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While being armed with data about preferred product types, styles and price points is a necessity in today’s retail environment, companies also need to have insights into behavior. But trends in consumer behavior vary between generations. Baby Boomers have certain traits that are not shared by Millennials or Generation Z, and vice versa.

Here, Marcie Merriman, executive director of business strategy and retail innovation at EY Advisory, shares her perspective on Generation Z and what makes the demographic cohort tick.

WWD: Why is it important for retailers and brands to regularly “refresh” their generational marketing strategies?

Marcie Merriman: Contrary to popular belief, generations are born from cultural shifts, rather than a certain number of years or a cycle that automatically changes every decade. A generation is a group of people that forms a kinship based on events that change the society in which they come of age. Each generation brings its own set of opportunities.

What sets today’s tweens and teens apart is the sheer amount of change they have experienced in their few years — more than most generations see in a lifetime. Due to these dramatic shifts between generations, understanding what is driving Gen Z’s beliefs, values and behaviors — and how they differ from past cohorts — is critical to successful evolution and adaptation of brands. Gen Z may not have a large market right now, but they’re influencing their parents’ spending decisions and will certainly have their own spending power in the future.

WWD: How does the Generation Z cohort influence spending on fashion apparel? How are companies meeting their demands?

M.M.: The young, in this case Gen Z, influences the success of every brand and retailer, even if they are not yet the customer. Within societies, youth have always been the drivers of change — whether in fashion, social, music or use of technology. Where today’s tweens and teens, who fall into the Gen Z bracket, are different is in their ability to connect instantly and disseminate information globally. They were born into a mobile-first, omni-connected universe. Intuitive shopping experiences that put them in control — and give them the ability to make a purchase at the moment of inspiration, which is far from static — will be the winners.

Winning fashion brands are the ones most closely tapped into this youth market, creating solutions and adapting their businesses against Gen Z’s high and consistently evolving expectations to gain the potential interest of this generation and others for years to come.

Gen Z has ushered in massive cultural shifts. Youth-focused fashion brands who missed or underestimated the significance of this change were the first to be hit. Fashion retailers who hold “traditional” views toward gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc. are viewed as dated — and even offensive. Brands who caught onto this shift early — and ones who took a (sometimes risky) stand — are winning. In addition, Gen Z holds a distinct appreciation for the unique and flawed, which they equate with authenticity. Past generations, including Millennials, used the stamp of a brand logo to validate and demonstrate the tribe they belonged to (or strived to belong to).

We can see this in the difference in their choice of social apps, as Gen Z flocks to those which let them post goofy, ephemeral posts — rather than ones that portray unrealistic perfection. Gen Z’s desire for the “authentic” is at odds with what fashion brands have traditionally represented.

WWD: What industries are doing particularly well in tapping into the mind-set of Gen Z? Electronics? Sporting goods?

M.M.: The food industry is the leader in tapping into Gen Z’s desire for uniqueness, intuitiveness and inclusivity, followed by the beauty industry. The food industry’s increasing transparency about topics like sustainability, paired with its open-mindedness and the rise in cuisines from around the world, cater toward Gen Z cultural shifts. Meanwhile, the beauty industry has made a concerted effort to include more diverse spokespeople and models in their campaigns. Both industries have also benefited by tapping into Gen Z’s desires to be part of solutions, providing platforms for experimentation and sharing.

WWD: How important is physical retail for this demographic?

M.M.: In its current form, physical retail is an afterthought, not a necessity, for Gen Z. As a mobile-first generation, Gen Z is used to having access to information, entertainment, services and products when and how they want it. For past generations, shopping was a form of entertainment — a way of connecting with others and escaping parents. Gen Z has never been bored, with all the entertainment they need in the palm of their hands. They can gain much of their human connection online. When they do get together in person, a coffee shop, local restaurant, sports venue or each other’s houses are going to come before a trip to the mall.

However, there is hope for physical stores to tap into missing needs of this generation, as a few beauty retailers and food establishments have demonstrated. Sure, customization, high-touch service and other experiential elements are valuable, but to really win in-store, brands need to treat Gen Z as equals and with true respect. Gen Z is a generation that came of age with a desire to learn, fend for themselves and question the world around them. Unlike Millennials, who have made “adulting” a catchphrase, Gen Z has never considered themselves kids.

Those who are struggling with this cohort have policies and procedures Gen Z finds demeaning, such as kids menus, chaperone requirements or fitting rooms designed to maximize security instead of inspiration. Fashion brands that catch onto this nuance and do not treat Gen Z like kids will be the ones to pull ahead in the market.

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