10 Min. Read

Retail Remixed

Savvy brands and retailers will not only provide Zs with great products, but deliver on a more emotional level — whether that means providing a therapeutic experience, long-lasting memories, or even by being a catalyst for empowerment on a small scale.


Mental health is a hot topic for Gen Z, so it should come as no surprise that they’re buying their own doses of retail therapy. During COVID my relationship with retail definitely grew because it was something easy to do online, and it gave me something to look forward to,” said Raylene, 19. As COVID accelerated necessity-driven direct-to-consumer purchasing, other types of shopping took on new meaning. In fact, many Zs have expressed the sentiment that IRL retail spaces now embody both freedom and normality.“

Shopping in physical stores is the new retail therapy for this generation,” said Bradley Stevens, business coach and CEO of LLC Formations, who added, 58% of the population says that searching for products on the shelves and racks allows them to disconnect with social media and the digital world.” This is true forNoah, 21, who told us, After spending so much time at home over the last year, I try to shop in-store as much as I can — even if it’s just going to Target or the grocery store.”

Many Gen Z consumers see shopping as a great way to break out of their pandemic bubbles, which 75% of Zs believe is good for their mental health, according to a recent study by Vice Media Group. In fact, 63% of Zs believe trying new things and bumping into different people will help get them out of their pandemic ruts, according to the same study. As Shae, 18, told us, I wouldn’t be surprised if in-store product drops become bigger than ever coming out of the pandemic — it’s a genius way to create hype and bring people together.”Leaning into the healing qualities of shopping that can only be found in real life, Gen Zs are seeking out innovative spa-like store experiences ranging from aromatherapy to sound baths. Case in point: Bowery Showroom, a new retail space in NYC, went viral even before their doors opened for combining CBD relaxation with luxury shopping. Touted as a community lounge and culture hub”specifically for Zs, the space manages to seamlessly combine designer thrift store duds, rare sneakers, and their own line of CBD products, called Potion.


One of the primary concerns among Zs at this stage of the pandemic is that they missed out on so many important rites of passage. As 17-year-old Amaya Wangeshi told The New York Times, We feel lost in time. It seems like time is moving through us rather than us moving through time. It’s a weird limbo.” Vanessa, 22, told us, I missed out on a lot of moments and memories over the last year, so I have learned to be intentional with everything now!”

Gen Zs are embarking on an experience-collecting frenzy, and shopping is one area where they’re making up for lost time. Brands are invited to join them. In China, the blind box’ craze, in which consumers pay to receive products from a single retailer via a lottery-type system, repositions the shopping experience as a kind of gamble. Consumers are drawn to blind boxes in part because the heightened sense of serendipity makes each purchase feel more memorable. Recently luxury brand Lanvin jumped onto the craze by charging consumers over $70 to join a WeChat lottery to win things like bags, scarves, and sneakers.

While pop-up shops are nothing new, they’re refreshing at a time when Gen Zs are looking to make memories. In fact, 88% of young consumers are excited to explore new venues, especially those that have been thoughtfully designed, according to a recent study by Vice. Young teens will always use the mall as an excuse to go out and hang out with their friends, and they’ll continue to take pictures in stores with their friends,” Angie, 19, told us. Be warned that an Instagrammable photo wall won’t suffice as a memorable moment: The aforementioned Vice study found that 84% of consumers are looking for experiences that immerse all five of their senses.

Across the country, malls are catching on by creating pop-up experiences in shuttered storefronts. For example, a Houston mall replaced a Bed Bath & Beyond
with a 40,000-square-foot interactive art museum called Seismique, while a Des Moines entrepreneur turned an empty mall parking lot into a limited-time drive-in movie theater. Across the pond, the Stretford Mall turned its rooftop into an experiential destination that features a pop-up bar, outdoor lm screenings, and even a curiosity garden.”


Digital has long been a primary space for Gen Zs’ brand discovery, and the pandemic has only cemented this habit. In fact, 97% of Gen Z consumers use social media as their top source of shopping inspiration. However, Zs are looking to push the limits of digital shopping with experiences that provide immersion, memories, and the chance to gather (albeit digitally) with friends. A recent Deloitte study found that more than half of consumers reported that their experience of the pandemic has made augmented reality (AR) important to them; 55% of consumers reported using AR for gaming, while 52% said they have tapped the technology as a form of entertainment and 41% have used AR in a retail context.

Snapchat is at the forefront of new developments in AR-driven shopping. The platform has partnered with brands, including Gucci, to enable users to virtually try on and buy products through virtual retail. For example, MAC recently debuted a shoppable Snapchat AR lens which invited users to test different shades of each cosmetic product, click the link in the lens to buy, and to make use of their makeup” before it even arrived on their doorstep by applying the filter over photos they were currently sharing with friends. Consumers looking to do more than browse online can now also play Balenciaga’s RPG-fantasy video game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, dress their Animal Crossing avatar in the latest Valentino runway looks, or purchase customizable couture apparel for their avatars to wear in digital world IMVU.

As this trend continues to build momentum, big tech players are also doubling down on making their social platforms and content shoppable. Earlier this year, TikTok hosted its first shoppable livestream in collaboration with NTWRK, where consumers attending the event on TikTok Live were able to purchase limited-edition clothing lines directly through the TikTok app. Even Home Depot has started dabbling in livestream shopping — during lockdown, Home Depot transformed their in-person workshops into approximately 40 livestream shows per month. Facebook has also invested in live shopping and video-based shopping across both Facebook and Instagram, including recently launching a new drop” section to the Instagram shopping experience. This feature invites consumers to buy product drops from their favorite content creators and also to count down until upcoming product launches. But it’s not just big players dominating the space: We’re also seeing the emergence of numerous video-shopping services, including Supergreat, NEWNESS, Popshop Live, NTWRK, ShopShops, TalkShopLive, and Bambuser, among others.

Retail Empowerment

Millennials are known for investing in brands that share their values, and the pandemic heightened this urge among Zs. The pandemic has made me more aware of where my clothes and other products are coming from. I constantly ask myself Will I wear this more than once?’ as I become more aware of environmental effects of the fast fashion industry,” said Julia, 20. These days, Gen Z consumers aren’t just consciously consuming; they’re turning to retail as a point of empowerment. In the face of police brutality, Gen Z consumers flocked to Black-owned businesses in an effort to make a difference immediately as they also fought for long-term change both on the streets and at the polls. I make sure I shop at places that treat their employees fairly,” said Allina, 19. Meanwhile, Shae, 18, told us, Anytime I come across a store that is open about their inclusive practices, my interest is piqued, and I’m more willing to spend money on their products.”

Google searches for Black-owned” reached peak popularity In June 2020. Meanwhile, Yelp reported seeing a 7,043% increase in searches for Black-owned businesses between May and June of 2020 compared with the year prior — from approximately 35,000 to more than 2,500,000. Influencer Kourtney Kardashian even got into the mix by using her platform to endorse Black-owned brands, including the wellness products from Golde. And while some members of Gen Z told us that buying Black was just one of the many steps they were taking to fight the pervasive racism across America, others told us that these purchases were also a way of regaining a sense of agency in their own lives.

Me The Mall

Perhaps the biggest pandemic shift in the retail space is that more Gen Zs started to see themselves not just as consumers, but as burgeoning mini-malls themselves — complete with personal product lines and brands. For young consumers looking to hustle, moving product via social content is becoming as easy as adding a buy now” button — and the pandemic provided them downtime to set up shop.

In the near future, expect to see IG Stories increasingly evolve from content for friends to spaces for selling to friends (or shopping from them). Self-care advice will increasingly include a shopping list of must-have items, with a finder’s fee for every purchase. The rise of the personal mall represents the final departure from the Yelp model, where users put their trust into the wisdom of the crowds — instead Zs are now turning to the highly-refined widsom of one. However, instead of transforming into the walking billboards” that Boomers lamented that Millennials would become in the era of super-sized logos, Gen Z is evolving into walking, texting, tweeting, DMing, gaming, livestreaming, and hashtagging storefronts who use their influence to ultimately get paid.

What it means

Traditional retail wasn’t killed by the pandemic, but it was remixed by Gen Z to better fit their personal needs. Consider how to integrate their values into the retail experience, from making it a therapeutic experience to ensuring they feel empowered even on a small scale.

The lines between offline and online have long been blurred for Gen Z and that has never been more true than now. Taking an integrated approach to retail means meeting them in a variety of forums — virtual as well as physical — and ensuring that they can move back and forth seamlessly.

Gen Z consumers are increasingly looking for retail experiences to have a heightened experiential quality so that they can be judicious about their IRL shopping time and lean into it as a moment of luxury. As consumers evolve into shops of their own, consider ways in which your brand can reward them for selling for you.