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The Myth Of The Painfully Hip Millennial

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Photo: Via @Gap.
This week, AdAge reported the surprising results of a survey revealing that Walmart is the favorite retailer among millennials age 24 and under, and the second-favorite (after Target) of millennials age 25-34. These results have inspired head-scratching from media outlets (ourselves included) as well as Walmart's top brass — the retailer's CMO admitted that the results "shock[ed] a lot of people, including inside the company." What happened to the popular conception of under-35s as niche-brand-loving, ethical-shopping tastemakers? Whither the hip-consuming millennial?

The Walmart survey isn't our only inkling that we may have gotten millennials wrong. Armchair analysts posit that the solution to Gap's sales slump is to install a more visionary, Jenna Lyons-like leader, or to chase trends like Zara does. But really, there's no evidence that millennials don't want wallet-friendly tees and jeans — it's just that increasingly, they're buying those items at Old Navy or Uniqlo instead of Gap.

Meanwhile, much has been made lately of J.Crew's downturn in sales, and the company's efforts to refocus and return the brand to profitability. While customer complaints center around a downturn in quality and uptick in price, there also exists a strong undercurrent of suspicion regarding J.Crew's fashion-forward makeover. Shoppers are wary of the company's focus on boxy, directional silhouettes. In an "Open Letter To Jenna Lyons," The Hairpin's Tricia Louvar laments that she has nowhere to wear a "floral silk dress and trench coat." Many of the women using the #revivejcrew hashtag gripe about the brand abandoning its "classic" and "preppy" styles. Could the millennial woman be seeking a return to that least sexy of concepts — the value-priced basic?

Larger surveys about millennial shopping habits reveal this may be the case. This week, a study of 1,500 millennials ages 20-35 revealed that their 15 favorite fashion brands are a decidedly un-hip group that includes department store stalwarts JCPenney and Macy's, cheapie chain Forever 21, and accessible athletic brands like Nike and Under Armour. Zara, so frequently cited as the store whose fast-fashion business model and ripped-from-the-runways aesthetic is making stores like Abercrombie and Victoria's Secret obsolete, made no appearance on the list. Nor does any luxury brand, save Chanel. Turns out, millennials' favorite brands aren't 5th Avenue or high street; they're Mall of America.
Maybe the problem here is the definition of "millennial," which by most estimates consists of literally everyone born between 1980 and 2000 (give or take). That's about 75 million people — overtaking Baby Boomers as the largest living generation — and a pretty wide swath of humanity that surely can't all have the same shopping habits and values.

To be more precise, the monolithic-definition problem comes from marketers. Attracted to this generation's estimated $200 billion annual buying power, they hamfistedly attempted to retrofit 75 million people with a single personality (social consciousness and small business good, home ownership bad!), only to find that a cohort this huge is harder to pin down than expected.

Is it any surprise, though, that the generation born in the era of castrated labor unions and the shrinking middle class turned out to be made up of fairly agnostic, value-conscious consumers? Millennials may display an inherently sophisticated grasp of branding and a willingness to display brand loyalty via social media, but on an individual level, they're often saddled with debt and lack the capital to fully buy into their brands of choice. So, for the style-conscious among them, a double-tap on that Marc Jacobs Instagram will have to do.

It might be instructive to remember that, just as the term "Generation X" was never meant to represent all those who came of age in the '80s and '90s — but rather a specific, college-educated, often white and alternative-leaning subset of that group — neither can a marketing buzzword possibly encompass everyone from young heads of households in the heartland to urban-dwelling creatives with curated Instagram feeds and disposable income to burn.

One thing's for sure: The fashion world may have adopted "basic" as the go-to descriptor for all things downmarket and undesirable — but "basics" still seem to be at the heart of what millennials want to buy. In the end, maybe the most rebellious thing about millennials is that they refuse to spend money in the aspirational ways brands want them to.
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