Unlocking the Gen Z Mindset

Forum spotlights a generation poised to become the largest U.S. consumer group.

Winnie Park

Berns Communications Group’s Retail Influencer Network is convening an invitation-only CEO forum on September 12 aimed at revealing the mindset of Gen Z.

The event includes CEOs and other senior leaders from top brands such as Aerie, Alice + Olivia, American Eagle, Bubble, Coach, Forever 21 and many others. They’ll be joined by thought leaders, business influencers and members of The Z Suite, a recently launched network of students and influencers from leading fashion and merchandising schools.

But why focus on Gen Z?

Well, aside from being digitally native, politically progressive, pragmatic, values-driven and highly diverse, Gen Zers are shrewd consumers with enormous spending power. Analysts estimate their current disposable income at $360 billion.

Stacy Berns, president and founder of Berns Communications Group, noted that Gen Z is set to become the largest U.S. consumer group in the next 10 years, “which makes it crucial for retail and brand executives to have a deep understanding of how the generation thinks and shops.”

“However, there’s currently a disconnect between Gen Z’s values and shopping behaviors and retailers’ attempts to connect with them,” Berns said. “Our forum will bring together influential Gen Z founders, CEOs and thought leaders and C-suite executives from some of the generation’s favorite brands to illuminate how Gen Zers differ from other generations and how they think about inclusivity, sustainability, the metaverse and other topics that are key to the future of retail.”

Maya Penn, a Gen Z activist, three-time TED speaker, and founder and CEO of Maya’s Ideas, said her generational cohort is quite different from others. “Gen Z has grown up in an era of unprecedented access to information and technology,” Penn said. “We’ve watched the rise, fall and remixing of a number of industries from a young age, and have also been experimenting with nontraditional ways to find community and pursue career paths. I think there is also a unique flavor of authenticity that is deeply rooted in Gen Z culture overall.”

Ziad Ahmed, the Gen Z CEO of JUV Consulting, said social media and how it is used is distinctive. “Obviously, no generation is a monolith, but when we zoom out, I think broadly what makes Gen Z distinct is that, to us, social media is a first language,” Ahmed said. “We can ‘think’ in it — which has prompted us to fundamentally see the world differently. As a result of the fact that we have instantaneous access to so many voices, we have been dubbed the ‘plurals,’ indicating that we are a generation that thinks in terms of ‘we.’”

Ziad Ahmed

Renee Klein, vice president of global digital experience and consumer marketing at Coach, said that Gen Z, more than any other generation, “values brands that share or align with their own personal values. Brands should evaluate how their purpose and values sit within the set of core values important to Gen Z, and the best way to share those values in a genuine and authentic way.”

Stacey McCormick, senior vice president of marketing at Aerie, agreed and noted that Gen Z is a generation “that is deeply passionate about a number of social issues, from promoting mental well-being and empowering women to caring for our planet. Gen Z values purpose-driven brands while also pursuing affordable, on-trend products that are made using sustainable materials and practices.”

Fay Shuai, a Z Suite member and student at the University of Pennsylvania, echoed McCormick and said, “In simple words, Gen Zers value people and the planet.”

Shuai noted that Gen Z “cares immensely about other people regardless of differences, and particularly in the retail industry, we like to see diversity not only in executive retail leadership but also in the media, as it’s important for people from all sorts of backgrounds to be represented. We also worry a lot about the health of our planet.”

Shuai described sustainability as one of the most important environmental topics talked about by Gen Z. “We are all incredibly passionate about saving our planet, and in the retail world, the passion is apparent in our consumption patterns, such as purchasing secondhand pieces or buying from brands that give back to the planet. Gen Zers also care a lot about mental health and wellness,” Shuai said.

McCormick said that Gen Z, as a highly engaged generation, takes “meaningful action to impact lasting change while placing their trust in companies that do the same. Gen Z’s connection with the brands they support is deeper than loving a product collection — they care how things are made and align themselves with companies that share their core values.”

Winnie Park, CEO of Forever 21, said Gen Z highly values authenticity. “Brands that win with this demographic take a longer-term approach to building loyalty through being transparent and relatable at every touchpoint, which ultimately leads to sales,” Park said.

When asked about engaging Gen Z, Park said brands need to “meet them where they are — to have an organic, relatable presence in spaces they
already inhabit.”

“The metaverse is a great example of a place where Forever 21 is authentically engaging with Gen Z by giving them tools to be creative and a space to express themselves,” Park said. “This shift in our strategy signals our move from fast fashion to omnichannel brand relevance with a focus on Gen Z, who are not just digital natives but social natives as content creators and pioneers in social commerce and the metaverse.”

Forever 21’s strategic shift is clearly in the right direction. Simran Hussain, a Z Suite member who attends Emory University, said one of the best ways to engage Gen Z is to be creative and eye catching. “Gen Z has an average attention span of about 8 seconds, so brands need to either make content that communicates effectively within that timeframe or present something that convinces the Gen Zer to keep watching and stay invested.”

Regarding current workplace dynamics, Gen Z is leading the charge in “quiet quitting,” which is a trend where employees abandon the practice of going above and beyond for their employers. The goal is to improve work-life balance. But for a lot of Gen Z, quiet quitting is a statement that one’s job doesn’t define the person.

Simran Hussain
Simran Hussain. COURTESY IMAGE.

There’s another key factor companies need to consider with workforce management and Gen Z: flexibility.

Theresa Watts, senior vice president of human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion at True Religion, said she’s baffled at how often she hears leaders complaining about the need to provide “a more flexible schedule for employees while also asking how they can be more attractive to Gen Zers.”

“Recently, I had a conversation with a leader who was upset because when she spoke to a hybrid worker while they were working from home, the employee was not actually at home,” Watts said. “I asked her, ‘If the work is getting done, why do you care where she was doing it? The employee answered the phone, so they are clearly available and present. The work is getting done, so they are clearly responsible. What exactly is the basis of your concern?’”

Watts said Gen Z wants more flexibility and more control of their work. “It is bigger than work-life balance, it is more an issue of the ability to design their schedule,” Watts said. “If this fits into the needs of the business and is doable, then why not let it happen? Why not provide that level of trust and autonomy?”

Watts said Gen Z wants purpose, inclusion, diversity and meaning. “They want to shop for brands that are transparent and have purpose and they want to work for brands that are transparent and provide them with purpose,” Watts noted. “They want to know that their dollars in the stores and their contributions in the workplace
are meaningful.”

Alec Beers, a Z Suite member attending Cornell University, said brands and merchants need to know that Gen Z values financial stability, mobility and lifestyle flexibility.

“They follow the markets and invest, but they are also always looking for the best opportunities to get ahead financially, in ways such as tapping into a side hustle or strategically saving up,” Beers said.

Speaker lineup:

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