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Generation C And Millennials: A Look At The Future Of Retail

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I read a provocative piece in the Atlantic this morning. On the one hand, it’s a somewhat depressing piece called “How The Pandemic Will End.” Not to spoil the story for you, but the author believes this is not going to end well for the country I live in.

But it also mentions the children born during this period, and how the pandemic will shape their lives and the society they live in. The authors call this generation, “Generation C.”

Generation C will, of course, be the children of Millennials. Once considered the “entitled generation” a closer look reveals that Millennials really haven’t had it so easy after all. They lived through the Great Recession and came out the other side deciding experiences were more important than things. But, you know, times got good, they came of age, married and started having children, and appeared to be marching down the same road as generations before them. Tiny houses just don’t cut it for a family of four. And hybrid SUV’s are more palatable than mini-vans and certainly more practical than a Kia Soul (for example). And so it seemed, society would just march along as before, even if the weather was a bit extreme and the politics a bit strange. Retail (“apocalypse” fantasies notwithstanding) had it pretty good.

Now this. The unholy trinity of disease, climate change and an insanely high national debt (I mean, kids… that $2 trillion bailout has to come from somewhere, and it sure isn’t going to be generated by GDP in the near future) will have an enduring effect on them. They will remember the “good old days.” But what of their children? What of Generation C?

Generation C will likely grow up insecure, careful, and hopefully more cognizant of the mess prior generations have left them. They will all have stories of grandparents and parents who died during the pandemic of 2020. They will be frugal and careful. They will be dealing with the effects of climate change. And they will alter retail in some pretty dramatic ways. Think “cheap.”

Truth be told, the “Greatest Generation” grew up in a somewhat similar way to Generation C. A snapshot of their parents, from my own family: My grandmother married at 16. She had 2 sons by the time she was 19. Then her husband died in the Spanish flu pandemic, leaving her a widow. She re-married in her 20’s and had two more children. That husband, my grandfather, died of a staph infection in 1939. Penicillin had been discovered but was not widely available. Ironically, the family had done well during the depression – my grandfather had an auto parts business and was very successful – but upon his death, my grandmother was faced with being penniless. She moved into an apartment above a hardware store and became a hairdresser. Sent the elder two sons to Cleveland to live with family. My mother and uncle (may they both rest in peace) helped her by washing hair, doing pedicures and just generally doing without.

Long term, each reacted in different ways, but their lives were changed irrevocably. My uncle became very conscious of material things and spent money in conspicuous ways. My mother never got over being poor, and somehow thought of herself that way until she passed in 2019. She would clean and re-clean a $20 toaster oven, making it last for thirty years, even as I’d say “Damn, just buy yourself a new one.” Apparently one of her catch phrases was, “Live like you’re poor.”

If I may draw that historical analogy, I believe this how Generation C will affect retail. While I generally avoid long-term prognostication, I’ll indulge just this once. I do believe excess is going to be over. There will be focus on preventing the next catastrophe and mitigating the effects of those already in progress. Generation C will struggle with the burden of debt and disease and continued dramatic climate shifts. Their focus will be on safety. They will expect supply chains to be less brittle and will do whatever they have to do to insure they never run out of the basics (yeah, like toilet paper). They will want the source of supply to be closer to the point of demand, and they will most certainly expect speed.

Retail Winners for Generation C will be those who feel their pain and solve their problems.

This all begs the question: retailers, are you ready for the next twenty or thirty years? In 1990 the world’s largest companies per the Fortune 500 had NO retailers in the top 100. None.

Fast forward to 2005, the last date I can see in Fortune’s archives and at least twelve of the top 100 were retailers. Surprisingly, the most recent list shows some consistency – with approximately fourteen of the top 100 having retail operations.

Where will we be 30 years hence? Will retail be a “thing?” Will retail still fly high? Is our economy going to be about consumption or remediation?

One thing we should have learned from the past few months is that it’s important to think ahead. I encourage my retail friends to do so. The world is changing in stunning ways. What do you want your legacy to be, and will you be relevant in the future?

These are the things we think about in the days of social isolation.

Please stay safe and stay smart.

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Articles & Opinions March 31, 2020
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