In a notable shift from previous years, the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2023 “Big Show” has seen a reduced emphasis on Generation Z, despite the demographic’s growing influence in the retail sector. This year’s conference agenda, heavily centered on artificial intelligence (AI) and technology, marks a departure from the Gen Z-focused discussions of the past.
Gen Z’s diminished presence in retail discussions
The NRF’s annual event, a key gathering for retail professionals, has historically addressed a wide range of topics, including consumer trends and technological advancements. In 2023, however, only a single session titled “Digital Strategies to Decode Gen Z” was explicitly dedicated to Generation Z. Notably absent were sessions on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and general social media – all significant channels for Gen Z engagement. This lack of focus extends to the absence of Gen Z influencers, who have become crucial in brand building and marketing strategies.
Retail giants like Sephora, Ulta Beauty, and Glossier, known for their popularity among Gen Z consumers, participated in broader discussions on 2024 trends and specific segments like beauty, rather than focusing solely on the Gen Z market.
The growing importance of Gen Z
Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is poised to become the largest consumer segment, according to Insider Intelligence. Retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacsun have already leveraged this demographic’s increasing economic power. Market research firms have invested heavily in understanding Gen Z’s interests, values, and expectations from brands, reflecting the group’s significance.
Despite this, the 2023 NRF event has seen a shift towards AI, reflecting a broader focus on technology. This contrasts with last year’s event, where Gen Z was a prominent theme, with discussions around NFTs, the metaverse, and live shopping – all areas of keen interest to Gen Z.
Technology over Gen Z: A strategic shift?
According to Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at CI&T, this year’s NRF event is more technical and operational, with AI playing a central role. This focus has seemingly sidelined Gen Z topics, which were more implicit in the discussions. The agenda reflects a prioritization of AI, aligning with the substantial attention it has received in the past year.
Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of Gen Z Planet, also acknowledged the priority shift, noting the importance of AI in the current retail landscape. However, she expressed surprise at the lack of explicit focus on Gen Z, considering their growing role as consumers and employees in the retail sector.
Gen Z’s relevance in various NRF topics
Ben-Shabat pointed out that many NRF sessions naturally lend themselves to discussions about Gen Z. For example, sessions on workforce retention and training, store design, and in-store shopping experiences are areas where Gen Z’s perspectives and behaviors are particularly relevant.
Comparing NRF and CES: Differing approaches to Gen Z
The 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), another prominent industry event, appeared to place more emphasis on Gen Z, despite its technology-heavy agenda. CES featured multiple sessions specifically targeting Gen Z, including discussions on the metaverse and virtual reality, with speakers from diverse backgrounds like Roblox and TikTok.
Minkow emphasized that while NRF is largely focused on consumer trends and operations, there is room for integrating discussions on both Gen Z and technology, including how this demographic interacts with tech in retail settings. However, she cautioned against redundancy in focusing too heavily on any single demographic’s shopping behaviors.
Despite the evident shift in focus at this year’s NRF event, experts like Ben-Shabat do not believe it indicates fatigue
around discussing Gen Z. Instead, there seems to be an underestimation of the importance of Gen Z as both consumers and employees in the retail space. This underestimation is reflected in the event’s agenda, which has moved away from topics like TikTok and creator brands, key elements in understanding and engaging with Gen Z.
Understanding Gen Z in the retail landscape
While the focus on AI and technology is understandable given their increasing relevance in retail operations, it’s critical not to overlook the unique characteristics and preferences of Gen Z consumers. This demographic is known for its tech-savviness and preference for engaging, interactive shopping experiences, which align well with emerging technologies like AI. Retailers need to consider how these technologies can be used to enhance the Gen Z shopping experience.
Gen Z’s influence extends beyond their role as consumers. As they become a more dominant part of the workforce, especially in retail, their values and preferences will shape the industry’s evolution. Retailers should consider how to attract, retain, and promote Gen Z employees, who can offer valuable insights into this key demographic.
Balancing Gen Z engagement with technological advancements
Retailers face the challenge of balancing the integration of cutting-edge technologies with the need to engage effectively with Gen Z. This involves understanding the unique behaviors, preferences, and values of Gen Z consumers, and how these intersect with technological advancements like AI and the metaverse.
The diminished focus on Gen Z at NRF’s 2023 event may indicate a need for retailers to reassess their strategies to ensure they are not overlooking this crucial demographic. As Gen Z continues to grow in economic power and influence, it’s essential for retailers to integrate their preferences and behaviors into their operational and marketing strategies, alongside the adoption of new technologies.