Generational Marketing

Knowing the distinctions between the baby boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials who shop your store impacts your bottom line.
by Marcia Layton Turner

Each of us is a product of our upbringing, the influencers in our lives, major cultural and political events of our generation and education, among other factors. What shapes us in our early years ultimately impacts who we are as adults—our preferences, personalities and general attitudes about the world. It also impacts who we are as consumers and how we make purchase decisions.

In fact, shoppers of different generations buy differently. They have different mind-sets, different priorities and different preferences. And retailers who lump all shoppers into one group are less successful than those that recognize the differences and cater to them.

Right now, there are primarily three generations shopping in independent beauty stores: baby boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials, aka Gen Y. Besides having differing beauty product needs, each generation has varying shopping and marketing preferences. Understanding how best to reach each generation and anticipate their interests and shopping needs can yield a significant increase in sales.


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Baby boomers, who are currently between the ages of 48 and 66, do not go out shopping as much as they used to, explains Steven Stovall, Ph.D., professor of management at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. For some, this may be due to physical limitations, while for others, finances are the issue. “The recent recession affected the buying capacities of some baby boomers,” says Stovall.

What is interesting about baby boomers is that “there is a discrepancy between the boomer’s mind and body,” says Phil Goodman, president and CEO of Genergraphics in Carlsbad, California. “They know that growing old—aging—is inevitable, but growing up is optional.” They are trying their best to hold onto their youth, especially with respect to their appearance.

Boomer women, in particular, are focused on looking and staying younger. This generation has been plastic-surgery pioneers, going to great pains to hold onto their youthful appearance. “If you look at the boomer woman, for example, you’ve never seen a 60-year-old woman in better shape, on average. She is more into her looks, her well-being, her health,” says Goodman. This attitude is not expected to change either, even as the boomer woman ages; she will always want to look and feel younger than her numerical age.

What is of greatest importance to boomer shoppers, however, is quality and value. They don’t want to waste their time or money on products that won’t perform, or that won’t perform as well as competing products. They are willing to pay more for performance and are not overly brand loyal.

They also want something different in terms of their shopping experience or the products they buy, says Stovall. They are “cautiously curious,” meaning they are somewhat bored with the same old, same old, but are not adventuresome enough to break out of their habits unless given a reason.

What this means for you, the retailer, is that boomers appreciate being educated about quality and about new products. Take the time to introduce them to new offerings and explain why it is a better choice than what they have been using. Communication is important with this group, but don’t bombard them with emails—online messages rarely hit the mark unless boomers are techno-savvy, and not all are.

Better tools include shelf talkers, as well as personal attention and direct mail at home. Great customer service will help make boomers customers for life.

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GEN X (BORN 1965-1977)

Gen X consumers, who are now between the ages of 35 and 47, had a far different childhood than baby boomers, and their mentality reflects that. While boomers grew up mainly in homes with stay-at-home moms, Gen Xers were the first latchkey kids, with both mom and dad working outside the home, explains Goodman. They were early adopters of computers, and are now the creators of today’s technological marvels. They were also the most impacted by the dot-com bust of the 1990s.

As a result, they are skeptics; they want authenticity, to be certain that you are not trying to pull one over on them. You cannot simply make a claim that a beauty product reduces wrinkles, for example; you have to show them, to prove it to them, says Stovall. They read ingredients and research purchases. “The bottom line is that [the Gen X consumer] will take more time to look at something, to research it,” says Goodman. Gen Xers are savvy shoppers and, because they are typically in two-income households, they have the cash to spend.

And yet, they are the least sure of themselves as a generation, says Carol Phillips, president of BrandAmplitude in Stevensville, Michigan. Gen Xers “are less sure about what’s appropriate for them and are more likely to say their style is in transition,” says Phillips. Consequently, they need more consultation during the sales process—more advice, help and reassurance that a particular product is right for them.

According to a 2011 study for Vogue magazine, says Judy Hopelain, partner in BrandAmplitude, Gen X consumers focus more on content and voice in advertisements. The message and words used are far more important to them than design or appearance of marketing materials. They want information, first and foremost.

Additionally, Gen X and boomer women are independent decision makers. Says Goodman, “Boomers themselves don’t group together; they’re an individualistic and independent generation. So it doesn’t matter that Jane Doe wants this beauty product. You have to talk to each Gen X and boomer shopper as an individual, not as a group.”

That is an important message for marketers appealing to Gen X consumers. Speak to each woman in your communiques, rather than lumping all Gen X women together. Marketing via email works for Gen Xers, unlike boomers, in part because of their comfort level with technology.

Another important marketing tip is scheduling events. “Gen X shoppers are more event-driven,” says Phillips. “They want to see for themselves,” how something works or feels. That means that holding product workshops, sampling sessions or trunk shows will be a big draw for this crowd. Even better, have individual demonstrations to show each attendee how a certain product performs for them.


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Generation Y, more commonly known as the Millennials, is currently between the ages of 13 and 34 and quite different from the two previous generations, points out Phillips. “Every generation is defined by the prevailing child-rearing practices and events,” she says, with Millennials being raised in more child-centric families by parents who’ve given them more attention than what occurred in previous generations. On average, their families have also been more affluent than their parents’ and grandparents’ childhood experiences.

Millennials were the first to grow up with ubiquitous information, says Phillips, so they are skilled at accessing information and sharing it with others. They use the Internet extensively, but more as a social tool, says Stovall. That is, instead of delving into published research on a topic, they are much more likely to turn to their contacts on Facebook—some of whom are no doubt strangers—for advice. For Millennials, “quantity suggests quality when it comes to opinions,” says Stovall.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, Millennials do not self-identify with their jobs. “Who they are is not connected to their current job,” confirms Stovall, so marketing messages should focus more on activities they enjoy, such as travel or fitness, rather than job status or title. They are open to new experiences and enjoy trying new things, says Hopelain, whether that might be sky diving or experimenting with a new mascara or gel polish.

More so than boomers or Gen X, however, the recent recession has hit adult Millennials hard. They now shop strategically with an eye toward saving money.

Where Gen Xers are less sure of themselves, Millennials are their polar opposite. They are confident about themselves and what is right for them. Fashion and beauty are their hobbies, and they want the latest and greatest, says Stovall. They are well-informed and prepared, frequently entering a beauty store knowing exactly what they are looking for. They also do their homework before making a purchase, confirming that the product they want is in stock, and will become very irritated if they discover the item is actually out of stock, says Phillips.

Perhaps because of their immersion in technology, Millennials pay great attention to design, especially as it relates to how information is displayed. “Words are a design element on the page,” says Hopelain, rather than content. Millennials will notice how photos are laid out on a page but overlook what is said in the featured article, for example. This fact should impact how beauty retailers communicate with them. Similarly, a store’s visual merchandising is very important to Millennials and affects their interest in and willingness to buy.

Because of their inclination for noticing only design elements, sudden product-packaging changes can be deadly to beauty brands. Explains Phillips, “In cosmetics, if Millennials don’t see the package they expect, they will walk out of the store [even if it’s sitting on the shelf where it has always been], because they’re focused on the visual, not the content.” Millennials need to be warned that a package change is coming and be shown, repeatedly, what the new package will look like, so as not to be frustrated when they no longer see the box or bottle they recognize.

The best way to reach Millennials is online, because that is where they spend much of their time. Retail stores without an online shop will miss out on many of the purchases that this generation makes. “Having a website is essential,” underscores Stovall. But connect with them socially too, through sites like Pinterest, Facebook and YouTube.

Millennials also shop where they live, says Hopelain, and retailers that become local resources for what’s hot and provide reasons for shoppers to come into the store, will win out. For example, she says, a local beauty retailer could host a fashion show, have an Academy Awards party, offer makeovers, or schedule a play day where product samples are available. Such events are a big draw for Millennials in particular.

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Understanding how the three major generations think about purchases, and where they turn for information, should help retailers more effectively market their retail stores and product offerings. That does not mean it is necessary to develop three separate marketing strategies, cautions Stovall, because the fundamentals still work for all three generations—a clean, inviting store, plenty of product education and great customer service.

What needs to be different is the way you share information with customers. Some customers prefer a postcard announcement to email and vice versa. Some want to research products online and make a purchase in-store, which means you need to have both environments up and running, while others only shop online.

Likewise, the language you use may
vary by generation. You might invite all of your customers to a Labor Day event but swap the body copy based on age, perhaps injecting humor into the Millennial invitation, emphasizing the opportunity to sample products in the Gen X message and promoting the bargain opportunities to boomers. They all need information but, “We don’t talk the same way to a 25-year-old as we do to a 70-year-old in real life, so why do so many companies do it in their marketing?” asks Goodman. That is the crux of generational marketing—giving consumers in each generation exactly what they need information-wise, in the format they prefer, to encourage them to buy from you rather than the competition.

Marcia Layton Turner is a best-selling business author whose work has appeared in
Bloomberg Businessweek, Entrepreneur, Woman’s Day, Health and many others.