NRF 2024   //   January 15, 2024

Gen Z is missing from this year’s NRF agenda

A jumble of letters popped up at this year’s National Retail Federation’s (NRF) “Big Show” — AI, IT, DTC — but Z was not one of them.

Among dozens of sessions slated for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, only one — “Digital Strategies to Decode Gen Z” — is specifically focused on Gen Zers. There are no sessions with “TikTok,” “Instagram” or “social media” in their titles, all channels in which Gen Z spend much of their time. There are also no sessions with Gen Z influencers, who have become an increasingly important part of brand building. While companies popular with Gen Z such as Sephora, Ulta Beauty and Glossier are participating at NRF, their panels are labeled as wider conversations about 2024 trends, data or specific segments like beauty.

Over the past few years, retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacsun have touted their success with a newly-powerful segment: Gen Z. The group, those born from 1997 to 2012, will soon become the largest segment of consumers today, according to Insider Intelligence. What’s more, market research firms have funneled large amounts of money into understanding their interests, their values and what they want to see from companies.

And yet, at this year’s NRF, interest in Gen Z has given way to discussion about AI, reflecting the conference’s larger emphasis on technology.

Last year, Gen Z was a bigger part of the “Big Show” agenda, in both implicit and explicit ways. Coach, Tommy Hilfiger and Nars talked about topics like NFTs and the metaverse, technologies that have seen big uptick among Gen Z. A session with Claire’s explicitly focused on Gen Z and Gen Alpha. “If ‘personalization’ was one of NRF’s buzzwords, ‘Gen Z’ was also definitely up there,” Retail Brew wrote in a recap of last year’s event. “From purpose-driven retail to live shopping, young consumers were top of mind.”

In 2023, “there were more metaverse sessions, and there were more live-streaming sessions, and Gen Z was kind of implicitly being talked about,” Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at CI&T, told Modern Retail. “I think this year, because it’s a more technical, behind-the-scenes kind of conference, and because AI is… more about the operational model, Gen Z kind of got the boot.”

Hana Ben-Shabat, founder of the research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet, likewise told Modern Retail that she sees this year’s agenda as “a matter of priorities.” “Everything that we heard about AI in the past 12 months, it just makes sense that that’s going to be featured very high on the agenda,” she said. At the same time, she acknowledged, “I find it really hard to believe that you can run sessions without actually touching upon the topic of Gen Z.”

There are many topics at NRF that Gen Z naturally fits into, Ben-Shabat pointed out. Gen Z is becoming a more dominant part of the workforce, especially in retail, where many occupy roles as store associates. Sessions on retaining and training workers, she said, should talk about how to attract and promote Gen Zers. In addition, Gen Zers are more likely to seek out brick-and-mortar shopping than any other group, according to research from CM Group. Sessions about in-store shopping, store design and the like should touch upon this, Ben-Shabat said.

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), by comparison, appeared to place more emphasis on Gen Z, even as it remained tech-heavy. There were six sessions specifically about the metaverse, including “Enter the Korea Metaverse Tech” and “Leveraging XR/Metaverse to Achieve Business Success in a Virtual World.” There was one session on “Speaking Gen Z” with a vice president from Roblox and a student sitting on the panel, among other speakers. And, there was a session with TikToker Leenda Dong that promised to share how she “shapes her storytelling and engages with her over 17 million followers.”

As Minkow explained, NRF is an event largely focused on consumer trends, merchandising, operations and software. There is room for retailers to talk about both Gen Z and topics like AI, including the population’s interest in using the tech when online shopping. But, “I think it can get redundant, too, if you just repeatedly have sessions on how a demographic shops,” Minkow said.

When asked if she thought this year’s programming reflects fatigue around talking about Gen Z, Ben-Shabat said no. “I think there is an underestimation of how important Gen Z is, both as employees in the retail space and as consumers in the retail space,” she said.

“Everything that happens today on TikTok and the whole notion of creator brands… that seems to be somehow underestimated by retailers and consumer goods companies,” Ben-Shabat continued. “And I guess that underestimation is really what we are seeing in the agenda.”