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Unpacking the generational variance affecting retail

Millennials and boomers have different customer expectations.

Walk into any shopping center, restaurant, or convenience store, and you’re sure to experience some degree of inconvenience that can almost always be traced back to COVID-19.

In fact, according to a recent study of U.S. consumers fielded by Gongos, 90% of Americans said they have been negatively affected by supply chain and staffing shortages at least twice in their recent memory. If most of us can agree on COVID-19 as the root cause, the way consumers are responding is where we are seeing a clear divergence—especially among different generations.

For brands looking to even scratch the surface of improving their customer-centric strategies, we need to understand what these differences are, and more importantly, why they emerged.

What consumers say
The same Gongos study found that 34% of millennials (born 1981 – 1996) think that unruly, demanding customers are to blame for long wait times and staffing shortages that are forcing businesses to close. On the other hand, boomers (born 1946 – 1964) see things differently, as 30% believe that employees are to blame for the same issues. For boomer, the problem springs from “people not wanting to work.”

And when confronted with inconveniences caused by product shortage and lack of inventory, 30% of millennials say consumer greed is to blame. An equal proportion of boomers points the finger at government – not everyday consumers like themselves.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Boomers, after all, are either retired or approaching retirement – half are out of the workforce according to the U.S. Board of Labor Statistics. And, according to psychology research, Boomers are more competitive and hypersensitive than millennials. Combine these facts, and we see a group that may have a harder time relating to the burnt-out worker behind the counter, and who are more focused on their own needs.

On the other hand, we know that millennials are more likely to focus on finding meaning and connection in life and with others. They value experiences and human interaction over possessions. And while older generations may critique those leaving the service industry as ‘lazy,’ Millennials believe in finding passion in work. Nearly two-thirds would rather earn $40,000 annually in a job they love than $100,000 for one that bores them. They’re not the type to settle for mistreatment in the workplace.

Pleasing both sides
For businesses that can’t afford to lose either Boomer or Millennial market share, listening and internalizing both viewpoints not as right or wrong, but as two equal voices, is imperative to reaching a reciprocal relationship.

Since we know that about half of millennials believe that businesses themselves are to blame for random closures, reduced hours, and limited seating, brands have the opportunity to look inward and evaluate gaps in the experience journey. From a customer perspective, it could mean offsetting a decreased workforce with greater simplicity and automation.

From an employee perspective, this could mean pushing back against bad actors. Businesses have temporarily closed in protest of disruptive customers, and companies like Dick’s, Gap, and Sephora have joined together to publicly promote civility to front-line workers.

On the other hand, understanding that over half of boomers blame external factors, such as the government, for service disruptions tells businesses that while it might appear that Boomers’ frustrations are a reflection of the brand itself, there is hope for future customer loyalty if product/service quality is preserved.   

Investing in your most valuable asset
Taking a closer look at employee experience, and more specifically the record-high service industry resignation, we see notable differences in sentiments between the two groups as well. Three in five millenials believe that employees are leaving for company-related reasons—either for better opportunities or because they are frustrated with business practices. This is nearly twice as many as boomers who say the same thing.

At the same time, nearly six times as many boomers think people are quitting their service industry jobs because they “don’t want to work,” as opposed to frustrations with their company or their role in it.

This tells us that as far as millennials are concerned, the ball is firmly in the companies’ court to improve employee experience. It’s an important perspective to remember, given that a large cohort of customers, Boomers, are more likely to focus their dissatisfaction on front-line employees, even if the problem is out of the employee’s control.

In retail, your biggest asset is your labor. So why are organizations today cutting corners at the expense of their employees? Achieving customer-centricity is only possible if your front-line employees feel an authentic connection to the company mission, their colleagues, and their work every day. That sense of connection can come in many forms, including fair compensation, work-life-balance, opportunities for advancement, and support from corporate leadership.

Looking ahead
Customers are frustrated with subpar experiences, and employees are exhausted from years of managing difficult customers. But as we saw from our study, there isn’t just one pain point and one solution. There are many factors and many differing opinions that account for this storm of dissatisfaction.

For organizations committed to achieving customer-centricity, there is hope. Through deeply understanding your customers and their unique nuances, as well as empowering front-line employees to feel a true purpose and champion your mission, it’s possible to come out of this wave of hardships with a stronger, reciprocal relationship between customers and corporations.

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