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Magic Mirror vs. the Human Experience: Using Technology to Woo Millennials, Centennials (Part 1)

Regardless of when we were born, whether we are 35-year-old mothers or 12-year-old daughters, we all have one thing in common: We like to be bowled over, and not necessarily in the aisles.

This very human quirk stretches back from the days of the Greek Agoras to the ribbon cutting at the Mall of America to the launch of Birchbox.com. It also exists across pretty much all geographies and age groups. Boomer, millennial, centennial; it doesn’t matter. Retail’s most lucrative market segment today cannot be neatly packaged and then targeted under a catchy name.

Not as long as technology sets the pace, and it is, rapidly.

Lady_TabletMirrorMany of us have read the recent headlines declaring that the ballyhooed millennials (18 to 34 year olds) have overtaken the venerated baby boomer population in size. That makes for good headlines, but it does not change the fact that those who make purchase decisions extend beyond the millennial age range in both directions. Technology influences how and where every segment of this broader age group shops – in a store, through a smartphone or via social media app – and that influence is fluid because of adaptation.

To resonate with these shoppers, regardless of age, retailers will likely need to locate the nexus where online and physical shopping connect, and it can be a moving target. But one factor is clear: it involves happiness.

From 10 to 40, a Hair-Raising Venture

Let’s, for the sake of keeping mothers and daughters together, consider 10- to 35-year-olds, as recently described by cultural and marketing expert Max Valiquette at a recent presentation to Canadian marketers.

Roughly 105 million Americans, or one-third the population, fall within this 25-year range, he said. (Add 36 to 40 year olds and you’ve got 40 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates.) Each five-year segment within the group represents roughly 6.5 percent to 7 percent of the population. And while many key differences reside within the broader group regarding shopping preferences, these differences shift even within these fiver-year age spans.

For example, the favored forms of communications among 10- to 35-year-olds has fluctuated over the years from email to text to social media, but even among 15- to 19-year- olds, those preferences can shift. Maybe the rapid changes in technology have a role to play in this – that even within five-year cohorts we can see differences in how these groups use and adopt technology.

In short, to assume the boomers, millennials or centennials (those up to age 18, according to The Futures Company) each represents one segment or “cohort” is a mistake.

Yet these unmistakably minor variations can disproportionately shape individual shopping experiences. The challenge for retailers is trying to identify these desired experiences when big sister and little sister have different preferences, but little sister and mom have the same.

The juncture of online and physical shopping is a moving target. However, I believe that target follows one focal point, and that is whatever defines a productive, social experience. Again, we return to happiness.

Magic Mirrors on the Wall

The question for many, then, is whether the road to happiness is lined with shopping malls or digital devices. We’ve pretty much established it is both, but how do retailers stitch together the pieces? How can they combine their vast elements of data from across age groups into a fabric of information that promotes fluid customer understanding?

We start by examining the qualities of the very successful retail environments, both physical and digital. While certain brands come to mind – Nordstrom, Apple and Warby Parker – we should not limit the examination to company. We should dial out our focus to include features, functions and even mood.

As described in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer story, a preferred shopping experience among Millennials can be a four-hour, mother-daughter trip to the mall. However, a 17-year-old may prefer to buy her clothes online and then show off her purchases via a YouTube “haul” video. Very different experiences, but they both serve a common desire – to share the conquest. Let’s not overlook that shopping is a descendant of hunting and gathering.

Technology has enabled many entertaining functions for shopping digitally, especially for those time-strapped, double-income families – it is hard to resist the Magic Mirror technology that projects a clothing image on a user’s own mirror so she virtually try the item on. However, I suspect these gizmos, like “shopbots,” are novelties that simply punctuate the broader conversation around what defines shopping as a human experience.

To determine that, we’ll have to address a few questions:

Q: How can online merchants create a digital environment that emulates the shared, relationship-based shopping experience many people still savor with family and friends?

Q: How should the combination of physical and digital purchasing – using one to complement the other – change the nature of physical shopping?

Q: We have evolved from mega mall to power center to online shopping. What will the future hold in terms of shopping formats?

In the coming weeks I will address each of these questions and attempt to peel away the misconceptions.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.

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