to many individuals my age. Most of the time while I am swiping through different social media platforms that include Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, I will usually find some type of product or service I like enough to have the desire to purchase,” Klein said. “I will then either specifically search the item on my own, or if there is a page promoting the item, I can search the product through that web or social media page. Sometimes when ‘influencers’ are promoting the product, I will specifically search their ‘LTK,’ otherwise known as ‘Like to Know,’ where I can purchase the product from a link that is specifically through their page. This makes it easy for me to make purchases during my social media experiences, and I trust the platform to confidently use it as well.”

With social media clearly a destination where purchase decisions begin for many Gen Zers, it is important that retail decision-makers prioritize social media as a connectivity point to these customers. Incorporating social commerce platforms, such as Like to Know and CommentSold, can help businesses achieve this, ultimately creating path-to-purchase experiences that do not end in collisions but instead transactions.

More marketing to Gen Z advice: Marketing Made Easy, Click here

Their Payment Preferences

Regarding collisions, there is nothing more deadly than a customer ready to spend but finding out a merchant does not welcome their choice of payment. While credit cards are expected on most online sites and in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, it is important to also incorporate other payment options that many Gen Z consumers prefer to use.

Apple Pay is the payment of choice for Sash Shaban, a 21-year-old Emory University student. “It’s simple, secure, and straight to the point. I’m able to add whatever cards I want beforehand and quickly decide which one to use or if I want to use any e-cash or gift cards with it,” he said.

Siddiqui reinforces this but adds a twist, saying, “My preferred choice of payment is Apple Pay or a credit card. I would say my least preferred choice is cash.”

Meanwhile, LIM College student Elaina Kuhni said she typically uses her debit card when in person but Apply Pay if online. “I typically just use my debit card in person because I find it more foolproof than relying on Apple Pay, but I use Apple Pay for the majority of online purchases because it is simple and easy with just my Face ID,” she said.

James Turco, 22, attends Lafayette College and shares what his payment choice preference is as well. “I prefer to pay with my credit card. Although there are options to use multiple payments, I always just pay the full amount. What I really appreciate, as well, is when I am shopping online and there is a system where it remembers all of my information and allows me to make my purchase very quickly,” he said.

With convenience a clear component of payment preferences, are you offering this for your Gen Z customers? Most payment service providers, point-of-sale companies, e-commerce platforms, and other technology-based services are equipped to integrate Apple Pay. The choice to make this happen, however, relies on each retail operator. Make the choice to have this option for your customers.

Read this story and more in the magazine, January 2023 issue

The Gen Z Wish List

While reflecting on the various preferences and ideals of marketing to Gen Z, there are still wish-list experiences they want retailers to know.

Kuhni said the details really do matter when it comes to websites and affordable inventory options. “I wish retailers understood the importance of good social media and a good website. If a website is difficult to navigate, it is unlikely that I will stick around long enough to make a purchase,” she said. “I also wish they would consider how young we are right now and that some of us currently need to buy frugally. Many of my expensive items are either something I saved for or were purchased by others in my life. So, while there is plenty that I personally would buy that is higher quality or sustainably made, it is sometimes just unrealistic for me to buy them.”

Lute said the Generation Z dollar is a powerful tool. “My generation is doing their homework. We have seen brands be ‘canceled’ by my generation over issues in transparency, ethics, and how they interact with the communities around them. My generation sees the relationship between consumer and retailer as an even transaction; we see our dollar as a powerful tool and intend to use it for good,” he said.

Strong customer care is important, but so are social issues to Gen Zers. “It is important for retailers to know how passionate Gen Zers are about current social issues and more so, how expressive we can be about said issues from brands and retailers,” Florida-based Klein said.

Siddiqui adds an interesting wish to her shopping experiences, which should be refreshing for seasoned merchants to hear. “I wish some retailers had sections that were specifically targeted towards making a purchase for gift-giving,” she said. “One idea for this could be a specialized service in which customers are assisted by a staff member who is proficient in the product line and is able to give informed decisions regarding the best choice for a gift.”

Personalized customer care, transparency in inventory marketing and store communications, making social issues a concern, and easy navigation of shopping experiences should not feel like a chore to achieve but rather a responsibility. With Gen Z only growing in their spending power, it seems like a realistic checklist to add to your retail agenda.   

Nicole Leinbach is the founder of RetailMinded.com, a well-respected retail industry resource that has been recognized worldwide for its leading business insight since 2007. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, the UK’s Telegraph, CNN, the Today show, and countless other industry resources. Additionally, she has supported American Express’s Small Business Saturday as a spokesperson and is the author of the book Retail 101: The Guide to Managing and Marketing Your Retail Business, published by McGraw-Hill. With a core concentration on small businesses and independent retailers, Leinbach welcomes you to connect via Instagram at @RetailMindedWorld and Twitter via @RetailMinded.