Gen Y: Influenced by Parents and Materialism

20-somethings play a role in their parents' shopping habits, too.

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Today's post contains part two of my interview with Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and co-author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings are Revolutionizing Retail. In yesterday's post, she explained what makes Gen Y different from previous generations, and how they are being affected by the recession. Today, she defends young shoppers against charges of materialism and tells brands how they can make themselves popular with Gen Y. Excerpts from our conversation:

You write a lot about the impact of Gen Y's close relationships with their parents. How does that affect their shopping habits?

It’s probably had more impact on their parents' shopping behavior than their own. We saw Gen Y influencing family vacations, car purchases, what their parents wear, and of course technology in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined.

You write about how essential it is for retailers to have easy-to-use websites with fast (and free) shipping. Has that level of service become standard, or can retailers still distinguish themselves in the online world? 

Fast and often free shipping has become the standard, partly because of the economy, partly because of Gen Y’s demands and partly because fulfillment systems have improved.

Retailers can certainly distinguish themselves online, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. The key is in using the entire online world (not just your website) to facilitate a connection with your brand in a holistic way.

Many of the Gen Yers I interviewed want to do things like showcase retail products on their Facebook page, get insider information about brands from tweets, connect and dialog with like-minded shoppers on Facebook Fan pages, customize what they’re buying, influence retailers by serving on advisory committees, and compare prices on their mobile phones while they’re in malls. These and loads of other technology-related advancements are the real company and product differentiators to Gen Yers.

Some of the Gen Yers you profile in the book seem really materialistic, almost like they define themselves by their purchases. Did you find that to be the case?

I really didn’t find Gen Y to be shallow or superficial. I think it’s more that the very visual world that Gen Y lives in has convinced them that props and costumes matter.

Young people for all time have used “stuff” to try out roles and get feedback from others in order to figure out who they are. Today’s youth are exposed to so many options, plus they’ve been given more money and influence than previous generations. So it may look as if they’re more materialistic, but in effect they’re doing the same thing that other generations have done.

That said, I did find Gen Yers under 20 years old to be more materialistic than those over 20 were at that age. If it were up to me I’d split the generation into two. Gen Y is defined as the first generation to grow up with the Internet. But those over 20 had a very different experience when they were teenagers—they didn’t have cell phones, texting, high-speed Internet connections, YouTube, Facebook and thousands of other more recent advances.

For more, see: "Gen Y: Empowered, Engaged, Demanding."