What do young people think about retail? How do they decide where and how they shop? Charlotte Hardie talks to them and reveals what you need to know about the next generation

Talking about their generation

Nadine Ramsberg - University student

Age 21 Lives Kingston
Favourite shops H&M and Topshop
Favourite website Asos, Net-a-Porter, eBay
Shopping habits Visits shops about twice a week to buy clothes. Looks online every month but only buys something online a few times a year. When she does it’s for shoes or clothes - particularly those that have sold out in store

Today’s generation of late teens and early twentysomethings holds the future of retail in its hands. In an increasingly digital world, retailers have never been so unsure about what the future holds. Just how important will online be? Will people still shop in bricks-and-mortar stores? How significant will mobile commerce become? Will there even be a high street 50 years from now? These are now everyday questions that even as recently as a five years ago weren’t on retailers’ radar.

Retail Week pulled together 12 people aged between 15 and 23 to find out more about how they shopped. And the key finding - which is good news for retailers - is that tomorrow’s shoppers still want stores, at least when it comes to fashion. They all placed a great importance on the in-store shopping experience. Louis Priday, 16, from Swindon, succinctly summarises the general attitude: “There will always be a place for shops. It’s just good to be able to go into a shop and look around.”

Alice Gividen - GCSE student

Age 15
Lives Northamptonshire
Favourite shops Aubin & Wills, Zara, Topshop and Primark
Favourite website Allsaints.co.uk, Asos, Bitchingandjunkfood.com
Shopping habits Shops every weekend for clothes. Looks online first but prefers to buy in-store. She buys online for brands that are difficult to find on the high street

This is a generation on a strict budget. Those who have left home have virtually no disposable income. Students are poorer now that grants are a rarity and tuition fees continue to rise and postgraduates are burdened with more debt. Lauren O’Callaghan, 23, from Lancashire, says she is “so poor she can’t remember the last time she shopped”.

Nevertheless, their outgoings are low and any disposable income they do have they can often spend on themselves and themselves alone. Many still live at home, have part-time jobs, are still subsidised by their parents, can’t afford or are inclined to save money, and don’t necessarily have the responsibility of mortgages, cars, bills or - for that matter - children. As Alice Gividen, 15, from Northamptonshire says: “Shopping takes priority. I need the clothes if I’m going to go out.”

Part of their loyalty to the humble bricks-and-mortar store is borne out of the social nature of shopping. As 21-year-old Chandini Armanani from northwest London, says: “I’d hate to do all my shopping online. I definitely prefer to go to shops for the social aspect. You wouldn’t say: ‘Today we’re going to stay in and shop online’.”

Grace Keating, 15, from West Sussex, agrees: “I love shopping, browsing, trying things on. It’s sociable. You go with your friends, it’s an activity.”

Chandini Armanani - Event assistant

Age 21
Lives Northwest London
Favourite shop Topshop
Favourite website Asos and eBay
Shopping habits Shops in a store every weekend, usually for shoes, dresses and tops. Buys online at least once a month, mostly for dresses and tops

This age group may not have money but they have time to spend visiting stores. This might not last, but what is interesting is this tech-savvy generation’s attitude towards online shopping. They may have been taught IT skills since the age of 4 or 5 and have used a computer for socialising since they were tweens, but they don’t default to spending online.

While many browse retailers’ websites, they don’t always want to buy via this channel - particularly from fashion retailers.

Nadine Ramsberg, 21, from Kingston, says that while she is always looking on Net-a-Porter and Asos, she generally only buys online if she has seen something in a store but can’t find it in the right size. Meanwhile 22-year-old Jasmin James from Northampton says she simply prefers shops to online - often because of the returns process.

A demand for quality

Kat Lawden - University student

Age 20
Lives South London
Favourite shop Zara
Favourite website eBay
Shopping habits Usually buys clothes in a store, and shops online about once a week usually for DVDs, books and electricals

So which bricks-and-mortar stores do they value? H&M, Topshop and Zara received frequent compliments. This may come as little surprise. After all, these people are their target demographic. But these are also retail brands that understand their shoppers and do not underestimate their exacting requirements.

Yes these are customers on a budget, but they don’t overlook design, quality or value for money. Nadine says: “H&M’s products aren’t bad at all. You don’t have to put up with shitty fabrics.”

This generation will pay more for product but only if they truly think it’s worth it. Superdry is one example. Despite being expensive, 15-year-old Georgia Bixley from Surrey is willing to dig deep because of the style of the clothes. At the other end of the scale, Armanani points to Jane Norman as a brand she feels has got it wrong: “Jane Norman’s supposed to be aimed at our age group but a jumper in there can cost £60. £60? Are you joking?”

Tom McFarland - A-level student

Age 18
Lives Surrey
Favourite shop Superdry
Favourite website Amazon
Shopping habits Visits stores around once a month to buy clothes, shoes and gifts. Buys online about twice a month for DVDs, electrical, or products that he has seen in a store but couldn’t or didn’t buy at the time

Kat Lawden, 20, from south London says she feels the same about American Apparel; good product but overpriced.
It is all too easy for retailers to assume that this price-conscious generation is willing to scrabble around for their purchases. Not so. Retailers that think they can get away with substandard customer service, poor store layouts or a messy store environment risk alienating their shoppers for good. 22-year-old Jasmin, for one, says she will turn on her heel if she encounters rude staff.

The younger generation’s choice of brands might often be restricted because of price at present, but they will happily turn their backs on them when they are earning more. Any loyalty they have towards a retailer at present (and not one person in the group came across as a particularly loyal shopper) risks being very short-lived indeed.

Both H&M and Zara were both criticised for their attitude to the store environment. Lowden says: “Some H&M stores look brilliant but others are awful. They need to sort that out.”

The ‘now’ generation

Louis Priday - GCSE student

Age 16
Lives Swindon
Favourite shop The Apple Store
Favourite website Thinkgeek.com
Shopping habits Shops in a store about once or twice a month, usually for gifts, clothes and books. Buys online once or twice a month, usually for electricals, games, gifts and to download music

Meanwhile James says one of her bugbears is the fact she can never find the clothes sported by H&M’s mannequins on the shopfloor. Tom McFarland, 18, from Surrey, places great importance both on the layout of a shop. For that reason, he says TK Maxx is one store he hates going into. Priday adds that he wants “transparency” the minute he enters a shop or he will leave.

This sense of ‘wanting it now’ came across in several different discussions with different members of the group. Perhaps this can be attributed in part to the fact that this generation has always known the ease and immediacy associated with technology - be that instant messenger or music downloads. They are - in a good way - demanding, and rightly so.

Michelle Malone, 17, from Enfield, refers to a time when she was in New Look and it didn’t have her size. “When I see something I like I want to be able to get it,” she says. The same can be said of queues. Those not yet in work might not have to rush back to the office on their lunch break and are not in a hurry to pick their children up, but that doesn’t mean they are any more prepared to put up with poor customer service.

Michelle Malone - A-level student

Age 17
Lives Enfield
Favourite shop H&M
Favourite website Asos
Shopping habits Visits shops about three times a month usually to buy tops, jeans and shoes. Buys online rarely, but when she does she buys clothes

Kris Bhojwani, 21, from Hertfordshire despises queuing so much he makes a case for having self-service machines in all stores like the grocers do already. “In M&S and Next you can sometimes find yourselves looping around the tills,” he says.

The online generation

There was also a strong sense that young people will demand more from the in-store experience in the future. Louis points out that one reason he loves the Apple Store is that it is interactive. Being able to test all the product in a sleek environment is something few others are able to offer. James already thinks stores “could be more interactive to draw people in”.

Kris Bhojwani - Postgraduate

Age 21
Lives Hertfordshire
Favourite shop Next
Favourite websitePlay.com
Shopping habits Visits stores weekly, usually to buy shoes, shirts and polo shirts. Buys online about four times a month for CDs and DVDs

But while stores remain a fundamental part of how these young people shop, multichannel is key to how they go about it. They all use the web to shop and most browse online before going into a store. They like being able to collect and return their online orders to a store; again, this desire for immediacy shone through.

Tom says that being able to return purchases to a store is often a determining factor in whether he shops online with that retailer at all. They want everything to be straightforward, they don’t want to waste their time queuing in a post office to take something back.

The discussions also unearthed common gripes with the online shopping experience. A lack of uniformity between the in-store and online experience of a retail brand is a common source of annoyance. Alice says often finds the two channels are “out of sync”: “I’ll see something online but then find it’s not in that retailer’s shop,” she says. Nadine, meanwhile, says she “sometimes sees stuff on sale online that then isn’t in the store, even though you’ve had a newsletter in your inbox telling you about it.” They don’t want any discrepancy between their online and offline experiences.

Retailers also need to work harder at getting young shoppers to relate to product online. Chandini says that while Topshop is her favourite store, she doesn’t like its website. One reason is because she once found a dress that looked perfect on Topshop.com, but when she looked at it in store it was tiny.

Asos affinity

One of the runaway etail favourites among the group is the indomitable Asos. While these shoppers aren’t particularly loyal, Asos is one brand to which they feel huge affinity.

Jasmin James - Postgraduate

Age 22
Lives Northampton
Favourite shopHouse of Fraser
Favourite website Asos
Shopping habits Visits shops every other week usually to buy party dresses and shoes. Doesn’t buy online that often - about once or twice a season

A commonly cited reason is the fact it shows product on models on its catwalk. They also valued even simple additions such as stating what size clothes its models were wearing helps them judge which size would be best for them. Another reason for Asos’ popularity is its range and the fact it stocks own-brand as well as a variety of other labels. “There’s huge variety and hundreds of things for you to see. You have options,” says Grace.

However, pleasing this generation of shoppers every time is never easy.

Jasmin says the fact there is “so much on Asos’ site” can actually put her off: “It’s just too slow to load and I end up going off it because I’m so frustrated.”

Another stand-out trend from conversations with this group of young shoppers was the fact they shop online far more regularly for certain products than others. For fashion, they often prefer to buy in a store but tend to use the online site to help inform that purchase.

Georgia Bixley - A-level student

Age 18
Lives Surrey
Favourite shop Superdry, River Island, Tesco
Favourite website Doesn’t have one
Shopping habits Shops in a store every one or two weeks for clothes and DVDs, and browses online first then buys in-store, but rarely buys online unless there is a significant discount

For items such as electricals, books, DVDs and music (usually downloaded) - and often when buying gifts - the online channel is usually their preferred channel. For that reason, Amazon emerged as another online favourite. “Amazon’s amazing,” says Louis. “It’s got everything you want. If you go to WHSmith or somewhere you don’t necessarily know whether what you want is going to be in stock.”

There is also a surprising amount of hesitancy towards shopping online for groceries. While this age group might not be doing big weekly shops for a family and will often prioritise socialising, fashion, music and gadgets above eating, many viewed it with suspicion. Michelle points out, for instance, that she was “brought up to look at sell-buy dates and the products themselves”, and she “wouldn’t trust the supermarkets to send me the best things”. Kris, meanwhile, would like to see free delivery from the supermarkets: “That’s the biggest deterrent for me. By me staying away, I’m saving them money.”

But their greatest suspicions by far surround mobile commerce. This generation might seemingly be surgically attached to their phones, but many simply cannot see the point in using them for shopping. Several didn’t feel their data was safe using mobile commerce.

Mobile doubts

Lauren O’Callaghan - Postgraduate

Age 23
Lives Lancashire
Favourite shop H&M
Favourite website Asos
Shopping habits Shops in a store about once a month, most often for dresses and shoes, shops online about once a month, most usually for shoes

Admittedly, mobile commerce is relatively new - as are smartphones. Such doubts may well wane just as people’s hesitancy towards online shopping has done as this channel has matured.

But a mobile phone’s size is a perceived problem that might be more difficult to overcome. As Kris says: “If I have to move a cursor on my phone, I’m not going to waste my time.” Lauren says she would be paranoid about pressing the wrong button, while Kat is bothered by the size of the screen and not being sure what she is typing in.

Louis welcomes Google’s plans to put a chip into a mobile so shoppers can just swipe it to buy product because it would save time and effort.

Equally more surprising is the group’s attitude towards retailers’ social media activity. There is an assumption, perhaps, that because we are living in an increasingly consumer society and one in which social networking is so ingrained in this generation’s way of life, that they will welcome with open arms any retail brand that wants to tap into their world.

Grace Keating - GSCE student

Age 15
Lives West Sussex
Favourite shop Topshop, H&M
Favourite website Asos
Shopping habits Shops in a store about once a week, usually for tops and shoes. Doesn’t buy online often, but when she does it’s for products such as bags and tops

However, while several in the group are open to retailers’ communications on Twitter - Jasmin welcomes Asos’ tweets about free delivery promotions, for instance - the same cannot be said of Facebook. Tom says he finds any brand’s attempt to communicate via Facebook infuriating because he views it as being a personal site. Louis agrees: “That’s not what I need social networking for.” Kat, meanwhile, says she is irritated by retailers who run marketing messages for competitions along the lines of: ‘Like our page to win this’. When consumerism enters their private socialising space, many consider it a step too far.

Young consumers may be on a budget, but they will not put up with substandard retailing and their loyalty is difficult to earn. Alienate them now and any potential spending power is gone for good. Understand their mindset and it will help you understand not only how to grow your business, but also how to tap into the big spenders of tomorrow.