The 21st Century Customer: Who Is The Modern Consumer?

Published on:

May 13, 2021

21st Century Customer

Whatever the century, industry or retailer, one question remains constant:

What do customers want? And perhaps even more pressingly — how can we provide it?

It should come as no surprise to any business owner that what customers want and what many retailers are offering often doesn’t match up. 

But why is that the case?

Much of this comes down to businesses failing to understand how consumer needs have changed and developed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution presses on.

The 21st century customer has drastically different needs than those who preceded them. We’ll be covering everything you need to know about the modern consumer in this article including:

  • The modern consumer dilemma
  • The 21st century customer statistics
  • Why understanding consumer behaviour matters
  • How businesses can meet 21st century customer needs

The Modern Consumer Dilemma

Even when we’ve enjoyed the healthiest of economies worldwide - prior to the pandemic and following the economic fallout of the 2008 financial crash - many retailers haven’t felt the benefits of a healthy economy in terms of profitability.

This is important because it tells us that it isn’t as simple as ‘shoppers aren’t shopping’.

The reality is, as we’ve moved further into the digital revolution, discounts have obliterated margins. Even Amazon’s obsession with free shipping isn’t profitable. Other retailers have had to eat into their own margins to compete.

To make the problem even more complicated, consumers are less loyal. While price points remain a factor for the 21st century customer, this isn’t their only consideration. After all, anyone can deliver a service or product for rock bottom price nowadays. It’s no longer impressive. In fact, sometimes slashing prices to the bare minimum is a warning sign to consumers that the product or service lacks quality.

What instead drives modern consumer behaviour is an omnichannel experience. For most businesses that are thriving, there is a deep understanding (and matching strategy) revolving around the messaging and platform used for each stage of the customer journey which lets them deliver a modern customer experience.

For example, a survey of American businesses showed that only 40% of them were selling on social media. While for some this may be a deliberate decision to suit the unique needs of their target audience, for many all it represents is another missed opportunity to meet the desires of the 21st century customer. 

Not just this, but many businesses who are using social media use it solely to upsell. They don’t tell a brand story, they don’t interact and engage. They’re a faceless machine, focused on profit only. This is despite modern consumer research showing these techniques don’t convince buyers.

This is just one example of not meeting modern consumer needs. So just who is the 21st century consumer and what do they want?

The 21st Century Customer: The Data

Gen Y and Z makeup £264 billion of spending power in the US alone. In fact, Gen Z already represents 40% of global consumers.

While consumer behaviour has drastically changed across generations, it’s these generations who have led the charge in the consumer behaviour transformation that businesses are contending with. So let’s look at what the data says about each of them to understand them better.

Gen Z Consumer Behaviour

Gen Z are the first truly native digital generation. They don’t know a life before the internet, social networking and smartphones. What all this has led to is consumer empowerment. This generation is hypercognitive and comfortable cross-referencing many sources of information, both online and offline. 

Research suggests this generational shift may be more of an influence on consumer behaviour than socioeconomic differences. McKinsey research on Gen Z revealed core behaviours that drive consumer characteristics and behaviours within this generation, but they all revolve around honesty and authenticity. These core behaviours lead to three implications for companies hoping to win big with Gen Z:

  • Consumption is an access rather than a possession
  • Consumption is an expression of individual identity
  • Consumption is a matter of ethical concern. 

The first implication revolves around access as a form of consumption. By this we mean the emerging - and booming markets - like video streaming services, entertainment subscriptions, car ride services and more. Things that were once products are now services - for example Uber and Twitch subscriptions. Companies that understand and adapt to this consumer change will win over Gen Z. 

Though the concept of consumerism as a form of expression isn’t a new concept by any means, this means something different again for Gen Z. They’re eager for a more personalised experience and product, as well as happy to pay a premium for something that best meshes with their ethics.

For some brands this can be as simple as embracing causes and doing their part for wider society. But for others, it will involve entirely changing their sales and marketing strategies. 

For example, this same study revealed a whopping 48% of Gen Z prefer brands that don’t classify items as male or female. So for fashion retailers, this generation will be groundbreaking.

The final implication is perhaps the one that Gen Z is most famed for. They care. Consumption isn’t as simple as the lowest price or quickest delivery (though both these still hold some weight).

Gen Z consumers are increasingly educated on brands and expect brands to align with causes they agree with. Not only this, but brands that remain silent are considered implicit.

What all this means for businesses is that they must re-evaluate their relationship with the consumer. Businesses need to practice what they preach when it comes to marketing and ethics. Those who succeed will see Gen Z as an opportunity, not a challenge. 

Millennial Consumer Behaviour

For millennials, the implications follow similar lines. But due to the diversity of the generation it is less clear cut.

A clear trend is that the consumer is becoming more educated across all ethnicities. This education allows for more knowledgeable consumers, who are more conscious of the implications of their purchases (although the cost of the same education that allows this enhanced insight, eats into discretionary spending!).

At the same time, key life cycle milestones are changing for millennials and this impacts consumer behaviour too. Less consumers in this generation are buying homes and more of them are waiting longer to buy homes. Similarly, marriage rates have fallen considerably for this generation across ethnicities. 

Research suggests the largest consumer change for millennials isn’t in customer characteristics - though they share more in common with Gen Z than with the silent generation - but in the customer experience. Millennial consumers, and indeed all consumers, expect and use a cohesive omnichannel experience.

By this we mean, they use a variety of channels; websites, social media, different devices, word of mouth and more before reaching a purchasing decision. Even when it comes to the buying decision, they may opt to buy in-store after doing all their research online, or even vice versa.

All this choice means businesses need to deliver the right message and experience at the right time of the customer journey to convert millennial consumers into customers. 

Meeting Modern Consumer Needs

While Gen Z may have once seemed like a far off challenge for businesses, the same could have been said for millennials. They now make up a huge percentage of the global purchasing power and this will only continue to increase with time.

Consider this fact with decreasing customer loyalty levels and an increased importance on customer service levels and you’re left with businesses who no longer match the demands of a huge amount of consumers.

To meet the needs of these consumers, businesses must offer:

  • Personalisation wherever possible
  • Balance of automation and human
  • Cross-platform mobility
  • Multiple touch points
  • Self-service
  • Meaningful experiences
  • Empathy

Personalisation

Mass production is no longer the desire. Consumers want products in the exact style, colour and specifications they desire. Companies need to offer products and services in as many possible combinations to meet these expectations.

Human Contact

Automation is a driving force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it’s great news for businesses. It’s slowly allowing employees to spend more time on creative tasks instead of mundane ones.

But the companies who resonate best with the modern consumer strike the balance between automation and human perfectly. The need for the human touch is still prevalent.

All this to say, when consumers want to speak to a person, let them. You can’t automate every process and modern consumers don’t want you to.

Cross-Platform Mobility

You should be accessible anytime, anywhere, from any device. So if your website still isn’t working on mobile or loading slowly, fix it. This lack of responsiveness and mobility will lose you potential customers. 

Multiple Touch Points

Consumers have different contact preferences. One may prefer live chat while others prefer phone while others prefer social media. You should be available on as many as possible. Not only this, but you should be as responsive across all of them. Contacting you should be as convenient as possible.

Self-Service

Processes with your business should be easy. Whether that’s cancelling a subscription, changing an address or placing an order, they should all be easy for your customer to complete without need for intervention from you. When you have this aspect of your customer experience optimised, the need to contact you lowers generally.

Meaningful Experiences

Today’s consumer, especially Gen Z, wants to have a meaningful relationship with your business. What you sell isn’t your whole story, or at least, it shouldn’t be. Modern consumers want to know you do good so they can feel good from buying from you.

Companies with a great brand story to tell such as Ben and Jerry’s do well precisely because of this emotional connection with consumers.  

Empathy

Customer empathy is a staple of outstanding 21st century customer service. Without it, you’ll struggle to create positive, customer-centric experiences. You can learn more about customer empathy and how it benefits businesses here

If you lack any of the vital ingredients above, you’ll struggle to engage and sell to the 21st century customer.

Keep Up with Consumer Behaviour Trends

Consumer behaviour has always been a developing story, but now more than ever companies need to keep up with modern consumer trends. It isn’t enough to offer the lowest price anymore. Companies need to offer personalised, human, omnichannel experiences that reach customers on an emotional level to connect with the 21st century customer.

It’s no easy feat, but those that do will be rewarded with greater customer engagement, increased profitability and increased customer loyalty. 

You can learn more about how your business can meet modern consumer needs in our complete guide to phone skills.

About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to help raise UK Business Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030. Connect on LinkedIn

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