INSIGHTS AND PERSPECTIVES

Let’s rethink generations in 2019

BY David Orgel

There’s a generation gap that could get bigger in 2019.

It’s not about disagreements between different age groups. Rather, it’s a gap in terms of how generations are perceived versus the reality.

This is a crucial topic for retailers because they have worked hard to understand shoppers. However, there’s a temptation to make broad assumptions about how shoppers will act based on generational trends. Those insights only go so far. They can be too general, and often don’t account for ongoing consumer behavior shifts.

This will become a bigger concern as we move into 2019. That’s because retailers increasingly are counting on personalization strategies to address individual customer needs. Technology will enable personalization more and more. Nevertheless, getting to that point will be challenging if we’re relying on outdated assumptions about consumers and generations.

Recent consumer research from the Food Marketing Institute helps to underscore how quickly consumers are changing, and why we need to stay on top of generational realities. The findings are relevant to many types of retail channels. Here are a few key examples based on FMI’s “2018 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Report:”

  • Online shopping: If you think millennials lead the charge for growth in online shopping, you’d be right. That is, until now. Gen Xers and older consumers are driving growth for the first time, according to the report. It’s important to adjust thinking to realize how this trend is broadening to older generations. It’s likely that millennial behaviors have influenced older shoppers, who are taking the ball and running with it.
  • Transparency: There’s a general assumption that younger consumers are the most interested in transparency. However, the report data shows that baby boomers and Gen Xers also demand transparency from retailers and brands. In fact, these older shoppers are the most focused on at least one aspect of transparency: how honest and open companies are about business practices. The fact is, consumers across generations and other demographic markers are interested in transparency. This was corroborated by earlier industry research. “In this information age, consumers expect they should be able to find anything,” said David Fikes, FMI’s vice president of communications and community/consumer affairs. “Maybe this has been led by millennials, but everyone is adapting.”
  • Checkout experience: I tend to think younger shoppers are the ones populating store self-checkout lines, while older folks are willing to wait for cashiers. However, that assumption is not true. Shoppers overall are now prioritizing easy checkout, including through self-checkout or smartphone assistance, according to the report data. Consider that even matures, the oldest generation measured, have jumped on the self-checkout bandwagon.

I recently came across a clever way of looking at the generational topic. FMI’s Melaina Lewis, the association’s manager of communications, wrote a blog post called “I’m a 25-year-Old-Grocery-Shopping Boomer?”

The piece leverages gamification with a chart that takes readers through a number of questions and steps to determine, “Do you grocery shop like your generation?” The answers are calculated using the report’s data and insights, and the chart explains each user’s findings.

In Melaina’s case, she has shopped more like a baby boomer over the past year, compared to the millennial she is. That’s because her preference is to grocery shop in stores rather than online, even as she makes use of grocery store apps. This lines up with typical boomer patterns. The point is that consumers do not always walk in step with their own generations.

That’s why we should resolve to rethink generational perceptions in the coming year. This requires digging deeper into consumer data and better understanding which insights are relevant, and which aren’t. The best approach is to combine generational insights with more segmented or personalized data.

Retailers will find this to be a competitive differentiator. It will keep the focus on generations — not generalizations.


David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.

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