Trends In Retail

10 Jan 2022

Mom Jeans: A Study of Gen Z, the Trend Cycle, and What Modern Retailers Can Do to Bottle Lightning

Author: Amy Suto

What do feta cheese, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit song “Dreams,” and skorts have in common? Each one has seen a massive resurgence in popularity and sales among Gen Z consumers thanks to one-off TikTok videos.

History Repeats… and Repeats…

Emerging generations adopting the trends of old is a tale as old as time. Take mom jeans, for example. While the piano key necktie didn’t go the distance, high-waisted, faded denim blue jeans were as synonymous with the 1980s as teased bangs. Cinematic titans such as James Dean made cuffed jeans the thing to wear if you identified as a roguish heartthrob in the 1950s.

A few decades before that, 1930s silver screen legends like John Wayne were rocking denim as they saddled up to bring the fight to the black hats and a century prior you’ll find that jeans were designed for miners in the 1800s as a durable, working man’s alternative to slacks.

While mom jeans may be fated to fall from grace into the “if you wear it, you’ve aged yourself,” category just like skinny jeans before them, the implications of their present popularity is nothing to balk at. If history has taught us anything: bell bottoms will be back.

Sink, Swim, or Float

For retailers, this means the next big thing may very well be hiding in plain sight. It’s just a matter of digging it up, getting it to the right audience, and watching an old spark catch flame.

The retail cycle is a fascinating machine and the presence of social media has created new opportunities for retailers to nudge trends in their favor, converting views to sales. Though tastemakers will never go out of fashion and celebrity trendsetters will always drive retail performance, what’s changed is how audiences define these icons.

The Chinese fast-fashion brand Shein, for example, has eclipsed long-established clothiers in record time thanks to Gen Z consumers. In conjunction with traditional celebrity affiliates, Shein’s guerrilla marketing approach encourages ordinary people to dig through their website and find hidden gems that they exhibit in “haul” videos. This tactic encourages traffic to the website, drives sales, and offers consumers a taste of success if they unearth a find and bring it to the world’s attention with a video of their own. Shein’s ingenious partnerships offer surgical precision when it comes to targeted reach, as the individuals making these posts are often viewed by people similar in taste and demographic.

Shein, however, is unique from many retailers in that its platform is designed to roll with the punches when it comes to supply shortages. It’s a “no press is bad press” situation if one viral item sells out, as their model encourages consumers to dig for something new and find the next hot thing.

When Demand Outpaces Supply

This creates an interesting problem that can be hard to keep up with for brick and mortar establishments like Gap, which had a hoodie they discontinued in the 1990s go viral in 2021. Gap has scrambled their supply chain to “bring it back,” but the internet’s attention span is notoriously short, and the window of opportunity is closing before the company is sitting on warehouses full of hoodies that are back to being out of style.

These cycles aren’t unique to fashion, either. Cosmetics, food, music, and all manner of consumer goods have seen disruptions when a viral video leads to an a-ha moment. Feta cheese was impossible to find for a beat when a pasta sauce video went viral and Japanese mayonnaise maker Kewpie has seen record sales thanks to a salmon and rice video, which admittedly looks tasty.

As much as these trends appear organic, and sometimes they are, retailers are waking up to the fact that these metrics can be forced if they hit the right notes. That starts by understanding the emerging consumer base on track to disrupt the world economy: Gen Z

Learning a New Consumer Language

With Gen Z consumers spending upwards of 8-12 hours a day engaging with social media, many enterprises have shifted focus away from traditional advertising methods to tap this digital well. These methods are further bolstered by Bank of America’s predictions of “The Great Wealth Transfer,” or the inevitability of generational assets changing hands from Baby Boomers to Gen Z as time stretches on.

So what gets Gen Z going?

Nostalgia, for one. While the 1980s saw a push for future-facing aesthetics, the 2020s have so far proven to be the era of retro-chic. Sales have soared for boom boxes, typewriters, arcade cabinet games, vinyl record players, Polaroid pictures, and so many more gadgets from bygone eras. And no, it’s not just Millennial hipsters driving the market trends.

Gen Z consumers are impatient, but not in the “ruin an employee’s day” type of entitlement exhibited by older demographics. Rather, Gen Z favors convenience and gravitates toward the paths of least resistance, as evidenced by the popularity of investment in meme stocks and more than half of the generation’s retail being done via Amazon.

That said, that adoration for all things retro has led Gen Z consumers back to an unlikely place: the mall. The pandemic may have driven consumers to online solutions, but now people want to stretch their legs, and many small brands are taking advantage of the swaths of empty stalls in shopping malls by erecting brick-and-mortar stores. The move isn’t necessarily aimed at bolstering sales since many of these retailers are present online, but to build brand awareness.

How Do We Reach These Kids?

There’s more than one solution to tapping this gold vein effectively. Understanding and adapting to engagement with the Gen Z consumer will be a make-or-break position for businesses over the next few decades.

At SparkPlug, we believe that the most successful retail operations are those that recognize the value in one-to-one interactions between employee and customer. And while there are most certainly viral horror stories that can impact revenue negatively, the future of viral marketing is yet unwritten.

That generational impatience we mentioned earlier isn’t a preference, it’s evolutionary. Businesses are made and broken faster than ever based on their brand presence, and those who identify and lean into the cycles are sure to come out on top. By encouraging awareness of viral trends and incentivizing engagement with this emerging consumer base among employees, we believe it’s more than possible for new companies to outpace established competitors in a matter of quarters, rather than years. We’d bet our mom jeans on it.