When it comes to brand loyalty, Gen Z is by far the toughest generation to win over. More complex and aware than previous age groups, these consumers cater to very specific criteria when choosing with whom to spend. New research from retail marketplace analysis firm ICSC examines the shopping habits, behaviors, and factors that most influence how the cohort interacts with retailers. The results showcase a generation that is keenly aware of the state of the economy as their spending power grows, and balances being cost-conscious with being willing to pay for convenience and quality.
The firm’s latest study, The Rise of the Gen Z Consumer, finds that Gen Z has a distinct sense of brand loyalty, driven by value, omnichannel offerings, and a proclivity for brands whose values align with their own. While price and convenience remain the number-one driver of their behavior, Gen Z is unafraid to champion their values, which are reflected in their shopping habits. More than half (56 percent) say they are willing to spend more for sustainably sourced products. When asked about their top concerns and causes, they cite mental health (53 percent), climate change and sustainability (47 percent), racial and gender equity (47 percent), and LGBTQ+ rights (26 percent). Two in 5 say ethical labor practices are an “essential” when choosing to support a company.
“Gen Z is an increasingly important demographic as more of them graduate from school, transition to their first full-time job, and mature into more spending power,” said ICSC president and CEO Tom McGee, in a news release. “Our study found that many of the stereotypes and preconceived notions attached to this cohort are unfounded, however, their habits will influence retail strategy, marketplace makeup, and broader economic trends for years to come.”
A broader worldview than other generations at this age
An overwhelming 78 percent of respondents are concerned about the state of the U.S. economy—a number that increased to 84 percent amongst the older representatives of Gen Z, those ages 23–26, compared to 71 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds. This concern mirrors their habits around discount shopping, as 48 percent of respondents prefer off-price and discount retailers. However, this generation is willing to pay for what they want—particularly speed and convenience. Nearly half (48 percent) say they would pay a premium to have online orders delivered more quickly.
Don’t pigeonhole this group—they defy stereotyping
Beyond their sentiment around economic concerns and its impact on their shopping habits, Gen Z also shirks stereotypes when it comes to their personal priorities. Despite having a reputation for prioritizing leisure and personal interests, members of Gen Z are five times as likely to value successful careers over having the newest items. The survey results show a generation-wide inclination for planning for times of uncertainty, with more Gen Z consumers (41 percent) reporting that they save more than they spend compared to those who spend more than they save (36 percent).
Responsible financial habits are also reflected in their credit usage, as 45 percent of Gen Z report using debit cards as their primary source of payment, ahead of cash (21 percent) and credit cards (17 percent). Even buy now, pay later options are rarely used, with only 3 percent saying they use these services often.
Don’t confuse ‘digital native’ with ‘digital first’
While Gen Z is often viewed as a generation that grew up online, nearly all respondents (97 percent) shop at brick-and-mortar stores, driven by the immediacy with which they can walk away with a product, as well as the ability to see, touch, and try products before buying.
Still, this group is heavily influenced by social media when it comes to shopping—85 percent say the medium impacts their purchasing decisions, naming Instagram and TikTok (45 percent, respectively) as their preferred platforms. However, influencers are not the primary influence on Gen Z when they seek out a new product—instead, 56 percent say recommendations from friends and family carry the most weight, followed by reviews on product websites (54 percent), and interactions with store associates and seeing the product in person (43 percent).
Influencers play a role, but only 39 percent cite them among their top three deciding factors.
“Our survey shows that despite being ‘digital natives,’ Gen Z is an omnichannel generation,” said McGee. “The percentage of respondents who shop online versus in-person are nearly identical, demonstrating that focusing on a particular channel is no longer the priority. Rather, retailers that can successfully offer convenience, quality, and speed, and have a diversified presence across in-store and digital, will be well-positioned to capture the loyalty of this demographic.”
From March 2 to March 8, 2023, ICSC and Big Village, conducted a national survey of 1,008 respondents from Generation Z, ages 16 to 26. The survey reflected a cross-section of part-time workers, full-time workers, and students, as well as living situations—including those living at home with family or guardians, renters, homeowners, and college or university housing.