How to court “Generation Z” for back-to-school purchases

Teenaged “Generation Z” shoppers are subtly different from older generations. Retailers need to know how to sell to them

Mother and daughter shopping for school supplies at Walmart

Mother and daughter shopping for school supplies at Walmart. (John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald/Getty)

It’s that time of the year again, when kids drag their parents along the different store aisles to check off school supplies, clothing and electronics on their list of back-to-school items. This year, however, retailers are advised to change their strategy to target the teens, who, according to Ernst and Young, are calling the shots on what to buy.

“A growing trend is just how much influence children have on what parents buy,” noted Daniel Baer, EY Partner and Canadian Retail and Consumer Products Sector Leader.  “Children are looking for what’s cool for the new school year, and as a result, loyalty to a retailer or brand is being eroded.”

Generation Z shoppers—those now aged between 14 and 19 and sometimes nicknamed “centennials” because they were born around the turn of the centurey—are more pragmatic than their elders generations, according to “Redefining loyalty for retail,” a report published in June by Ernst and Young. For instance, Gen Z rates free shipping and special discounts as the two most important features of a retail loyalty program—notably higher than Millennials and Gen X survey respondents.

EY’s report concludes this emphasis on frugality is because Gen Z have matured in the aftermath of the financial crisis and, having seen the recession’s effect on their families, are more careful with their money.

“The products themselves are more important to Gen Z than the brands that produce them, and these consumers will change brands easily in search of higher quality,” according to Arkansas-based marketing agency Martin-Wilbourne Partners. They’ve grown up in the world of digital shopping and can shop the way they want at the price they want, which means that things like free shipping are now table-stakes, not premium offerings.

However, to win over Gen Z Shoppers in today’s competitive retail environment, price and convenience alone will not keep their loyalty. Stores need to provide personalized offers and “omni-channel” access—a seamless customer experience across in-person and digital shopping—to keep Gen Z’s long-term loyalty. Picky on price and demanding of the products they buy, retailers will have to work for their business.