To Attract Younger Shoppers, Edutain, Marketing Expert Says

Nicole ColemanSmall Business Saturday posted its best year ever in 2019, with American consumers spending a record $19.6 billion at independent retailers and restaurants on Small Business Saturday—an increase of 10% over last year—according to the 2019 Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey from American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business. 

The survey found that 97% of consumers who shopped on Small Business Saturday, a counterpoint to Black Friday mall and national retailer shopping, say small businesses are essential to their community. 95% say that the day makes them want to shop or eat at small, independently-owned businesses all year long, not just at the holidays.

“Brick-and-mortar stores can’t compete with Walmart or Amazon on price, but there are things they can do that these online giants can’t,” said Pitt Business associate professor Nicole Coleman, a marketing faculty member and expert in consumer behavior. 

Coleman’s research focuses on consumers and the emotions they want to experience, and how marketers can better tailor their communications and products to meet these needs.

The sheer number of products available online can be overwhelming. One way small retailers can win is by helping customers cut through the choices to find the perfect gift. "The best small businesses create a unique, curated set of products that their customers couldn’t easily find on their own,” Coleman said.

In-person interactions come into play as well, so retailers should ensure that their employees have good customer service skills, she said. “Talking to customers is an opportunity to guide the consumer to the right product.”

“Bricks and mortar can offer these things, but the online giants can’t really compete in these areas,” Coleman said.  

Appealing to millennials and Gen Z consumers is increasingly important, she said. 

Younger customers are already attuned to shopping local, Coleman said. They tend toward an anti-corporate mentality, are social justice-oriented and often prefer to frequent mom-and-pop shops.

Social media lets people know what’s happening and helps them develop a one-on-one relationship with their preferred shops and stores.

Nicole Coleman

And millennials and Gen Zs collectively account for about half of the nation’s purchasing power. “They aren’t kids anymore,” Coleman said, noting that the oldest millennials are approaching 40 and many have kids of their own.

These consumers like to connect with their preferred businesses via social media, especially through Instagram stories, said Coleman, whose recent marketing research investigates how consumers’ social media posts about products relate to their actual purchases, and what marketers can do to maximize the effectiveness of their social media campaigns.

Coleman said, “Social media lets people know what’s happening and helps them develop a one-on-one relationship with their preferred shops and stores.”

Younger customers also value “edutainment,” Coleman said. Teaching a skill by offering a cooking demonstration, a craft for kids or a lesson in applying the latest makeup technique can bring these shoppers through the door. 

Offering small freebies—hot cider or cookies for shoppers, for instance—adds to the festive holiday atmosphere while capitalizing a bit on human nature. “Offering something of value creates a sense of gratitude and indebtedness, so customers are more likely to make a purchase,” she said.

And while the holidays are the ideal time for drawing in customers, retailers should think beyond December, Coleman added. “Use the holidays as a way to get consumers to think of your store—it’s the start of a long-term opportunity,” she said. “The holidays aren’t the only time for presents. There are gift-giving occasions all year.”