by ANANYA BHATTACHARYA

By a rack of clothes in Forever 21, a twenty-something woman in an oversized navy sweater scrolls on her smartphone, telling her friend, “I’m sure I saw this exact same top on sale a couple of days ago, but I can’t find it on the website anymore! Should I get it anyway or wait for another online flash sale?” She plops her handbag down on the floor next to her and feels the material of the top, puts it against herself and holds it up to the mirror. For another fifteen minutes, she goes in and out of the fitting room, all the while clutching onto the mint green piece of clothing. Finally, she shakes her head and says to her friend, “Never mind, I’ll just wait till I can find it online,” and walks out of the store empty-handed.

Unwittingly typifying majority of Gen Y, the woman with a phone in one hand and a product in another exemplifies contemporary shopping culture. New vocabulary has risen from the practices of millennials who have one foot in the store and one hand on the laptop. With options teeming on the Internet, “webrooming”—browsing products on the Internet—precedes, and often eliminates, store visits. While customers still venture outside the four walls of their heated bedrooms to test out products, many are in favor of returning to the web to make their purchase. This is known as “showrooming” or “webbounding.” Millennials appear to be the masters of this new shopping universe, combining the virtual and physical experiences in search of the top rated products for the lowest price.

online vs brick

‘Winning The Fight For Millennial Shoppers’

You might picture millennials glued to their computer screens, clicking away robotically but they remain as skeptical as previous generations about buying things without trying them. 81 percent of millennial retail spending occurred in brick-and-mortar stores, compared to only 19 percent online, according to the 2013 study ‘Winning The Fight For Millennial Shoppers’ by the market research company, NPD Group. Jeff Fromm, co-author of ‘Marketing to Millennials: Reach The Largest & Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever,” further emphasizes that despite the ubiquitous presence of web retail and reviews, experiential shopping methods still remain close to millennial hearts. “How important is the purchase—do I want to touch it, feel it, smell it, try it? Varieties of consumers look through different lenses. Millennials still enjoy both traditional and non-traditional shopping experiences,” Fromm said.

Consistent across the three generations, 36 percent of millennials, Gen X and baby boomers each groups said they would go online to buy from a retailer’s website if they want a product after the company’s stores are closed, according to ‘Who are the Millennial shoppers? And what do they really want?’, an Accenture Outlook study. But here’s the difference between going shopping with my mom and my friend— my mom would never say, “Macy’s has wi-fi right? Macy’s always has free wi-fi! Let me look this up.”

Photo: © marketoonist.com

Photo: © marketoonist.com

Many millennials remain non-committal to one platform; multichannel retail—using online, mobile and physical stores in conjunction with one another—is gaining popularity. On average, 89 percent millennials would be influenced about which stores to frequent depending on real-time product availability information, the aforementioned Accenture study found.

Gen Y grew up during a technological revolution, making them more confident of online shopping. “I like shopping online because now I know my size and fit pretty well so I can easily order it online and have it within a couple of days,” said Niharika Naveen, 20. “I wouldn’t purchase something online if it was incredibly expensive or couldn’t be returned for free,” she added, uncovering her uncertainties with the web.

The doubt regarding a product’s consistency with it’s online description, coupled with the untimely deliveries could make shoppers conservative about fully resigning to the web. For instance, during Christmas 2013, UPS left many people without gifts in time for Christmas because they couldn’t keep up with the volume of deliveries they scheduled for the holiday student. In September 2014, they announced that they expected to hire 90,000 to 95,000 seasonal workers to avoid the same mishap this holiday season.

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/eucyln

Photo: © iStockphoto.com/eucyln

As retailers and delivery services smoothen the online experience, consumers navigate the web with caution, relying on the online community. “Reviews are the most important resource when shopping online. Not only do I look at how well something is rated, but also the number of reviews and sometimes even the reviewers themselves. Reviews to me, act as a salesperson would in an actual store,’ said Sid Choudhary, 20. However, these methods are more effective when websites are easy to navigate, offer a wide selection of easily inspected products and provide proper security protocols at checkout.

On one hand, millennials have been engaging directly with brands and fellow shoppers but conversely, they have learned to verify all online information with a lens of doubt, treating-user delegated information on the web with a grain of salt. “I look to buy clothes and electronics online but I would never buy a product I am not already knowledge about because the online information seems inadequate then,” said Choudhary, adding that overwhelming information when you don’t know what exactly you are looking for can work against the online shopping experience by confusing shoppers instead of clarifying their doubts.

Millennial trends expert, Maryleigh Bliss, attributes the online attraction for millennial to physical stores becoming redundant. “Online is so much more appealing. Millennials are still into black Friday shopping because it’s a tradition- if its annual, traditional, they are into it because it is an experience. Millennials want to create an event out of everything.”

Photo: www.birchbox.com

Photo: www.birchbox.com

Recognizing that a majority of retail still happens offline and adapting accordingly, online stalwarts such as Amazon, Rent the Runway and Birchbox, opened brick-and-mortar stores to suit the millennial consumer. Setting an example of the modern store, as discussed in the New York Magazine article ‘Birchbox’s First Brick-and-Mortar Store Actually Makes Sense,’ Birchbox organizes it’s store for convenient searches, incorporates a touchscreen product-matcher, has a Build-your-own Birchbox counter as well as allows for in-store browsing on iPads.

“Their booth with manicure and hair styling options which is unique and unexpected. If I go to any other make-up store, I doubt I’d come back. If there’s nothing special that makes a stand apart, I doubt they can develop customer loyalty,” said Satya Gatiganti, 19, who recently visited the Birchbox store with her friend Ayushi Chamaria, also 19.

“We’re too impatient to shop conventionally. The new Birchbox store increases convenience. It reduces my shopping time, effort and energy. I could shop and get ready in the same place and my choices were made fast on the devices and I also enjoyed the service aspect when the hairdresser attended to me,” said Chamaria.

The millennial consumer may be shopping similarly online and offline to other generations in terms of the transactions made, but their shopping habits are reflective of a much more tech-savvy generation. The girl in Forever 21 shouldn’t need to browse through her phone and not be able to locate the product in front of her. Nor should she come in with an online link and not be able to try it in store. The modern shopping experience needs stores to compliment a robust online presence.