The Industry Starts to Feel the Millennial Pinch

At the recent AGS Conclave in New Orleans, the millennial generation was the “topic du jour” as IDEX put it, and was covered in several presentations (including mine). 

Significantly, some retailers said they’re noticing less business from Gen Y shoppers, particularly in diamond sales. This long-discussed issue has gone from the theoretical to the real.

The so-called echo boom—defined as those born between 1981 and 1998—is the largest generation in U.S. history, overtaking the previous champ, the baby boomers. Consider how the post–World War II Woodstock generation has long dominated American culture, from its music to its memories. Now imagine a group with even larger numbers.

Yet the millennials have proven vexing to marketers. Iconic names like McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, Budweiser, and Coca-Cola—and it’s hard to think of four more distinctly American brands—have struggled to relate to younger consumers, who favor fresher, healthier, less processed food.

That health trend has been going on for some time—and until recently, those brands weren’t troubled by it. But when the millennials became a force, things shifted to a higher gear.

We may be seeing a similar impact on our industry. The millennials graduated during the Great Recession and have had a tough time finding jobs. As a result, they count their pennies. One study called them “the most financially conservative generation since the Great Depression.” They are also practical, prudent, and considered in their purchases. And they can be: They live in a time of unlimited choice, where lower prices are just a click away. 

Surveys have further found them to be nontraditional, in search of the uniquedisdainful of marketing, and concerned about social issues.

Which doesn’t bode well for diamond engagement rings, still a key backbone of our industry. Diamonds are expensive, with little practical use. They are traditional, and the gift everyone gets (i.e., not unique). Diamonds are perceived as advertising-driven and subject to social issues—and there is truth to both those perceptions. Finally, many millennials have never seen a De Beers ad. This industry is still running on fumes from campaigns that last ran a decade ago.

Which might explain why, despite the improving economy, the jewelry business is not doing as well as it should be or as well as we have hoped it would be. Coke, McDonald’s, et al. have developed campaigns to speak to these consumers. But our industry is only now realizing it must embrace the new paradigm. (In Las Vegas, Unique Settings is offering a series of clinics on millennial shoppers.) Hopefully, it is not too late.

JCK News Director