Do You Know Where the Kids Are? Vol. II

Last month we discussed a significant shift in the American consumer marketplace. In short, it’s getting younger.

The U.S. population curve looks like an upside-down bell. At the front end is the big baby boom generation—primary customers for most retail jewelers—and at the back end is Gen Y, or the Millennial generation, children of the boomers. This group outnumbers the boomers. In the middle, at the bottom of the curve, is Generation X. They’re 10–11 percent fewer than the boomers, yet retailers expect them to uphold the same spending levels.

At your next jewelry industry event, look around the room. How many are under age 40? Some, probably, but ask how many are under age 30. Few, if any, hands will rise.

Yet these are the consumers this industry needs to court. The baby boomers—already maturing out of their prime shopping years—are focusing on their retirement portfolios, not their jewelry boxes. Gen X has time till retirement, but there are a lot fewer of them. Even if they can spend individually, they can’t keep up with the boomers collectively. The Millennials need to provide the consumer-driven boost this economy and this industry need.

Demographers agree this consumer base is far different from its parents. In some ways, it’s a throwback to its grandparents and great-grandparents. A Facebook news feed is a high-tech version of neighbors sitting on their porches after dinner. Boomer parents of green-conscious Gen-Y teens undoubtedly hear echoes of their own Depression-era parents and grandparents: Reuse, conserve, don’t waste.

What worries jewelers is that this generation doesn’t seem to have much interest in traditional fine jewelry.

Read that sentence again. What word jumps out? For me, it’s traditional. It doesn’t mean this consumer doesn’t love jewelry—she does. And it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love real jewelry. She loves that, too (as long as it’s mined responsibly and made ethically). But what she really wants is funky, unusual jewelry, not the stuff her mother wears. She likes rough rocks on leather. Hand-hammered metals. Recycled gold. Jewelry with messages or meanings.

At the recent JCK Toronto show, Ken Mulhall, president and CEO of the Canadian Jewellers Association, asked me if I’ve noticed a trend toward young women wanting "granny jewelry." Some young Canadian women, he says, are seeking out jewelry (like circle pins) that most boomers wouldn’t dream of wearing, and wearing it in new, quirky ways. (It’s even better if the piece actually belonged to their grandmother.) This brings up another point: If these young women are set to inherit all the traditional jewelry we’ve sold to their boomer parents and grand-parents, what’s to motivate them to buy more?

Try adding a product category you might have bypassed until now—fashion or bridge jewelry. Remember, this customer wants fun, funky, unusual jewelry she can afford. This is a generation that’s at least 10 years away from entering its peak earning years. It’s a group that’s just starting to get engaged and married but will do so at a later age than its parents. It’s also a group that’s grown up with a lot more choices than its parents, so that means the time to court it and get jewelry on its collective radar screen is now.

Look at consumer fashion magazines, Web sites, and catalogs targeted to teens and 20-somethings. See what kind of fashion-focused jewelry is being shown, at what cost, and what people are buying and wearing. See what you have that’s somewhat similar in style. If the answer is "nothing," at your next tradeshow consider seeking out goods to compete in that category. Freshwater or baroque pearls, color gemstones, leather, silk, and other items can turn an inexpensive jewelry accessory into something more precious and keep something precious from being too serious. The formula works for fashion; it will work for jewelry, too.

If you belong to the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30, now is the time to embrace everyone under 30.