Bridging the Gap

The day before I sat down to write this month’s column, I read an article in Advertising Age magazine’s American Demographics sub-section that discussed the many ways the American consumer is changing. One is the shift from older to younger consumers. Both are significant forces in the marketplace. The messages each responds to are vastly different, and it isn’t just about the obvious differences in delivery methods (i.e., older customers are much more likely to rely on print, while younger consumers are totally wired). The article also discussed regionalism and diversity and revealed that the Northeast has the oldest and least diverse population, and the South and West have the youngest and most diverse population.

For the most part, the jewelry industry’s ways of messaging resonate much more with an older demographic than a younger one. Emotion, of course, is common to all, but studies show baby boomers tend to value privacy, whereas Millennials are quite open about sharing what boomers would consider deeply personal information. As boomers age—the first will turn 65 in three years—they will become more and more risk-averse, which means marketers targeting them will want to emphasize trust-building elements like guarantees and the longevity of their businesses. This is good news for jewelers, as those already are common themes in marketing.

But what happens when that generation no longer buys jewelry? As boomers move toward (and into) retirement, their spending priorities will change, and jewelry likely will become less important. Or they might buy jewelry for a grandchild rather than a spouse, which probably means a less costly item. The last of the boomers—now 44—already are in the middle of the 35–54 cycle, the heaviest-spending demographic, whose members often have dual incomes and children at home. Meanwhile, the first of the Millennials, now 30, are fast approaching the start of the heavy-spend cycle.

The old adage that we eventually become our parents isn’t entirely true—yes, boomers are starting to exhibit some behaviors typically associated with senior citizens, and eventually the Millennials will too, but not for a very long time.

First, Millennials will have to redefine the marketplace, just as the boomers did when they hit adulthood. Think about your parents at your age and think about yourself now. Are you listening to the same music they did? Not likely. Do you behave the same way they did? Probably not. You didn’t turn into your parents, and the Millennials won’t turn into you.

That’s not to say Millennials don’t value a guarantee or trust—they do—but they won’t necessarily trust you just because you say you’re trustworthy or because you’ve been around for four generations. They’ll define their own parameters of trust. Remember, this demographic is all about transparency, but this industry is still shrouded in secrecy and hidden price tags—a serious disconnect waiting to happen.

The good news is that you can bridge the—dare I say it—generation gap. You don’t have to jump it à la Evel Knievel (Evil who?).

Here’s an exercise to help you get in touch with the next generation of consumers. Find out—from your kids, grandkids, neighbor’s kids, young staffers, or your staff’s kids—what social causes turn them on and how they think you could get on board with that cause. Research has shown this generation to be extremely socially conscious, so rather than, say, trying to advertise via cell phone, try finding common ground you’re both comfortable with. Most jewelers are active in charitable organizations, so it’s a matter of taking what you already know how to do and turning it in a direction that new consumers are headed toward.

If you find that you’re turning to staffers’ kids rather than your staff, take it as a warning sign that you might be out of touch. If you don’t have room to hire anyone (and it’s illegal to discriminate by age, anyway), consider building a regular advisory board of teens and those in their 20s to help you learn how to stay relevant in future years. Invite them in for a periodic (once a quarter, perhaps) get-together to pick their brains. This generation loves to offer opinions, and if you take them and their ideas seriously, they’ll talk you up to all their friends, who in turn will check you out and spread the word. (It’s called “viral marketing.”) You won’t just be the nice old jeweler who taught them about diamonds for their engagement ring—you’ll be the cool jeweler who gets it. And the jeweler who gets it also gets their business.