College students are strongly influenced by YouTube beauty tutorials for cosmetic advice.

As retailers and brands chase after and woo Generation Z, it’s becoming clear that this cohort does not look to traditional advertising for beauty advice or purchase decisions, which raises many questions on how to reach them as consumers.

To better understand college-age female cosmetic and shopping preferences, WWD collaborated with Chegg, an online textbook rental company, that runs a panel of 15,000 high school and college students located throughout the U.S. The partnership resulted in the survey, “#College Matters: 2016-17 Apparel & Beauty Trends,” which Chegg distributed online in March 2017 to 619 female college students among its “Cheggheads” panel.

One emerging theme is that beauty is big on campus. Forty-nine percent of students surveyed said they wear some cosmetics every day, and 44 percent will make “a real effort” with makeup or cosmetics on weekends and special occasions. Freshman students are less likely to wear makeup, as 48 percent of first-year students said they rarely wear any makeup at all.

Seniors in college prefer high-end beauty brands. Thirty-two percent said they mainly shop at drugstores for cosmetics, a percentage that was higher among first-year students compared to fourth-year students, at 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Fourth-year students care about product quality, are almost twice as likely to shop at specialty stores and more likely to wear makeup than first-year students, illustrating how purchase behavior evolves throughout college.

Inside Sephora on 34th street.

Generation Z prefers to shop for cosmetics at mass and specialty stores.  Joshua Scott/WWD

Of all the social media platforms tapped for cosmetic inspiration, YouTube reigned supreme: 49 percent of students surveyed said that YouTube videos “totally influence [their] purchase decisions.” How-to videos are wildly popular among this generation, as 38 percent enjoy watching beauty tutorials online. Forty-two percent said that their friends strongly impact purchase decisions, followed by cosmetics, specialty stores, web sites or apps and bloggers or social influencers. Many glean insights from Instagram at 27 percent, and Pinterest, at 23 percent.

Blogs are another popular platform, with 27 percent stating that they follow beauty bloggers for advice. Additional insights include 29 percent of students practicing a “high/low” strategy to purchasing cosmetics, and that four in 10 are more likely to buy a product if they receive a sample first. One student stated, “I bought a foundation from Sephora that was very popularly talked about on Pinterest. I tried a sample in store and then I bought it a few weeks later.”

Most students purchase cosmetics at mass and specialty stores, with Target attracting 48 percent of students, followed by Ulta at 40 percent, Wal-Mart at 39 percent and Sephora at 37 percent. Department stores and pharmacies such as CVS or Rite Aid drew in lower numbers, but remained relevant for “high/low” strategy shoppers. Favored brands included Kat Von D, E.l.f. cosmetics and Too Faced’s “Better Than Sex” mascara.

Consumer journeys are Generation Z-specific, as they expand product horizons and remain brand-loyal based on advice from social media influencers. A student explained, “I purchased Urban Decay lipstick in the shade ‘1993’ after seeing YouTuber Tati Westbrook rave about Urban Decay lipsticks. Before, I’d only purchased their eye shadows and eyeliner.” Though Generation Z finds inspiration online and offline, YouTube tutorials appear to be the social media muse of the moment.

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