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Touching Gen Y Shoppers: Creating a Memorable Sensory Experience for a New Generation


By David Ashen, dash design

Lately you can't turn on the television or pick up the newspaper without seeing a story about Millennials, also known as Generation Y. People are endlessly fascinated by their traits, values, work habits and shopping patterns. Why all of this focus on the group of people born between the early 1980's and 2000's?

Quite simply, it's because they are a generation of influence, in numbers similar to that of Baby Boomers, but with an outlook unlike one we've ever seen. In fact, according to Javelin Strategy and Research, by 2015, Gen Y income is projected to exceed that of Boomers and retailers are taking note. Making a Gen Y'er your customer — and just as importantly, keeping them engaged in your brand — calls for a completely fresh approach.

To better understand the Millennial, you need to think about the technology-rich world they grew up in. Research from Junco and Mastrodicasa notes that, of college students born between 1983 and 1992, a whopping 97% own a computer, 94% have their own cell phone and 76% "IM," or instant message, each other. Interestingly, 92% of those messaging do so while multitasking. To say they are over-stimulated is an understatement!

So, what does a Gen Y shopper crave when it's time to put their purchase power to use? The exact opposite of what has become part of their typical day-to-day: a "live experience." By that I mean a memorable experience filled with sight, touch, sound and sense, allowing them to interact with much more than a finger on glass. A Millennial seeks out animation and connection, not the static input of looking through a window at a display or staring at a screen. They do enough of that already! They can shop online and browse with the click of a mouse, which is all the more reason why they enjoy visiting a store, as long as the retailer makes it a sensory experience that speaks to, not at, them.

This new generation of shoppers has already dramatically changed the retail landscape. A walk around any mall in America can tell you that. Many chain store retailers are finding that 300 to 400 stores are not what's needed, but rather key locations that build awareness of, and an experience around, their brand. This winning strategy is one of quality rather than quantity.

How do you know, from a design perspective, that you've accomplished this goal? Let me share a perfect example: A shopper walks into H&M on 5th Avenue at 48th Street in Manhattan and immediately they are immersed in a happening lifestyle. Vignettes of lounge-like installations beckon shoppers to gather and socialize. These public spaces create a sense of place and give off an infectious vibe and energy that targets the Gen Y shopper, for whom department stores and malls are no longer relevant. This generation has a short attention span, but the bright lights and sounds of upbeat music are anything but dated. They've created fast moving "fast fashion" at its finest.

Then there's Urban Outfitters' Space Ninety 8 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a place that eloquently speaks to Gen Y'ers. What Urban Outfitters has done so expertly is gone beyond the usual mix of apparel and keyed into the generation of people who live in that neighborhood and their specific interests. The first floor is a flexible retail gallery, continually changing and carefully curated. The first time I visited, to my left there was a bike shop with cutting-edge rides, hip accessories and even repair kits. A short glance away was a beautiful army cot, priced at around $400, that would work well in an apartment. Over to the right were locally made items from Brooklyn craftsmen and old vinyl records. Of course, when I came back, not even a month later, this had totally changed. Some other touches that show Urban Outfitters gets its audience? The store has areas to charge your cell phone and even a bar and roof garden to keep the shopper immersed in the experience. This is not just real estate; it's a place to come together and hang out with friends. You may never want to leave and that's the whole point!

While an entirely different feel, Anthropologie has also keyed in to Gen Y's needs. The store's visual merchandisers often have art degrees or are in school studying fine arts. Items are not displayed on the wall; they are artfully arranged, creating their version of a modern bazaar. Rich materials, forms and colors set a tone, complementing the handmade pieces, apparel and house wares and tying together the brand's story. While there is an overarching vision, each location is local to the neighborhood and unique in its own right. This tactile experience is the antithesis of the digital world and draws the Millennial back to a time of simplicity and discovery.

Another example of live experience is Godiva, which has perfected the idea of bringing a theatrical element to its retail locations. At its Met Life store in Manhattan, passers-by can gaze longingly at fresh strawberries, dried fruit and biscuits being dipped in vats of sumptuous melted chocolate through the store's large windows. People gather to experience it and get drawn into the happy indulgence of shopping there. Inside the shop, technological touches allow the menu to be refreshed constantly and the shopper to choose the freshest, most local offerings. All of this takes place in a backdrop of rich textures, sharp color contrasts and "touch me" materials — all integral to the Gen Y shopper.

Though the aesthetics or brand vision of each of these examples may vary, they all have one very important thing in common: they tap into Gen Y's under-met need for live, sensory input. With a little extra thought and design consideration, today's retailer can meet this group's needs well — both now and in the near future.

David Ashen is a principal and the founder of dash design, an award-winning New York-based interior design and branding firm specializing in retail and hospitality projects. Clients include market leaders and Fortune 500 companies from all over the world.

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