What elements of the retail store’s environment keep the millennial shopper engaged?

Presented by: Elizabeth Calienes, Candy Carmel-Gilfilen

Purpose: The Millennial generation (born 1981-2000) is a powerful cohort, with 79 million people and $211 billion in buying power (Henley, Fowler, Yuan, Stout, & Goh, 2011). Although this generation is known for being adept at online shopping, research has shown that the majority (75%) of their retail dollars are being spent in brick-and-mortar stores (Forzley, 2013; Mincer, 2014). This has generated awareness in viewing the retail store as a tool for brand-building, motivating brands to re-evaluate their store designs. Further research has found that a store’s physical design influences whether or not a shopper enters the store and contributes to whether they embrace the brand (Burt, Johansson and Thelander, 2007). The purpose of this study is to understand the elements of the retail environment that catch the attention of the Millennial shopper. The results provide educators with the necessary tools to teach new designers how to propose retail design environments that connect with this generation. Method: The Millennials have been described as ‘always connected’ and are adept at communicating via “sharing, tweeting and pinning” in all aspects of their lives (Anderson & Raine, 2012). In order to target this cohort, a unique data collection method was used that combined participant generated photography and annotations to reveal impressions of the natural retail environment from their perspective. Rather than using an intrusive data collection tool (i.e. photo camera, video camera, glasses, etc.) or a simulated environment, participants captured data using their smartphones while inside actual retail stores. This methodology provided a robust approach to data collection that resonated with this cohort. The ethnographic approach used allowed for an open-ended conversation between the participant and the researcher, from the participant’s point of view. Data collection involved 43 participants (response rate of 100%), at three retail stores. On average, the participants collected 18 photos capturing their in-store experiences at all three retailers (single brand apparel, mass merchandiser and discount chain). This resulted a pool of 557 photographs with written annotations (see Appendix A); with the average annotation consisting of 35 words. In addition, three semi-structured focus groups were conducted with 28% (n=12) of the participants to provide clarification on reoccurring themes. Findings: Findings revealed that tangible elements (82.36%) and intangible impressions (17.64%) within the design caught the attention of the Millennial shopper. These included; Displays, Store/Space Layout, Merchandise, Graphics, Style Descriptors, Emotion/Sentiment, Lighting and Customer Service. Millennials noted both positive and negative factors defining their impressions of the retail environment. Seven prevalent themes were identified including: (1) Mess & Emptiness, (2) Order & Neatness, (3) Humor & Fun, (4) Personalization, (5) Color, Patterns & Materials, (6) Quality & Upscale, and (7) Ease & Comfort. These were enriched with narratives that were captured in both the photo annotations and focus group discussions. Conclusions: The Millennial generation, representing 25% of the population, has been described as an elusive generation and difficult to keep engaged (Sullivan & Heitmeyer, 2008). Designers and educators need to understand how this group reacts to and interacts with the built environment. Educators need to make an effort to understand this cohort in order to lead future designers towards creating environments to reach this audience. The sector of retail design is rapidly growing within interior design and designers need to understand the essential role that the store plays in building a brand’s image. These themes identified offer insights into the mind of the Millennial shopper that can guide educators and provide strategies for teaching future designers how to design retail environments for this generation.


  • Anderson, J., & Raine, L. (2012). Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Hyperconnected-lives/Overview.aspx
  • Forzley, S. (2013). Do You Know Your Customers?? The Truth Behind Millennial Shopping Habits. Retrieved from http://www.pythian.com/blog/do-you-know-your-customers-the-truth-behind-millennial-shopping-habits/ Recommended
  • Henley, C. D., Fowler, D. C., Yuan, J., Stout, B. L., & Goh, B. K. (2011). Label design: impact on millennials’ perceptions of wine. International Journal of Wine Business Research, 23, 7–20. doi:10.1108/17511061111121371
  • Mincer, J. (2014, September 10). Retailers give themselves makeover as millennials follow own beat. Reuters. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/10/us-usa-retail-millennials-insight-idUSKBN0H50AC20140910
  • Sullivan, P., & Heitmeyer, J. (2008). Looking at Gen Y shopping preferences and intentions: exploring the role of experience and apparel involvement. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 32(3), 285–295. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2008.00680.x