How Specialty Retailers Can Attract Generation X?

Those ’70s kids who toted Star Wars or Grease lunch boxes now carry briefcases. Those ’80s Madonna wannabes and punk-skate kids are now commuting to work! A good many of them are, anyway.

Elusive to pin down, this bunch can’t even be counted correctly because the years that define this generation are up for debate: 1961-1981, 1965-1976, and 1965-1980? It boils down to less the actual years and more the attitude.

It’s a common thread—a gross generalization about a group that prizes individuality. Welcome to Generation X! The term coined by Douglas Coupland in his best-selling 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.

Between two larger generations, baby boomers (76 million) and Gen Y (81+ million), Gen X is nothing to sneeze at. The nose count for Gen X, or more precisely, 27-to 38-year-olds, is estimated at more than 44 million. They represent 18% of total US spending power. That’s $736 billion, according to American Demographics!

X is a term that defines not a chronological age, but a way of looking at the world,” says political cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall in his article, “Marketing Madness: A Post-Mortem for Generation X.”

Researchers, writers, market pundits, and social commentators have described these young people and their “way of looking at the world” as cynical, entrepreneurial, apolitical, educated, tolerant, skeptical, and practical, to mention just a few.

Figuring out what shaped their beliefs and values, how they think today, and, most importantly, what they’re buying and where they’re buying it is what every manufacturer, advertiser, and retailer wants to know. Here it is.

Growing Up As An Xer!

MTV, AIDS, Space Invaders, Kurt Cobain, The Breakfast Club, the fall of TV Evangelists, The Simpsons, Thriller!

If you were born between 1965-1976, these influences were part of your culture, part of your upbringing, part of you.

Jon Resh of Chicago, a Gen X writer, designer, publisher, and former punk musician, says the Gen X sensibility was shaped primarily by one element: MTV.

MTV changed everything. Our view of the culture was filtered through MTV. Not just music but fashion, visuals, language and vocabulary, and political awareness. It broadened [our] generation and also made it more homogenous. It formed our tolerance [of interracial couples, gays, etc.] and made us question what we were supposed to accept.”

As influential as it may have been, MTV is only one segment of the bigger picture: television. Media’s massive influence on this generation has been attributed to the rise of dual-career households when Little Xers grew up.

Women continued to push their traditional boundaries, their path to the workplace and other venues paved in part by the feminist movement of the ’70s. One small yet impressive example comes from Drs. Rick and Kathy Hicks, in their book Boomers, Xers, and Other Strangers: The number of women lawyers and physicians increased by 300% from 1978-1988.

Some women took jobs out of necessity; some didn’t. Regardless, after-school care didn’t keep up with the burgeoning demand. School kids often came home to empty living rooms and plopped down with Doritos, a Dew, and the TV remote.

When The Simpsons came to prime Time, it was as pervasive and influential as MTV, says Resh. “Definitely. The Simpsons were universal for us. It cut across all lines, gender lines, too.” And still does.

Even as adults, most of this bunch would rather watch TV than read. Only 32% of those aged 25-34 read a newspaper daily. However, 53% watch one to two hours of television daily, according to Susan Mitchell’s book, Generation X: The Young Adult Market.

There’s nothing to indicate those numbers have changed much. This may be why TV nostalgia, or Gen-X nostalgia, was so big at New York’s Licensing Show last summer. It was all there, says Courtney Rubin in “Reality Bites,” from junior machos like the Cartoon Network’s resurrection of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to sugar-and-spice like Cabbage Patch Kids and Strawberry Shortcake.

Hollywood continues this trend with a line-up of upcoming movies. Joining The Brady Bunch and Scooby-Doo redux are remakes of Starsky and Hutch, I Dream of Jeannie, and (dig out the pastel T-shirts and push up those suit sleeves!) Miami Vice.

Of course, nostalgia surfaces in any generation, but X-ers have a unique way of viewing their past—celebrating “not the best of [they’re] youth, but the worst,” says Rubin. A little Gen X humor, one might say. “No icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, sarcasm, or remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective,” says Karen Ritchie, author of Marketing to Generation X.

Work Can Wait

In many ways, Gen X followed a path similar to that of their predecessors. In no rush to start families, they concentrate on their careers. Saddled with school debt and credit card balances, many entered a tough job market, forcing many to accept far less than they hoped or go to college.

Coupland coined that term, too, which he defines as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service

sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career by people who have never held one.”

As kids, Xers saw their parents lose good jobs for no good or apparent reason other than downsizing. From that, these kids learned that working hard and being loyal didn’t equate to rewards, promotions, or job security.

With that, plus other aspects of the economic turmoil attributed to Reagonomics during their growing-up years, they quickly learned there are no guarantees.

This generation doesn’t expect the world to magically evolve for them. They know they have to make it happen,” says Barbara Caplan, a partner with Yankelovich, Inc.

Boomers grew up in a thriving economy and, thus, came to expect certain things. Generation X grew up in a different economic climate. Because of this, they’re more practical and more grounded. “They look at what they must do to compete and make their aspirations come true,” she says.

It’s no surprise that when their turn came, they sought job security differently: by acquiring transferable, in-demand skills—” skills to go”—and nowhere more apparent or marketable than in the burgeoning technology/computer/Internet sector.

While most boomers survive in the techno environment, Xers thrive in it. “New ‘household technology’ shaped us,” says Resh. “Things like microwaves, remotes, cable TV, and VCRs created our sense of instant gratification and satisfied it.” From there, they took to computers as just another Atari game, and from there, the Web.

And thanks to their comfort with multiple devices, they “invented” multi-tasking. “The real asset that individuals in Generation X bring to the workplace is their knowledge of technology and their ability to concentrate on a number of tasks at one time,” says Bettina A. Lankard in her report, “Career Development in Generation X.”

Some Xers, however, opted out of the traditional job market. They started their own companies ranging from full-time freelancing to mom-and-pop ventures to Web-based enterprises.

Zero Borders, an international marketing consultant group, defines them as “independent and individualistic,” noting that Gen Xers see the “small” in small business as very appealing. According to Jean Chatzky and Cybele Weisser’s writing in Time, four out of five new enterprises are the work of Xers.

But no matter what the work or career path, don’t think they’re all workaholics: they’re not. Many positions to achieve a balanced life; their outside interests are as vital as their careers.

As children come into their lives, family time takes on an almost surprising importance. Pamela Paul reports in American Demographics that 81% of Xers want to spend more time with their family. Many Gen X women try to squeeze full-time careers into part-time schedules during their children’s early years.

Whether mothers or not, these women are a strong presence in today’s workforce. According to Peg Tyre and Daniel McGinn in Newsweek, more women now earn college degrees and MBAs than men.

Some interesting differences in earning power then and now: in 1983, 34% of women were in high-paying “executive, administrative and managerial” positions; in 2001, the number rose to nearly 50%. This educated group expects and, in many cases, is getting the same job and income opportunities as their male counterparts.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

According to the ReachWomen newsletter, Gen Xers’ homeownership rate is higher than that of the boomers at an equivalent age. And home ownership means Gen X has a considerable impact on the furniture, housewares, and home-improvement industries.

Paul refers to them as practical home-buyers who focus on builder reputation even ahead of affordability. And once they’re in the home they bought, practicality rules and trips to the local DIY center are frequent, even routine.

According to Home Center News, Gen Xers buy more home-improvement products than any other population segment. More than two-thirds like to shop in warehouse home centers. They are confident do-it-yourselfers, women, and men tackling new projects from floor to ceiling.

At the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, NC, this past April, Generation X was on the minds of many. Bold colors and eye-catching patterns for furnishings and accessories fit with Xer’s more casual yet colorful lifestyle.

Clean-lined pieces with multiple functions were showcased for young buyers with limited space. Sectional sofas are again famous for creating “conversation pits” and promoting closeness, according to Mitchell Gold, as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Gold supplies chairs, sofas, and beds to many stores Xers love, such as Anthropologie, Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, and Pottery Barn.

Friends and Family

Furnishings and accessories lend themselves to the comforts and cocoon of home and extend that comfort to friends. And friends have always been important to Gen X.

Raised in an era when the divorce rate was climbing, from one in three marriages in 1970 to one in two by 1980, Xers created their solid foundation of family feeling: their peer group.

Their large circle of deep friendships—almost “sibling ships”—gave them an anchored sense. They carried these friendships and that sense of family into adulthood, where they continue to nurture them.

But Gen X is generating real family, too. Imagine thousands of nurseries decorated in animal themes, space stations, elephant bumpers, and Saturn night lights.

Pottery Barn Kids did. They’re right at the top of Gen X’s Web-shopping favorites, along with Fisher-Price, American Baby, BabyCenter, and BabiesRUs, according to Nielsen/Net-Ratings for March 2003. Babies are big business again.

It’s no surprise that at ages 25 to 34, Xers are the most important customers for infants’ and children’s products and services. As parents, Gen X spends “far more than average” on baby furniture and equipment, baby clothes and bedding, toys, baby food, child care, and babysitting, according to Susan Mitchell in American Demographics.

Xers spend 100% above average on clothing under 2 and 33% more than average for children between 2 and 16. No wonder, then, that clothing designers like DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger have jumped on the baby-and-children bandwagon with their clothing lines. And Baby Gap is more significant than ever.

Now with their own families, their original families (mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more), and the neo-extended family of friends, traditions old and new are crucial to Gen X.

They often re-create or adapt the traditions of their youth, and if they don’t have one for this event or that holiday, they’ll invent their own, share it with those near and dear to them, and observe it year after year.

Do they buy for those traditions the way their boomer parents did (and still do)? Not exactly.

According to Mary Ford in Selling Christmas Decorations magazine, Xers aren’t likely to buy a $500 Christmas tree, but they’re pretty likely to buy a new holiday ornament yearly.

What, Me? Vote?

Boomers, those children of the ’60s, may have been first to note that their Gen X kids didn’t have a “cause” to rally around, making them complacent. One might argue that this is the start of the “slacker” moniker.

Gen X certainly had its share of criticism along these lines: pragmatic, self-absorbed, and not politically inclined, says Ted Halstead in The Atlantic Online.

Xers are less politically or civically engaged, exhibit less social trust or confidence in government, have a weaker allegiance to their country or to either political party, and are more materialistic than their predecessors.”

Rall makes an even stronger statement, saying the choice between Democrats and Republicans is infinitely less critical to Xers than the choice between Mac and Microsoft.

Why such apathy, and is it even true?

Researchers blame the Reagan and (first) Bush presidencies and economies when government bashing was stylish. According to Hicks and Hicks, Gen Xers have the lowest voting percentage of adult generations.

Still, this is the tolerant generation, the generation with a heart (volunteerism among Xers is higher than any group other than seniors), the demographic who is showing its elders that its reputation as lazy, self-absorbed, plugged-in slackers are changing—if it ever was deserved.

Rainbow Connection

“Multicultural” is given to this generation. Socially, economically, racially, and ethnically, it’s been argued that no American population is as diverse as this group.

They are more multicultural than earlier generations due to the high levels of immigration [to the US] in recent decades,” says Ford. In addition, Gen Xers “lived” the equal-rights movement. They were among the first kids to be bused. As a result of these factors, another hallmark of Gen X is their acceptance and tolerance of ethnic, cultural, and lifestyle diversity.

According to Mitchell, nearly one-third of young adults are African American, Hispanic, or Asian. As the population continues to grow, so will these groups.

In the next 25 years, the Hispanic and Asian populations are expected to nearly double to 68 million and 24 million, respectively, according to Alison Stein Wellner in American Demographics.

Meeting the specific product needs and wants of the various ethnic subgroups is another critical strategy for specialty retailers. Learning to speak at least a few of your customers’ languages (even a quick gracias, merci, or arigato) would score points with these Gen Xers.

Also, most Gen Xers are in the market for ethnic goods, too: from African fabric to Asian spice. Gearing a portion of the product mix to appeal to ethnic tastes and aesthetics is a “can’t-miss.”

The X Factor

29% of Xers have bachelors or graduate degrees, 6% more than their parents. Paul says they raise the bar on knowledge: not just formally educated, and Gen X grew up in the “information era.” They know how to research anything, and they explore everything to make informed choices on several levels, including purchases, activities, etc.

Johnson says the other central theme from the RW survey is that Gen X is “influenced by a wider variety of media” than the rest of us. The Internet is the preferred method of research. It is a quick and easy tool they are comfortable with. “That’s where they gather their information for where they’re going to eat and shop… It becomes a centerpiece of their activity,” says Caplan. And it’s where they prefer buying books, CDs, and software, says Thomas Niedermeier in “Generation X Buys More Online.”

Not only is this generation highly educated, but they’re also highly skeptical! According to Mitchell, 69% believe they can’t be too careful with people. 48% feel people would try to take advantage of them if they could.

It’s easy to see why Xers don’t trust institutions or corporations to volunteer information. The recent corporate scandals reinforce that distrust. Thus, their need to research. Before Gen Xers lay out cash, they want to know everything they can about what they’re buying.

How does that translate to specialty retailers? 

Give these customers the details. Don’t try to oversell, dazzle, or fake them out. They’ll get to the truth quickly, and you’ll have lost them for good.

In “RW Listens,” Lisa Johnson quotes trend-spotter and youth-marketing consultant Chauncey Zalkin—this is one of his “top-line” observations: “Humanize the brand. Don’t be afraid to share the grit… Avoid the spin and tell the true stuff.”

Selling to Gen X

The upside is that Xers are ideal prospects for retailers marketing new products. They’re more than willing to try brands they’re unfamiliar with. They’re early adopters. Moreover, they are among the first to try and buy new products (especially for the home, the kids, or the computer), but they don’t follow fads or stick with “trendy” brands.

Furthermore, Johnson reports that in a survey of Gen X women, two main themes come through loud and clear: “Brand loyalty is not a given,”; and Gen X is “influenced by a wider variety of media” than the rest of us.

Selling to Generation X can be tricky!

They like to express their individuality, are skeptical, if not cynical, and scout the alternatives, making it hard to pin them down. Xers aren’t clones: some love stores like Anthropologie, and others love Target. Some shops are both ends of the spectrum and nearly everything in between. “They will go to all different places [like] CB2 and Ikea, [and] look at everything that’s out there [to] choose the best from the lot,” says Caplan. They have the confidence to put column A with column B, whether designing their living room or getting dressed.

Today’s Gen X families share earnings and household responsibilities. “Gen X families work out their own arrangements, taking turns, working as a tag team, weighing pragmatic factors about who makes more and whose strengths lie where,” says Paul.

When Time is short, outsourcing comes to the rescue, from housekeeping to babysitting. Xers spend 78% more than average on personal services of all kinds.

As far as where they shop, it could be anywhere! Xers are open to trying different distribution channels. Like boomers, Xers are looking for a pleasurable shopping experience where they can go to a store in a convenient location. They want to find what they need with value attached, and at an affordable price.

They’re adventurous, daring, quirky, informed, responsible, skeptical, fun-loving, and (yes) hard-working. They still love The Simpsons, are Sex & the City. Moreover, they cemented “reality TV” to the tube and put “extreme” everything on the sports pages.

They learn, live, love, and laugh at it. This is the secret to success in understanding and marketing to this group. If you’re a retailer targeting these ex-slackers, remember what motivates them. Remember their past, what they gravitate toward, and what they try to avoid. Look at their future and the challenges they face.

Retailers can reach this market segment in many ways, but superior quality and customer service wins. According to a 1999 report by Battelle, the technology/R&D giant, “Products will not only have to meet high expectations, they will have to exceed them.” More than that, your sales staff has to be prepared to “support,” not just sell, your merchandise.

Add to all this the competition not only from other retailers but from the Internet, the ease Gen X finds in shopping online without the hassle of traffic, travel time, and kids in car seats. To compete, retailers must make the trip to the mall worth it.

Straight Shooting

By age 18, an American child will have seen at least 350,000 commercials, Gen X children included. It’s what helped make them skeptical of all marketing messages. Gen X is still bombarded with marketing messages and tends to tune them out anyway.

Coupland coined the term “option paralysis” to explain how too many choices lead to Xers’ inability to make a choice. All the more reason to speak to them clearly and directly. Zalkin says Gen X is drawn to “a strong, singular voice… a compelling and true narrative will resonate much more than a brand with mass-consumer identity.”

Says Johnson, “Can we come up with a way to simply categorize them? No… If there is one overriding theme to all of this, maybe it is [that]… to connect with them, just make sure the stories you present through your marketing efforts [are] authentic and applicable to the way [they] live their lives.

For specialty retailers who want to attract Gen X, the trick is learning to stand out from the crowd. They must be done in ways that resonate with them. This means creating a marketing message they’ll accept for trending products they will buy.

Because this generation’s spending power and affluence will increase as they gain experience, knowledge, and (yes) age, now is the Time to court them, market to them, meet their needs, and move into their future with them.