Shifts in retail: Why generational targeting isn’t working

We surveyed 2,000 retail consumers in the UK to find out how they prefer to communicate with brands. Dive into the findings that challenge traditional retail targeting practices.

Content Marketing Expert

Marthinus Jansen Van Vuuren

Content Marketing Expert

As retailers face the challenges of tightening consumer budgets amidst factors such as inflation and geopolitical tensions, the role of customer experience (CX) in influencing buyer decisions has taken a front seat. Even the slightest hiccup in the shopping journey can prompt customers to abandon their carts or ditch a favorite brand.  

While navigating these challenges, retailers are pressured to deliver seamless, personalized experiences. To better calibrate their customer engagement, many prioritize customer segmentation, starting with the preferences of each generation. After all, knowing what resonates with different age groups is vital to crafting top-notch retail journeys. 

But is this approach still effective?  

We collaborated with Retail Economics to survey 2,000 consumers across the UK to gain fresh insights about what shoppers want in retail. Following a persona-based approach, we discovered that the boundaries are blurring between younger and older generations, thanks to widespread digital adoption across all age groups.  

Read on to learn more about each generation’s expectations from retail brands and how communication plays a key role along their shopping journey. 

The low-down on Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z

Customer engagement often begins with segmentation, where we group customers based on shared traits. While variables like occupation, location, and income are pivotal in this process, generational targeting is frequently the starting point. 

Businesses often view younger generations as digitally savvy, prioritizing customized messaging strategies across age groups. Let’s look at the typical categorization in the generational approach: 

  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): Traditionally, Baby Boomers favor phone calls and emails, yet they increasingly embrace digital platforms for communication and shopping. However, they’re often not up to date with the latest technology due to their resistance to change.  
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980): Gen Xers are comfortable with email and social media but appreciate face-to-face interactions. They prefer brands that offer seamless online experiences and convenient digital solutions. 
  • Millennials (born 1981-1996): This generation embraces digital communication channels like social media, messaging apps, and email. Millennials expect brands to have a solid online presence and offer personalized experiences across digital platforms. 
  • Generation Z (born 1997-2012): Highly capable of using various digital platforms, Gen Z prefers to communicate through instant messaging and social media. They value authenticity and expect brands to humanize CX and provide seamless digital experiences. 

But generational targeting might not be as black and white as it might seem.  

Just look at how younger generations are embracing nostalgia. Vinyl record sales are shooting through the roof, 80’s music is making a comeback, and many Gen Zers are ditching fast fashion for vintage clothing. Who knows what’s next? Will we see Gen Zers dumping their smartphones for old-school phones like the Nokia 3310?  

Considering the unexpected ways things change, targeting by age might not be as precise as it seems. So, in the spirit of personalization and conversational CX, we adopted a persona-based approach in our study.

Shopper personas: A shift in retail segmentation

In a world where customers are growing used to hyper-personalization, it’s essential to grasp what they want in finer detail. That’s why we developed four typical shopper personas, each with unique traits that shape the retail experience in distinct ways: 

Using our personas to zoom in on our 2,000 respondents, we could better understand how shoppers think and act. We also uncovered valuable insights about their shopping habits, communication preferences, and their tolerance for friction in CX, to name a few. 

Let’s dive into what we found. 

Five easy ways to satisfy all customers

Our findings identified shared frustrations between all personas that are not as complicated as one might think. Retailers can easily take on these five common pain points to improve the shopping experience: 

Paying for returns: Over a third of exacting and busy shoppers have stopped shopping with brands that charge for returns. Additionally, unclear or confusing return processes contribute to brand abandonment.

Stock availability: The availability of products directly impacts customer satisfaction, sales, and repeat business.


of exacting, busy, and social shoppers have terminated relationships with retailers due to stock availability issues

Communication during pain points: Effective communication during pain points like delays is crucial in maintaining trust and transparency throughout the customer journey. Poor communication can lead to dissatisfaction and jeopardize customer relationships.

Delivery options: Limited delivery options have a negative impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty.


of exacting shoppers stopped shopping with retailers who don’t offer different delivery choices


of social shoppers stopped shopping with retailers who don’t offer different delivery choices

Delivery tracking: Providing delivery tracking builds customer confidence and trust. Notably, 22% of exacting shoppers are particularly sensitive to the absence of delivery tracking, ceasing to shop with retailers that do not offer this feature. 

The opportunity to cash in on exacting shoppers

One of the standout themes throughout the report is the significant correlation between consumers’ tolerance levels and their propensity to shop online (for example, online shoppers are more intolerant). We discovered that: 

  • £16 billion of online sales hinges on meeting the demands of exacting shoppers. 
  • They spend £554, or 25%, more online per year than the typical UK shopper and £850 more online than laid-back shoppers. 

Debunking generational generalization

The mix of generations in all four shopping personas highlights how diverse consumer preferences and behaviors are across different age groups. Instead of sticking to generational stereotypes, it’s crucial to consider every shopper’s needs.

  • Generation Z: While the majority of Generation Z falls into the social shopper category (38%), they also come up in the busy shopper (25%) and exacting shopper (21%) personas. This challenges the stereotype that younger generations demand and rely more on digital channels.
  • Millennials: Like Generation Z, millennials show diverse shopping behaviors, most falling in the social shopper category (40%). However, they also have a strong representation in the busy shopper (29%) and laid-back shopper (18%) personas, indicating their different preferences and behaviors.
  • Generation X: Generation X shows a similar pattern, with the majority falling into the social shopper category (43%). However, they’re also present in the busy shopper (32%) and exacting shopper (15%) personas, highlighting their diverse tastes.
  • Baby Boomers: Despite being associated with traditional, old-school preferences, baby boomers display diverse shopper personas. While the majority are in the social shopper category (50%), significant proportions are found in the busy shopper (31%) and exacting shopper (13%) personas, challenging assumptions about their level of digital adoption.

Rethinking retail messaging: 3 ways to build a better strategy

One of the most surprising findings from this study is that digital adoption across generations is challenging assumptions about their communication preferences. This potentially has profound implications for retailers seeking to connect with customers, making targeting shoppers more difficult. 

In our effort to drill down on the finer nuances between consumers, we discovered irregularities in how retailers communicate to different generations and vice versa.  

Embrace online chat for all generations 

Interestingly, the majority of all generations prefer to communicate digitally. But what’s more surprising is that retailers often overlook the widespread preference for online chat during the customer journey: 

  • There is a major opportunity to reach millennials through online chat. While 11% of retailers target millennials with chat, 27% of millennials prefer to communicate via this channel. 
  • Retailers are also misreading Gen Z’s preference to chat online. Only 12% of outgoing chat messaging targets Gen Z, while 20% of Gen Z prefers this channel. 
  • Only 7% of retailer-to-Gen X communication happens via online chat, while 23% of Gen X prefer to communicate through chat.  
  • Baby Boomers embrace online chat more than retailers think. But only 2% of retailer communication targets Baby Boomers via chat, while 10% say they prefer to chat online. 

Tone down on texting and adopt AI technology

Millennials are less likely to pay attention to text messaging than retailers think: 


of retailer-to-millennial communication is targeted via text, while only 6% of millennials message retailers via this channel

Retailers are also too skewed toward text in their targeting of Gen X and Baby Boomers:  


of retailer-to-Gen X communication is sent via text, while only 7% of Gen Xers still use this channel to message retailers


of retailer communication targets Baby Boomers via text, while only 4% prefer to communicate via this channel

Shoppers across the board – digital adopters and digital natives – are starting to embrace the conversational capabilities of chatbots and AI. As a matter of fact, over one in four of our respondents have indicated that they are comfortable engaging retailers through chatbots and artificial intelligence. 

Retailers wanting to build brand loyalty should adopt AI technology to offer personalized, conversational experiences throughout the entire shopping journey. Channels such as WhatsApp enable you to set up a chatbot that shares product catalogs and collects payments from one app – giving consumers a hassle-free way to complete their purchases. 

Don’t pay too much attention to income levels

Looking at the different income levels of our shopper personas, we found that income is irrelevant to their communication preferences.

We noticed similar shopper personas across all income groups – whether less affluent, middle-income, or most affluent. This suggests that income-based segmentation may also be less effective than retailers think.  

Our research shows that retailers should look at the bigger picture when segmenting their customers. Understanding the different types of shoppers, regardless of income, will help to understand each individual’s needs better. 

Hyper-personalization and AI are the way forward

The traditional ways retailers target their customers are becoming less relevant in a sea of hyper-personalization. Rather than relying solely on generational divides and levels of income, forward-thinking retailers are embracing a new paradigm—one centered on understanding individual customer preferences. 

By providing personalized experiences throughout the customer journey, retailers can master these complexities and build lasting customer relationships. 

This shift from demographic-based segmentation to a more personalized approach enables retailers to forge deeper connections and foster long-term loyalty. 

To future-proof your customer engagement strategy, three proactive steps will steer your CX in the right direction:

  1. Leverage data-driven segmentation: Harness customer data available to segment audiences based on preferences, rather than demographic factors or income levels.
  2. Embrace AI: Integrate artificial intelligence into your CX strategy. Chatbots can help you deliver seamless, personalized experiences across every touchpoint of the customer journey.
  3. Adopt an omnichannel approach: Implement a conversational, omnichannel strategy that ensures consistency in customer interactions by always meeting customers on their channels of choice.

By embracing these strategies, you will not only exceed the expectations of your customers, but also thrive in an era defined by personalization and connectivity.

Retail Economics report 2024

Learn about the surprising shifts happening in consumer shopping behaviors and why retailers need to rethink their segmentation strategy

Download the report
May 10th, 2024
8 min read
Content Marketing Expert

Marthinus Jansen Van Vuuren

Content Marketing Expert