The Industry and the Millennials: What Do They Want?

I received a lot of interesting responses to my posts on millennials and the industry’s funk. Many agreed the trade has a Gen Y problem. “Millennials such as my sons could care less for jewelry,” one person wrote. 

We are not the only industry they seem to be turning their back on, according to Business Insider

Americans are increasingly spending less on clothes and home furnishings, a trend that could hurt [retailers’] business for years to come…

A recent report by Morgan Stanley shows that millennials are spending more on expenses like rent, cell phones, and personal services than young people a decade ago. This leaves less money for buying clothes.

“Shoppers are spending more of their disposable dollars on categories we don’t sell, like cars, health care, electronics, and home improvement,” [Macy’s CFO Karen] Hoguet said in a call with investors. 

On the other hand, an equally vocal crew believes that some jewelers have, in fact, figured out the formula. “The millennials are the jewelry buyers,” a commenter wrote. “My best clients are doing business and it is with the millennials, the future of our industry. The jewelers who are crying the most are working the same way they did 25 years ago.” 

These perspectives are necessarily at odds: Many stores may not now be appealing to younger consumers. But it’s certainly possible.  

Recently, I talked with the heads of Gemvara, the Boston-based custom-design site, CEO Matt Nichols and president Jon Blotner. While they run a jewelry e-tailer, they don’t dispute that younger consumers have issues with the business. At one point, they asked me what jewelry brands are doing well with the millennial buyer. I came up with Pandora and Alex and Ani—both low-end charm brands—and that’s it.

Gemvara considers itself “a true millennial brand.” Millennials constitute half its customers, as well as half its employees, including Blotner. (Nichols missed the cutoff by two years.)

The two execs had the following insights into this oft-confounding demographic.

– Don’t tell millennials what to buy.

Gen Y-ers grew up in a world where they could buy just about anything their imaginations could conjure with the click of a button. “They are used to unlimited choice,” Nichols says.

“We did some tests when we went to local jewelers,” Blotner says. “We said we wanted a yellow sapphire engagement ring. And they all said, you don’t want a yellow sapphire, you want a diamond. That won’t work anymore.”

Millennials want something unique.

With so much choice, why would you buy something the rest of the world has? 

This generation favors self-expression, from tattoos (40 percent have them) to social media profiles (75 percent have profiles on at least one site) to selfies (55 percent have taken at least one). They want the products they buy to express who they are. That naturally applies to their jewelry.   

They also want interactivity—some 42 percent said they are interested in helping companies develop their products. In many industries, that’s not possible. When putting together a piece of jewelry, it is. 

– They like a story.

When you have a unique piece, you can talk about why you choose each component.   

“The millennials want to tell a story about what they buy,” Blotner says. “When you have an item that expresses a person’s individuality, that’s a real powerful story.” 

– They have issues with diamonds. 

The Gemvara execs have a bias here, as their site is big on gemstone engagement rings, which they say have shot up. But when they polled younger consumers about diamond engagement rings, they heard words like traditional and standard—not big selling points with this crowd. Some dredged up the various industry controversies.   

Does all this mean that millennials won’t buy diamonds, and the industry is doomed? Of course not. But just as marketing to baby boomers was different than marketing to the World War II generation, we need a new way of speaking to these new consumers.  

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JCK News Director