Gen Z consumer shopping onlineGen Z consumers are shaping the future of shopping, whether it be in-store or online. A generation of digital natives who rarely remember a world before mobile phones or life without social media. Gen Z is among the most vocal on issues of sustainability and collectively are well educated about brands and how they operate.

Engaging Gen Z consumers is not without its challenges, and in 2020 this is truer than ever before. In the lead up to the 2020 peak shopping period, we spoke with leading student engagement publisher Student Beans, to find out how brands can engage this lucrative group.

For anyone not familiar with Student Beans can you give us a quick breakdown of what you do and how your platform works?

Student Beans provides brands with end-to-end media solutions to better attract, engage and retain student customers. Starting with our secure verification technology and culminating in bespoke media campaigns aimed at our global student user base, we’re the key to securing instant sales and long-term loyalty within this fast-growing demographic.

University/College students have faced some unique challenges this year, how has the pandemic shifted the way they purchase?

It has been a challenging year for all of us, and not least Gen Z: many of them have started their degrees in remote settings or have moved to a completely new town only to be placed in lockdown. But in general, the 16-24-year-old demographic is very adaptable. We’ve seen some shifts in spending in key areas – within fitness, at-home exercise programs and apps have been popular, and a lot of the fashion brands we work with saw huge uplifts when lockdown hit because they pivoted their messaging and imagery to place a strong emphasis on loungewear. Across the board, Gen Z actually bucked global trends by spending more during lockdown; 36% maintained their online shopping in the height of lockdown, with 45% actually buying more.

Through your platform, have you seen purchase priorities change during the pandemic?

One general observation would be that while Gen Zs are spending in the same categories, their reasons for doing so have definitely changed. A laptop, for example, is a big purchase on students’ radar, with 95% of them making this purchase prior to starting their studies. But now that students are attending lectures virtually and meeting their classmates via Zoom calls and social media, the need for a high-performing device has only increased. So students are still buying the laptop – but it’s likely to be a much more sophisticated device, and they’re more likely to buy hardware and software to enhance their at-home digital experience.

As digital natives, tech purchases have always been high on Gen Zs agenda so they can stay in tune with social media – but during lockdown, they were using laptops and smartphones for escapism as much as they were for connectivity. 55% of US students were playing more games on their smartphones, with half increasing their time playing desktop or console games. While we know that Gen Z uses tech, it’s worth looking beyond that, to see how their usage has changed during the pandemic – as it will affect what purchases they make, too.

As a global publisher with insights into Gen Z spending throughout the UK, Australia and the US, are you seeing any regional differences in consumer purchases? 

Each year, there are subtle and dramatic differences in how the different territories spend, and COVID-19 has only highlighted this. Looking back to the start of university & college, US students were a lot more confident than UK students: 95% of US students were undeterred from taking up their college place even in spite of COVID-19, compared to 86% of UK students. While it remains to be seen exactly how many Australian students will take up their offers, the forecasts among international students (who have to start planning earlier) looks good: 72% of international students intend to take up their offer as planned. Our research also suggests that US students are far more likely to research what they need to buy for college ahead of time: 75% of them do this compared to 66% of UK students.

When it comes to Black Friday, it’s perhaps unsurprising that US Gen Zs start looking for deals the earliest. US Gen Zs are more likely to start research 2-3 weeks before Black Friday, with UK Gen Zs waiting until the week before, the day before, and indeed on Black Friday itself. In Australia, where Black Friday has risen in prominence in recent years, Gen Zs are much more likely to do all of their shopping online. This is something that UK and US shoppers will no doubt have to adapt to as COVID-19 restrictions continue to disrupt the in-person shopping experience.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Gen Z consumers since the start of COVID-19 and do you anticipate these changes to stick around?

One of the most noticeable changes is the shift to online shopping. The festive period, for example, usually means a lot of in-person shopping experiences, but 90% of US students and 81% of UK students intend to do more online shopping this year. But despite being digital natives, Gen Zs are huge fans of the in-store retail experience and are unlikely to switch to solely online shopping anytime soon. The challenge that many retailers will face in keeping this demographic engaged will be to recreate that instore experience – including all of the entertainment and experiential elements that Gen Z loves – via digital platforms.

How do you anticipate these changes will affect peak shopping for Gen Z?

In most territories, retailers and Gen Z have no choice but to adapt to the online shopping model. But that’s not to say that retailers can’t create an online buzz around peak shopping season; it’s been done before in China around Singles Day, for example, with live-stream fashion show events backed by huge celebrities. We anticipate that Gen Z will adapt to the short-term need for online shopping during the festive season this year – but to maintain their long-term loyalty, brands should think proactively about how they can create entertaining virtual shopping experiences during 2021.

What strategies do you recommend for engaging Gen Z consumers this peak season?

Don’t pretend like it’s business as usual – this has been a particularly hard year for a lot of Gen Z consumers, who have had their college and university experiences severely disrupted. Think about how you, as a brand, can factor into positive, at-home experiences, and focus your messaging around that. This is also a great time to get creative – start to think about how you can merge online shopping with entertainment and interactivity.

For more strategies on reaching consumers during the 2020 peak shopping period, download our Shopper-Led Strategies report.