Shopping through the generations

A new report has revealed that shoppers' life experiences have a profound effect on their behaviour as consumers. The onus is on brands to master the subtle differences in buying habits across the generations.


Our world is more connected than ever before. With the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger everything we could ever desire is ready and waiting to be churned out as fast as it is consumed. In these times of instant gratification, social media and same-day delivery, it might seem safe to assume that every shape and size of consumer is catered for, but that is clearly not the case.

As new research reveals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to providing the best possible shopping experience. Instead, resellers need to acknowledge the subtle and nuanced differences that affect consumer behaviour across the generations. 

US-based marketing services group Alliance Data has delved into the intricate subcultures of each generation, quizzing 2,400 consumers of all ages about their buying habits. The report, entitled The Generational Perspective, looks at the distinct differences in lifestyle that influence the shopping behaviour of millennials, Generation X, baby boomers and the silent generation, and investigates how technology and social media can be utilised to connect more closely with these shoppers.

Subtle differences

The report reveals that life experiences and cultural identities define future shopping habits. For example, Gen Xers and millennials grew up during the information revolution and crave instant gratification. These are the people with Amazon Prime accounts who expect next-day delivery and a wi-fi connection as fundamental human rights. 

The silent generation, meanwhile, shops with the brands they know and trust – after all, they lived through the Second World War and the Great Depression and want value for their hard-earned money. Resellers must exploit these differences in consumer buying behaviours if they are to remain relevant and successful.

Customer service

Millennials expect a lot more than all the other generations from their preferred brands. Because they are emotional buyers, they need to feel a special connection to the product and the company behind it before they commit to a purchase. Conversely, for the older age groups, value matters the most. Baby boomers and the silent generation have money to spend, but the quality of the product has to be worth it before they part with that cash.

Payment security, easy brand interaction and transparent promotions were all ranked as important when choosing where to shop, but customer service topped the list across the generations.

That’s an interesting fact considering that e-tailer Amazon, for instance, seems to largely ignore its users, with a mostly automated customer service offering and no one ever on the other end of a phone. It’s particularly surprising given that the online titan captures 50 cents of every dollar spent online in the US. Smaller stores, on the other hand, tend to offer features that are aimed at connecting more closely with consumers. The key is to anticipate shoppers’ requirements and deal with any issues as timely and efficiently as completing the transaction itself.

Stages of life

Consumer expectations are first guided by generational identity and then by life’s different stages like career, family and retirement. Alliance Data’s report illustrates that brands need to think generationally about the shopping experience and take a targeted approach when it comes to engaging customers.

46% of Gen Xers have children under 18 living at home, for example, which means efficiency and convenience is key to enable them to juggle their busy schedules. They crave instant gratification too, but for different reasons than millennials. With Generation X, it’s because they value their time – or lack thereof – the most. 

Baby boomers, on the other hand, are at that stage in life when the children have flown the nest and they are no longer trying to balance a career with parenthood. They also have extra money in their pockets. This generation’s coming of age ushered in the era of consumerism, but they weren’t spoilt by 24/7 connectivity, so technology isn’t a top priority. They too care about quality and value.

The silent generation is arguably the most well-off of all the age brackets thanks to diligent and early retirement plans and cleverly managed finances. But old habits die hard. The rationing mentality persists and with their ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy, if they don’t need it, they won’t buy it. 

Although online is clearly the place to be, don’t shut up shop just yet, bricks-and-mortar is still important. Stores offer a tangible refuge from the chaos of the virtual world as consumers still crave the comfort that comes from investigating a physical product on the shelf. Shoppers want to touch and feel before they commit to a purchase.

In fact, it turns out the physical store is just as important to millennials as it is to the silent generation. More than 75% of respondents said they want to see a product in store before they buy it, while a third emphasised that the total in-store experience is important.

Brands must focus less on what channels customers are shopping in and more on the overall experience – ‘bricks-and-mobile’ is the new customer requirement. For a shopper, moving between online and offline should be seamless.

The next generation

And what about the next generation of shoppers, the so-called Generation Z? Their buying power is set to rival that of millennials, so it’s important to identify their buying habits now. Generation Z are true digital natives; these kids have never heard a modem dial-up tone or seen a fax machine in action. 

Practically born with smartphones stuck to their palms and more photos on their Instagram accounts than the silent generation have of their entire lives, they are raised in an era of complete connectivity. As well as instant gratification, this generation will also have to contend with climate change and other environmental issues, so sustainability will be a top priority. They will expect their chosen brands to make the world a better place. To stay ahead of the curve, resellers will need to know exactly how to get the most out of this group too.

To download the whole report, visit