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How Brands Can Effectively Baby a Millennial: Four Crucial Tips

Millennials getting their shopping on. Photo by Getty Images.
Millennials getting their shopping on. Photo by Getty Images.

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Between social media, e-commerce, and emerging technology, the way we shop has changed dramatically. At yesterday's Fashion Tech Forum, hosted by Gap, Karen Harvey, and partner Elle Magazine at Chelsea Piers in New York City, many panels discussed millennial shoppers—a group born between the ages of 1982 and 1996 that is two billion strong. Millennials grew up accustomed to a certain immediacy and sufficiency and as a result, can be quite demanding.

Jamie Gutfreund, the chief marketing officer of research and marketing group Noise, told a group of some 400 entrepreneurs, CEOs and media personal that the key to expanding or even a launching a business these days is to understand the way millennial shoppers work.

"Words often used to describe millennial, or Generation Y, are 'entitled, selfish, impatient.' Why do they behave like that?" Gutfreund said. "But really, they are the most misunderstood generation. They live in a real-time world and are looking for efficiency."

Below are a few guidelines Gutfreund laid out as a way for businesses to keep up with the millennial shopper.

1. More transparency, more customer involvement.
Millennials see themselves as venture consumers. Email and social media have made shopping more transparent, to the extent that customers have the ability to contact any CEO or retail employee they'd like (or at least that's how they feel). Today, buying a brand makes consumers feel like they are ambassadors and that they are almost "voting for that company," Gutfreund explained.

"If I'm buying a Michael Kors bag, it says to the world, 'I believe in Michael Kors' company,'" she said. "Millennial shoppers are saying, "don't just sell me, collaborate with me!'"

Gutfreund suggested companies break down barriers to connect more with customers and work on collaborative projects so consumers feel like they are actually part of the process. She pointed to virtual reality headset company Oculus that was bought by Facebook for $2 billion and only got on its feet after a Kickstarter campaign, as well as fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, who's using startup CrowDemand to create clothing that her customers request.

Having real people and strong personalities leading the way can also be helpful for brands. Gutfreund pointed out Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal as someone who garners a loyal following because of her personality. Connecting people and faces to the brand, instead of simply a name or image, adds that "personable" touch that young shoppers seem to crave.

2. Doing good goes a long way.
Companies like Warby Parker, TOMS and Everlane have ethical missions attached to their products. Emerging companies should now think about the ethical and social impacts of their business—because even if the company doesn't really care, its consumers certainly do.

"The biggest shift is that millennials don't want to make money, they want to make meaning," Gutfreund said. "Their ideas, their thoughts, the innovations need to have great value. Give them a message of what they stand for, of a lifestyle they find meaningful."

Warby Parker's Do Good marketing campaign.

Gutfreund mentioned Gap, which just confirmed it will raise its employee minimum wage to $9 (Ikea just followed suit, announcing today that it will one-up Gap and pay employees $10.76 an hour), as an example. While consumers of a previous generation might recall that Gap was once tied to sweatshop labor, young shoppers find Gap appealing now for its humanitarian efforts.

3. Consider temporary, reusable, or rentable items.
Having a jam-packed closet used to be trendy: now younger shoppers think less is better, Gutfreund said, especially when there's an option to rent. Rent the Runway has solved the problem of once-and-done evening gowns, companies like Uber and Zipcar offer similar solutions for transportation. New startup NextSuit will launch soon, allowing men to rent suits monthly for under $200.

"Millennials have realized that overspending is not good for for the environment and they think they will improve it by owning less," she said. "One third would rather have access to something than own it, which is why I call them "nowners." Ownership used to be aspirational but now it's about access."

The marketplace for buying and selling clothes has also expanded, with startups like Bib + Tuck, Thredup, Tradesy and Poshmark making it easy to get rid of used clothing. Gutfreund said 44 percent of shoppers consider an item's resell value before buying it, which is why companies like Levi's, Michael Kors, Nike, and Patagonia—who all maintain value—continue to stay popular.

4. Online inventory MUST match what's in stores.
Yes, online shopping is important, but "what's more frustrating than not seeing items on hangers that you saw on the website?"

54 percent of young consumers research an item before purchasing, Gutfreund explained, which is exponentially more than five years ago. With people trolling sites like Pinterest, Polyvore, Instagram and Wanelo for merchandise, online presence and e-commerce is important but brick-and-mortar locations should not suffer as a result.

""[Millennial shoppers] say it's important for online [items] to match in-stores. They say, 'I want what I want, when I want it.'"

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