Much of What You Thought You Knew About Gen Z’s Shopping Habits Is Probably Wrong

They’re willing to delay gratification, and they dig the mall, too.

A new survey suggests that Gen Z shoppers are more traditional and more patient than many thought. Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Klara

For retailers who’ve been racking their brains in recent years over how to target millennials, here’s a bit of unsettling news: Gen Z is coming right on their heels. Not only that but, the prevailing wisdom goes, these newly minted consumers (now 23 and younger) want everything right away.

A quick scan of the research out there reveals the role immediacy plays in the lives of the youngest consumer cohort. A 2015 white paper from Ernst & Young, for instance, noted that Gen Z consumers “are impatient and will quickly discount those who can’t immediately deliver on their needs.” Research from analytics firm Marchex revealed that “Generation Z has surpassed Millennials as the consumer group with the shortest attention spans.” And a recent blog post from software firm Sapho declared: “For Generation Z, it’s instant everything—instant information, instant communication, and above all instant gratification.”

Or is it?

A new survey suggests that when it comes to shopping, Gen Z consumers are far more traditional—and substantially more patient—than many thought.

Fluent Commerce, a consultancy specializing in retail order management, recently queried 5,000 shoppers between the ages of 14 and 24 to find out more about their shopping habits and preferences. Among the findings: Consumers in their teens and early 20s are happy to sit tight for a week or more, waiting for something they bought online to arrive at their homes. Specifically, 47 percent of respondents said they’re willing to chill for seven days for a package, and 24 percent will wait 10 days or longer.

What’s more, even as Amazon’s two-day shipping model moves closer to becoming an industry norm—promising both speed and convenience for shoppers who refuse to leave the sofa—Gen Z shoppers actually might not care so much. Most of them (73 percent) are still more than happy to drive to a brick-and-mortar store and shop the old-fashioned way.

So what gives? Are these findings proof that the youngest shoppers are really old souls, veritable monks of patience? Well, no. As Fluent’s North American vp Bill Friend explained, Gen Z likes immediate gratification as much as anyone. But factors such as price and social habits add important dimensions to the picture.

“We asked these questions to determine where the crossovers were,” Friend said, “and [the data] support that convenience is a factor, but it depends on whether I need something right now or I don’t want to pay for shipping.”

In other words, young shoppers like the idea of getting something the same day they buy it, but they’ll also drive to pick it up so they can save on shipping costs—53 percent of respondents said they’d drive half an hour to a store to get a package, and nearly a quarter (23 percent) will drive up to an hour. “People are definitely sensitive over having to pay for shipping,” Friend said, “but they’re less sensitive about the immediacy.”

In fact, the prospect of free shipping is so attractive that it can make or break the transaction itself. Ninety percent of Fluent’s respondents admitted that free shipping “influences their decision when making a purchase.”

Fluent’s survey also revealed that all the dire talk about the demise of brick-and-mortar stores might be premature. Asked which they prefer—shopping online or in a store—close to 27 percent said they like going to stores, and nearly half said they liked both.

This finding reveals an obvious but still overlooked advantage that physical retailers have over their online competitors: the social and communal experience of browsing the aisles. As Friend explained, a 14-year-old consumer probably lacks the cash and inclination to go out for an expensive dinner. But going to a mall is still free, and it promises hours of personal interaction that a smartphone can’t deliver. “If you’re in this age range, shopping is something to do,” he said. “You don’t go to restaurants, but you can go to the shopping center every day. There’s a social dimension to it.”

That’s good news for traditional retailers, though Fluent’s survey also sounded a note of caution. Sixty-six percent of respondents said they expect retailers to offer same-day pickup for items ordered online. And while big-box chains like Target and Walmart now offer this service, many retailers still do not. “The order needs to go to the store and the associate needs to pick it out and make it ready for you,” Friend said. “I think it’s still not uncommon [for stores] to not be able to do that.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.