4 things to know about Gen Z's holiday shopping habits

VP, Industry and Consumer Insights

With retailer holiday promotions starting as early as Halloween this year, much of the focus has been on early-bird shoppers. NRF’s October holiday survey found that four out of every 10 shoppers planned to start their shopping before November. But there is one group that is clearly bucking this trend — Gen Z college students. To get a better understanding of what inspires members of Generation Z during this time of year, NRF partnered with Barnes & Noble College to quiz over 1,000 college students nationwide on their holiday shopping plans.  

Shopping can wait

The survey found that that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Gen Z college students typically don’t start their seasonal shopping until the end of November or early December. With final exams and end-of-semester deadlines looming, it makes sense that young consumers are waiting until Thanksgiving to think about picking out gifts. But even though they’re showing up late to the holiday shopping party, these consumers should still be taken seriously: Gen Z shoppers plan to buy gifts for around seven people, spending $224 on average.

Inspiration IRL

Gen Z may be known as the first generation of digital natives, but they are not abandoning in-person interactions. A global study conducted by NRF and IBM in 2017 found that 67 percent of Gen Z prefer shopping in stores. This has remained true even as the oldest Gen Zers have grown up and headed to college: According to Barnes & Noble College Insights, more than four out of five (82 percent) college students surveyed said they planned to shop in stores over the holidays and 61 percent said they actually prefer shopping in stores.

Of course, they are still firmly entrenched in the digital world — 46 percent say they will look to social media for inspiration this holiday season. Instagram is the top source, far outpacing Facebook, followed by YouTube and then Pinterest; Snapchat continues to be a source of inspiration for about a third. Just one in 10 expects to find inspiration on TikTok, the video sharing app that has reached more than 1 billion downloads and is particularly popular with Gen Z. While brands and retailers might not yet be prevalent on the platform, some have started using it to launch viral campaigns like Chipotle’s #GuacDance or the #InMyDenim challenge from Guess. These initiatives tap into Gen Z’s desire to be part of the creative process: NRF and IBM’s study found that 42 percent of Gen Zers want to participate in an online game for a campaign and more than a third (36 percent) would like to create digital content for a brand.

Personalization is the name of the game

In addition to putting their own stamp on a brand’s campaign, many of these Gen Z consumers are also looking to personalize the products they buy: Barnes & Noble College Insights found that nearly half (47 percent) are interested in designing or customizing an item or gift. Retailers are looking to tap into this interest in a number of ways — Abercrombie customers can upload their own picture on bottles of Fierce cologne or perfume; in a similar vein, Glossier’s You perfume promises to bring out the individual wearer’s unique scent.

Making the nice list

While Gen Zers might be busy making their lists and checking them twice, they have more than gifts on their minds. NRF’s annual November Holiday survey conducted with Prosper Insights & Analytics found that seven out of 10 holiday shoppers under the age of 25, which encompasses the oldest Gen Zers, plan on at least one charitable activity this year. More than a third plan on donating items for a charity or cause, but many are also interested in shopping from retailers or brands that donate to social causes. They’re significantly more likely to make these types of purchases than other consumers: 28 percent of those under 25 plan on making these types of purchases, compared with just 18 percent of holiday shoppers overall.

“We’ve found in our research that Gen Z feels a really strong sense of responsibility to change the world,” said Lisa Malat, COO of Barnes & Noble College. “One way they feel they can affect change is by choosing to engage with brands that are making a positive impact. Gen Z defines themselves by their kindness and empathy, and they are looking for retailers that mirror those values.”

Retailers are actively partnering with organizations to make it easy for shoppers who want to make sure their gifting is also giving back. For example, Lush Cosmetics donates 100 percent of the proceeds from its Charity Pot lotion to grassroots organizations; buying a bar of soap at Ulta ensures a donation is made to a child in need.

With initiatives like these, Gen Z is sure to make the “nice” list this year. And what’s on these shoppers’ own wish lists? College shoppers are hoping to get tech products like new phones, laptops, smart watches and video games, as well as clothes. And, of course, few things can beat a gift of cash.

For more holiday insights, check out NRF’s holiday headquarters for news on trends and shopping updates throughout the season.

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