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Generation Y Buys What Their Friends Influence Them to Buy

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Recently, my dad and I appeared on a TV talk show to promote our new book, Generations Inc. While we waited in the green room (that's where they stash you until it's your turn to go on camera), several beautiful young women came in, accompanied by a makeup artist, hairdresser and fashion consultant. The lady from the station told us they were there to tape a segment that would follow our interview. It was about how to look like Blake Lively. How to walk like Blake, talk like Blake, do your makeup like Blake, do your hair like Blake and pick the kind of clothing Blake would wear.

"Who's Blake Lively?" my Baby Boomer dad asked, "And why would anyone want to look like her?"

I explained she is a 20-something actress who was recently named the most desirable woman on the planet by AskMen.com. She also stars in the television show Gossip Girl, which is watched by almost every female between the ages of 13 and 25 on the planet.

This got us talking about what drives the buying habits of Generation Y. They represent more than 20% of the U.S. population and spend close to $200 billion a year. They also influence another $300-400 billion spent by their own families. Since infancy, their parents have asked them what cereal they want to eat, where the family should vacation, what computers they should buy, which Internet providers are best, and what automobiles to purchase. Gone are the days when children were to be seen and not heard. Today, they are the family's consumption consultants. Ironically, as consumers themselves, Gen Yers are also highly receptive to the influences of family and friends -- especially friends.

According to a study conducted by Deloitte titled, "Gaining Speed: Gen Y in the Driver's Seat," almost 90% of Generation Y will ask a friend's advice before buying a car. In a recent Cisco Retail Banking Survey, it was found that Generation Y is three times more likely to ask for financial advice from family and friends than older generations. And according to MarketingCharts.com, double the amount of Generation Y women, compared to Generation X women, are likely to try a new product that has been recommended by a friend via social media.

And, of course, the incredible connectivity provided by social media, texting and cell phones has supercharged this phenomenon. If you're wondering what outfits will make you look more like Blake Lively, you can post the page link from the online store at which you are shopping, and instantly receive tons of advice from your Social Media "friends." And if you happen to be in a brick-and-mortar store trying on the outfits (yes, Gen Y still shops at them), you can take pictures of yourself in the dressing room with your smart phone, post them, and get sage advice from thousands of friends right there in the store.

And speaking of friends, Gen Yers, it seems, also want to buy from friends. According to Cosmo Girl magazine, 60% of young women would call a store where they shop "a friend." At this point, my Dad snorted and said, "I've had lots of friends in my life, and have considered several dogs and even a couple of cars as my friends, BUT A STORE? Give me a break."

But if this is the new reality, it only makes sense to do everything you can to allow Generation Y to personalize your products or service so they feel a bond of friendship with you. For example, at WetSeal.com, you can be your own stylist and possibly get paid for your efforts. You can even download an app that allows you to design your own outfits on the go. How friendly is that?

Fox Searchlight films realized that to make the quirky film Napoleon Dynamite connect with Generation Y, it needed to allow Gen Yers to make the movie as much about them as the characters. The company set up a website that allowed viewers to create custom Napoleon Dynamite iron-on transfers to make each Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt a personalized work of art.

Also, keep in mind that Generation Y is the greenest cohort to come along. According to a Cone & AMP survey, almost 70% of Gen Yers will decide where to spend their money based on a company's environmental commitments. Visit Starbucks.com and you will find as much information on ethical sourcing, recycling, community youth outreach, and building green stores as you will about your non-decaf, lite cappuccino. Most Gen Yers wouldn't be friends with someone they considered to be an environmental pig, so it only makes sense to avoid environmentally piggish behaviors as a company -- and it's better for the planet.

The bottom line is that if you want Gen Yers to advise their friends to shop with you, you need to be a friend to them, even if you can't make them look like Blake Lively.

Meagan and Larry Johnson are the daughter-father co-authors of Generations Inc. - From Boomers to Linksters, Managing the Friction Between Boomers at Work (AMACOM Books, 2010.) They speak to thousands of business people every year on how to maximize relationships among generations at work. They can be reached at www.generationsincbook.com