The Digital Divide

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.