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What ‘OK Boomer!’ Means For Retailers

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Last week in New Zealand, a 25-year-old member of Parliament, Chlöe Swarbrick, dismissed an older heckler by offhandedly tossing off the phrase, “OK Boomer!” during her statement about the need for action on climate change. For the benefit of my fellow Baby Boomers, this phrase is definitely a trend. In the November 5th edition of the Washington Post, editorial writer Molly Roberts commented:

“Two words have launched a thousand tweets and opened a new front in the generational wars… OK boomer. The Gen Z-generated phrase ‘OK boomer’ has turned into an epithet rallying the country’s young against their forebears in collective mockery. The all-purpose reply is designed to disarm oldish people who dispense condescension dressed up as wisdom… It’s glib, it’s short, and it’s not at all sweet…’OK boomer’ is appealing because, on the simplest level, it flips the script… Now, young people have developed a cryptic code for telling old people that they’re the ones who don’t get it, and that failure is all the more flagrant because they have had countless chances to learn.”

What does this have to do with the retail industry? Well, in RSR’s March 2019 study on the state of merchandising, retailers told us that while decision makers skew older (Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers), core consumers are skewing younger (Gen-Xers and Millennials). Take a look:


As we opined in the report, while retail decision makers may be generationally aligned with today’s customers, they aren’t well aligned with the future. We saw this misalignment in our 2018 study too, and in that report we concluded that, “…given how active Millennials have become in the current marketplace, retailers would do well to plan for a time when Millennials usurp Gen Xers in purchasing power. The one thing time promises for certain: the day will come when they do. It’s best to start planning now.”

The importance of the inevitable generational shift goes far beyond merchandising decision making, however. Unlike both Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, Millennials’ lives have been shaped by the Internet and the Great Recession. They are tech-savvy, smart shoppers, and are skeptical of traditional ways. Essentially, Millennials are pushing the “omnichannel” agenda, and they don’t care at all about retailers’ struggles to modernize their operations. The motto of the Millennial generation might as well be, “we want the world, and we want it now”.[1]

But there’s more! The generation right after the Millennials – Gen-Z – is increasingly a part of the workforce and is joining the ranks of consumers that retailers depend on. People in this generation think of the Web as a birthright, cannot remember a world without smart phones, are social-media savvy, and are saddled with massive student debt. A recent Business Insider piece defined Gen-Z shoppers with these traits:

  • Generation Z’s approach to brands is part of what sets it apart from previous generations
  • When deciding where to shop, their primary motivator is price[2]
  • Since they frequently document their life on social media, they feel a pressure to always have new clothes. That is fueling growth in unconventional forms of shopping, like rental and resale
  • Being unique — and balancing that with saving money — is a defining trait of this generation

In short, the change cycle being forced upon retailers is speeding up, not slowing down. But the generational shift isn’t driving the so-called “Retail Apocalypse”; in fact, a September 2019 study by A.T. Kearney shows that a big percentage of Gen-Zers actually enjoy browsing a physical store as a type of “mental therapy”, a chance to unplug from social media. However, retailers can’t get too comfortable with that finding. Those same shoppers are increasingly intolerant of “a lousy experience”. The study states that, “a poor online experience has prevented 22% of Gen Z shoppers from making a purchase three to five times in the past year. In a store that rate rises to 24%. By comparison, 15% of millennials halted an online purchase and 21% halted an in-store purchase three to five times over the past year because of a lousy experience.”

‘OK Boomer’

Back to the “OK Boomer” meme. In the time it took me to write this piece (about an hour), Twitter reported that the hashtag #okboomer occurred in 720 tweets. In other words, the dismissive catchphrase is hot and getting hotter. It denotes a generational exhaustion with excuses for lack of progress, not just with politics or climate change, but with the ways of the world in general. Post Gen-X people want a world that reflects their realities, and they are increasingly tired of “oldish” decision makers that get in the way of that.

Retailers beware! The industry needs to recognize that there’s a changing of the guard, and integrate Millennials (and soon, Gen-Zers) into the decision-making process. And that change has to happen – now.


[1] Ironically, this quote is from the 1967 song “When the Music’s Over” by that most Baby Boomer of rock bands, The Doors.

[2] According to a Business Insider survey of more than 1,800 Gen-Zers


Newsletter Articles November 11, 2019
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