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In 2020, the Generation Z (15-25 year olds) consumer segment will outnumber millennials, totaling 32% of the world’s population. So we can no longer call them future consumers or the next generation, because they’re already here and are definitely making their presence felt.

This generation has come of age in a technologically-fluent world, but despite often being perceived as digitally focused, self-absorbed screen addicts, they actually have a very strong human-centric view.

Yes, they strive for individualism and are keen to celebrate their uniqueness, but they are also looking beyond self-interest and seeking to actively tackle societal ills, from environmental crises, to social and political causes; with a desire to leave a legacy of a better and more positive future for all. And the extent of their collective determination and influence is perhaps underestimated.

So, how can brands seek to understand Gen Z’s motivators and harness their growing activism to engage them in an authentic way?

To truly understand this audience, we wanted to get to know them on a deeper level, as members of a generation whose opinions will change the course of the retail landscape. So, we created the Seen Displays’ Gen Z Collective, enabling us to regularly engage with a group of people who could give us authentically rich insights to inform our strategic and creative approach.

What did they tell us?

Firstly, they’re a lot more positive than they may be portrayed; 16-year-old Jada told us: “I think [we’re] quite optimistic and if not optimistic, then hopeful. I feel like we’re the sort of generation that may see all the bad stuff happening, but actually go out and try to stop it.”

Action versus passive complaint is definitely a characteristic of this group. They don’t just talk about a desire for change, they’re translating their words into deeds; evidenced by the evolving trend of “buycotting” where they are casting a vote with every penny they spend in an effort to influence a more responsible future.

This is particularly evident when it comes to fashion. Although there’s definitely a segment of this audience for whom the lure of fast fashion is still prevalent, we are also experiencing the effects of Gen Z’s slower-not-faster attitude, with a collective questioning of where and how our garments are being made coming more to the fore in consumer decision making. They’re very aware of the detrimental environmental effects of overconsumption and want to leave a more positive legacy than their predecessors.

It’s not just the environmental impact caused by brands that this generation cares about though. Dom, a 21-year-old law student, represents many of his peers with his views when he tells us that he believes brands have a responsibility to behave well morally and ethically. “If a brand is doing something deliberately to be provocative, if they have a history with doing something like cultural appropriation and they’ve been called out for it before and they don’t change their behaviour time and time again, that’s when I personally don’t want anything more to do with [them]”.

He adds: “They’re selling a product; they’re selling themselves - that’s why they exist. So I think if they’re not being responsible with that kind of goal, that can be really dangerous”.

Critics and collaboration

Gen Z’ers aren’t just harsh critics. They’re willing to work collaboratively with brands; using their voices and perspectives to educate and help raise standards collectively.

This entrepreneur-minded generation is also willing to take matters into their own hands; creating brands to provide responsible alternatives that are lacking in the current marketplace.

Last year, at just 25-years-old, Becky Okell co-founded Paynter, an ethically-sourced and durable fashion label. Of this initiative, she says: “We physically couldn't be closer to our clothes. But right now we're so disconnected with our wardrobe. We have no idea where the majority of our clothes come from, where they were made, by whom, with what materials, in what conditions, how they were designed, how to look after them and even what to do with them once their time is up."

Batch producing only three times a year and sharing your production journey with your followers can lead to jackets selling out in minutes - demonstrating the value customers place in a brand’s transparency and the more meaningful relationships they’re seeking with their purchases.

So what does all of this mean for brands and what should they be doing to future proof their retail presence?

  1. Unsurprisingly, sustainability must be at the forefront – in a constantly developing and evolving way. Younger audiences require both genuinely-held intent and action, so brands need to question and challenge materiality in every detail and that must include their physical spaces.
  2. Values and purpose can’t just be at surface level, so don’t claim to be something you can’t live at every level of your business. Understand that inauthentic campaigns can be painfully transparent to the Gen Z audience, so boardrooms that are out of touch with younger consumers need to empower their agencies and supply chains to align them with the purpose and intent that resonates with their audience.
  3. Approach digital and physical experiences in a totally seamless way. The impending roll-out of 5G should enable us to integrate digital experiences in-store with a human-centric customer journey that provides your audience with convenience and a truly personalised experience that will provide a return on investment and emotion.

By listening to and learning from this future facing, innovative and positive generation we can create and design better retail experiences that withstand the test of time.

To explore this further, our insights focus for 2020 is on emerging attitudes in retail which will centre on the issues and themes mentioned. Our first chapter looks at circular design and will workshop how we can be more responsible when it comes to retail design through exciting new materiality, clever re-use hacks and design solutions. To attend this unique and bespoke workshop on April 2nd (Corona-dependant), register your interest with Angharad Rafferty.

Moe Krimat, strategic creative director at Seen Displays.