Capitalizing on the X Factor
Growing up and making more money, Generation Xers are your ideal consumers. But do they know who you are yet?
David Stillman, a 30-year-old Minneapolis business consultant, recently went furniture shopping with his wife. At their first stop, a large department store, the sales staff ignored them. So they left and went to a small, family-owned business, where the employees seemed genuinely excited about helping a young couple outfit their first living room. Feeling appreciated, the Stillmans shelled out $2,500. Welcome to lesson A in harnessing the buying power of Generation X, the 60 million-plus Americans born between 1964 and 1978. Forget the slacker stereotype of the early ’90s; most Xers are in the labor force, earning – and spending – more and more every year. And that’s good news for small-business owners because Xers tend to be independent and individualistic, and they have a natural affinity for entrepreneurial upstarts. “Gen Xers see the ‘small’ in ‘small business’ as a very positive word,” says Lee Duffey, president and founder of Duffey Communications, a public relations, marketing, and public-affairs firm in Atlanta. “That’s why there’s been a proliferation of small record labels and small retailers. Gen Xers trust small nonconformists more than big behemoths.” Unfortunately, many small businesses haven’t figured out how to translate Gen X’s pro-entrepreneur attitude into sales. Case in point: David Stillman and his wife entered the small Minneapolis furniture store by luck. Although it offers just the kind of personalized service Xers crave, the retailer doesn’t target Xers in its literature or advertising, says Stillman, who, in partnership with Lynne Lancaster of Mill Valley, Calif., runs BridgeWorks, a consulting firm that specializes in generational conflict. Reaching Xers doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. Often, the same basic message will appeal to more than one generation. You need only tailor the delivery (for example, with hipper music or a younger-sounding voice-over) or expand your range of advertising venues to garner Gen X dollars. “You may have the qualities that will appeal to Xers,” says Lancaster, “but you’re not getting the message to them.” So, how can you get more Xers to bang on your door and hit on your Web site? Experts offer the following advice. 1. Get to know them. More than by birth years – which are always somewhat arbitrary – a generation is defined and shaped by a set of shared experiences. We spoke with several experts, who agreed broadly on a number of factors that have affected Generation X’s outlook. Among the key influences for Xers is the invention of the personal computer, the end of the cold war, and the proliferation of media, divorces, and two-income families. Lancaster points out that between 1948 (near the beginning of the baby boom) and 1968, the U.S. divorce rate tripled. At the same time, women were entering the workforce in record numbers. Gen Xers ended up as latchkey kids, or they spent time in daycare. These experiences made them independent and self-reliant. Those traits were only strengthened as they witnessed the dismantling of political, economic, and media institutions – through developments as diverse as the savings-and-loan crisis, widespread corporate downsizing, and the increasing popularity of self-directed retirement plans like 401(k) programs. These changes all communicated the same message to Xers: You have to take care of yourself. Raised on cable television and pioneers of the Internet, Xers have never lived in a world where all the people got their news from the same handful of authoritative outlets. They’re used to sifting through competing sources of information and making their own judgments. And once they make a decision, they expect an immediate return. “We had the microwave, the drive-up window, the ATM, the remote, the PC mouse,” points out Bruce Tulgan, the 31-year-old author of Managing Generation X (Capstone, 1997). “Our world was increasingly defined by immediacy.”