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Millennials Will Inherit the Earth

How the AAFA sees millennials as consumers, employees, and future leaders of industry

Regardless of the challenges or benefits millennials pose to society, their culture – which is rapidly becoming our culture – is here to stay. As leaders of industry, we need to seek ways to understand and engage them, to teach and to learn from them.

As an organization dedicated to promoting best practices and innovation in the apparel and footwear industry, we invested a lot of time discussing millennials at last week’s American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) Executive Summit in Washington, DC.

Millennials as Consumers

It’s no secret that millennials love to shop, but the experience they’re looking for is what’s grabbing our attention.  According to the Boston Consulting Group:

  • 54 percent of millennial shoppers prefer roomier shopping spaces with ambient music
  • Almost half of millennial males value trendy sales associates that wear store merchandise
  • Millennials are more than twice as likely to use their mobile devices in-store to research products, compare prices, and read user reviews

The study also found that, while millennials are passionate about apparel, they have different needs that retailers have to zero in on.  This is where elements like social responsibility come into play, taking into account where merchandise is manufactured, how the workers are treated, and what kind of footprint is left on the planet.

Rob DeMartini, President and CEO at New Balance Athletic Shoe and my colleague on the AAFA board of directors, pointed out  that millennials are holding us to a much higher standard than we’ve been holding ourselves to. 

“And that’s a great thing,” he added.  “Other industries have higher standards – we don’t fly airlines that arrive 92 percent of the time.”

Millennials as Employees

“Millennials expect mentorship from senior leadership.”

– Jeff Gennette,
   Chief Merchandising Officer, Macy’s

Jay Gilbert, in a 2011 submission to the Ivey Business Journal, said millennials now make up the largest portion of active workers.  But they’re not alone: the labor force is composed of more varied generations than ever, and the danger industry faces is treating them all alike and expecting identical results.

According to Gilbert, boomers – accustomed to working in large formal hierarchies – demonstrate aptitude in organizational memory, optimism, and their willingness to work long hours.  Millennials, meanwhile, have far more formal education and skills than other generations would have had at that age, but they lack practical experience.  More interestingly, millennials tend to expect more discussion than direction, a better work-life balance, and faster advancement based on their accomplishments over their tenure.

“Millennials expect mentorship from senior leadership,” said Jeff Gennette, Chief Merchandising Officer at Macy’s during his keynote address yesterday morning. 

“They’re not going to change, so we need to.”  It was great to hear Jeff talk about how Macy’s is looking for ways to engage their millennial employees and figure out avenues for “reality checks”.

Millennials as Tomorrow’s Leaders

In his address last week on the state of international affairs, Retired four-star General Stan McChrystal said that millennials are struggling to translate their skills to the business world. 

“They don’t know how to talk about leadership skills,” he said, while qualifying that “leadership isn’t born – it’s trained.”  McChrystal, who consults regularly on leadership topics, is a huge advocate of reverse-mentoring as a means of engaging younger generations of leaders while keeping us more seasoned professionals sharp.

“A leader isn’t good because they are right,” he said during a presentation on thought leadership platform  “They are good because they are willing to learn and to trust.”

Col. Eric Kail, former course director for military leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, believes it’s leaders who need to try harder to bridge the generation gap.

“It’s our job to develop the people we expect to carry the torch forward,” he wrote this January in the Harvard Business Review.

Looking to the future and thinking of my own sons (both of whom are millennials), I think we need to adopt the same servant attitude I’ve advocated regarding our customers. My generation has a lot of experience to impart, but much like General McChrystal’s community engagement tactics employed overseas, we have to first earn the right to be heard by being quick to listen and slow to speak.

This year’s Executive Summit was an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on the big issues facing the retail industry.  Yes, the millennial generation keeps transforming our landscape as technology and culture evolve.  I firmly believe that, as my generation continues to listen to, work with, and even shop alongside theirs, we are passing the baton to a generation that will improve people’s lives like never before.

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Having 4 Millennials "things" that just left our home the leadership element is big, but also the need for this new generation to learn what the word responsibility means - on a large scale or in the big picture of their lives.  Millennials are still in the tactical mode of life and infleunced by instant feedback of the mediums they use in their lifestyles.

      The element that some of them grasp and others have not even seen yet is the role of personal and professional repsonsibility.  What it means in their lives and on the job.

      Some of them already have it down to a science and they will be the early leaders.  Others are still hunting and some of my family's "fellow millennials" still are hunting for that "R" word thinking it is the title of a new iPhone game.


      ...deep thinking in a retail mode