For the record, I’m not a member of the Millennial generation. I squeaked by under the limbo bar, just before the curtain dropped on Generation X.
As such, I have one foot firmly submerged in each kiddie pool: my assigned seat is equidistant from my fellow Gen X members and the Millennial camp. And as such, I can view the world through both perspectives. I can lambast Millennials in one breath, citing their unrealistic outlook and entitlement mentality, but put a comforting and sympathetic arm around them the next, and genuinely reassure them that I feel their pain.
I’m funny that way. 😉
So when Fortune Magazine tweeted this article, with the click-bait tag-line “Millennials are killing department stores”, I had double the reason to take the click-bait.
I nibbled, and promptly spit it out.
Millennials are so not killing department stores in America. The stores are indeed dying, and some of the deaths are grisly. But I assure you: it ain’t the Millennials’ fault.
In fact, Millennials have very little to do with the death(s) of US department stores.
The stores are doing it to themselves.
In case the department stores haven’t heard: dude, you’re doing it wrong.
The article, in a fit of self-absorbed martyrdom, doth protest too much: “see? Look at all we’ve done for you. Investing tons of money in beefing up our online presence and catering to your dependence on technology. See? We can be cool, hip, and trendy, too! We’re innovative!”
The implication is that Millennials think department stores are dinosaur-esque has-beens, that they haven’t kept up with the times, that they’ve clung too tightly to the tried and true.
But I don’t think that’s it at all. Department stores have changed. In terms of their web presence, they certainly have innovated.
In fact, I think they’ve innovated too much; it’s just that they’ve innovated in the wrong ways.
They were some of the first retailers to roll out their new store-branded credit cards. I can envision a bunch of out-of-touch suits, mostly older men, sitting around trying to climb inside the heads of the average shopper, mostly young-to-middle-age women. And now that the X and Millennial generations have come up in both age and status, the fat-suits finally figured out that it might be a good time to start catering to us.
Either they didn’t actually consult with us, or they asked the way-wrong people. Because despite their marketing research efforts, they’re still failing.
I’m not exactly your average Gen X-and-a-half female, so I can’t speak for the average. I don’t live inside their heads, either. (The wisdom comes from the fact that I don’t claim to.)
I don’t know what it is about department stores that’s turning off the Average Jane. But I do know what’s turning me off.
As I mentioned, the fundamental flaw with department stores is that they’ve changed too much, and they’ve gone in the wrong direction.
The shelves are lined with merchandise, but the selection still sucks. The products themselves are too cutesy and trying-too-hard trendy. They’re not practical. They’re not sensible.
The merchandise wasn’t made in the US like it was in the Department Store Heyday; it’s made cheaply, in China. None of the brands are the same as they used to be; they’ve all gone downhill, with only the rarest of exceptions.
There are exclusive online-only specials (misguided “innovation” attempt?), but all that means to me is that I can’t go and “kick the tires”, so to speak. I can’t physically handle and inspect it for myself. Online listings are often information-scarce, often neglecting to mention much-needed specifics like dimensions (will it fit on my counter top?), materials (what’s it made out of?), and such.
And then there’s the antiquated ploys to shove more of their stuff in front of your eyeballs to fuel the timeless Impulse Buy. The Impulse Buy certainly still exists, but with a twist: it has to be convenient. Even the stay-at-home mom of today runs on a tighter timetable; she doesn’t have nearly as much leisure time to blissfully browse through the endless departments, examining every single item on the shelf. She enters the store on a mission from the git-go (to the observer, one might say she’s on the warpath). Shopping is damn near a sport, and there are extra points for shopping smart, one aspect of which is efficiency. It’s not just about the cool thingamajig you snagged at a decent price, but how fast you did it. Because there’s so much more to accomplish in the 21st-century day–their kids are involved in more extracurricular activities, and chances are, the moms are, too.
This means that nobody’s going to want to paw through an endless array of nonsensical items that don’t fit the bill. All the tire-kicking capability in the world isn’t going to change that. And it no longer adds up to additional Impulse Buys for the store; all it does is drive down foot traffic. Which is exactly what these stores are complaining about.
Price tags have sure kept up with the times, though. Despite declining quality, to boot.
And therein lies the problem, at least for me. The wrong combinations of contradictions. When you hit the proverbial Total Button, here’s what you get: a big store (potentially good–but potentially cumbersome), only to find a limited selection of sensible stuff (annoying) (or a limited selection of nonsensible stuff–even more annoying) that is cutesy (not universally important) but cheaply made (eventually annoying to the smarter among us), for inflated 21st-century prices (disaster).
Really, when all these factors are considered, what’s not to dislike?
If the “blame” could ever be borne by the consumer, it’s not necessarily a generational thing, per se. It’s not that Millennials think department stores are uncool and thus refuse to shop there. It’s that nobody has the time or desire to wade through an endless maze of dead-ends, feeling trapped inside a Vegas Casino, looking at piles of irrelevant, overpriced merchandise, only to be met with yet one more credit card sales-push at the register. All the while, annoying music is blaring, again with the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool vibe.
Ugh. Epic fail. I dislike shopping anyway, and department store experiences only reinforce my disgust.
Personally, I would have no problem visiting department stores if they could consistently abide by the following:
- Sensible, decent-quality products, made not just in China, at a fair price
- Easily-navigable store, with a ban on spraying perfume (ugh, perfume)
- Decent music set on a reasonable volume
- No sales pitches, at the register or over the speaker system
- Speaking of sales, reasonable ones are good; I don’t care so much about “buy one, get one”; if it’s that cheaply made, why do I even want to buy one? And what use would I have for a second one?
- Don’t try to be all things to all people; boutique stores are all the rage now, and they’re small and specific–but they’re boasting more success
- Don’t try to get too cutesy or trendy; there’s room in the world–and something to be said–for timeless classics
Notice that none of these desires are unique to Millennials (I’m not one, and all I did was list a few of my own recommendations!), nor are they generation-specific at all.
If there’s any difference between then and now, it’s not the list of suggestions above; it’s simply that younger people came of age in a faster-paced world, where pacing yourself to a faster clock is paramount to function and survival, and they’re/we’re simply more honest (out of necessity) about what we need and want. Previous generations could afford the all-day browsing time; we can’t. Ironically, part of the reason we can’t do what our predecessors did is that we’re operating in that faster-paced world…built by our predecessors (!).
If department stores could embrace the intelligence, sophistication, and sensibilities of the contemporary population, while respecting our time and avoiding the no-no of wasting it, I think they could make a serious comeback.
And if they could stop blaming their inadequacies, frustrating strategies, annoying tactics, and soft earnings statements on other generations, that would be great.
But that’s just my 2c. 🙂