The Digital Divide

Posted on Posted in retail strategy

A pair of giggling Japanese twenty-somethings pose in front of a virtual mirror in the strangely but aptly named “Humor Shop” in a Tokyo mall. They try on clothes and instantly upload the looks to social media sites, seeking comments from friends and family before purchasing. To my eyes, the scene couldn’t be more foreign, and it’s not because I’m in a different country. It’s because I am a different gender, and more importantly, the fact that I come from a different generation.

As an older male, quite frankly I couldn’t be bothered using technology to find out what my bestie thinks of the pants I buy. But for my teenage daughters, the idea of using a social media-enabled digital mirror is as natural and expected as breathing, and almost as functionally important. And so, while we rush to blur the lines between in-store and online (what a report from Ericsson neatly calls “in-line retail”), we need to remember that there is a digital divide based along demographic lines. Technology is great – and I am an enthusiastic consumer of all things digital and a committed Apple-holic – but the younger digital natives have a different appetite for, and usage of tech. (And the next generations will be even more tech-savvy – when I Googled “3 year-old using iPad” I got 509 million results).

The technology generation gap showed up in an article headlined “Shopping’s Great Age Divide” this week in the Wall Street Journal. The report focused on the smartphone habits of shoppers in the lead-up to Christmas in the US. About three-quarters of all 18-34 year-old US shoppers surveyed plan to research or make a purchase with their smartphones this holiday shopping season. Amongst those 55+, only 30-40% will whip out their iPhones or Androids while shopping.

The story tracked a family, the Ulticans, and observed that while the parents roamed the mall admiring the decorations and shopping conventionally, their kids aged 10-27 were glued to the screens of their phones – checking prices, keeping an eye out for bargains, and yes, asking friends for advice about gifts. The 10-year-old daughter was taking things even further, using Instagram to seek input from friends on which outfit to wear to school the following day.

For the Millennials and Gen Y’s, being constantly connected via technology is part of the way they live their lives, and that just extends to retail. Older generations are attracted to the cool-factor in digital, but they shop first physically and second virtually.

It really comes down to understanding the individual paths to purchase for different customer types, and making use of digital to appropriately enhance and inform each shopper’s experience and encourage a sale. The trick is not just to use smart technology, but also to use technology smartly.

3 thoughts on “The Digital Divide

  1. I appreciate your point, Jon, and clearly we have to understand the multiple paths to purchase at a point in time. But I’m not sure I agree with the example you provide or the implications you outline.

    In your article, you don’t see yourself using in the virtual mirror the way teenage girls use it. Frankly, that’s not surprising. And you attribute this to generational and gender differences, supported by a recent WSJ article.

    In the WSJ article, the state “only” 30-40% of those 55+ will purchase from a mobile device. This is a very myopic assessment. What’s the difference from two years ago? What do we think that percentage will be two years from now? I’d wager it’s going to continue to be higher as the older generations discover how these devices work for them. Just two years ago, “experts” claimed tablets would only be media consumption devices with limited use. Well, look at the shopping season this year.

    So I think demographic differences like age and gender are only temporarily important and should be addressed tactically as well as strategically. For example, referencing the mirror technology you used, I’ll bet you are going to discover uses of this technology for an “older” male that make it very valuable for you in shopping. To me, this says an equal if not more important element to consider in assessing the paths to purchase, in the example you provide, is the trajectory of change, not a point-in-time use of technology.

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