Millennials and the mobile disconnect

        Laura Heller

Nary a day goes by without a study, press release or opinion piece crossing my desk about millennials—what they like, what they don't like and how they shop. Nearly everyone is so certain and has such a firm idea what retailers and brands need to do to capture this group.

But the only thing I know for sure is that when it comes to pigeonholing a generation, any generation, no one really knows anything for certain.

Generation Y, the millennials, are both incredibly different in many ways and eerily similar to the generation that came before it: my generation, Generation X. 

We were called slackers and were the first group to be raised by a generation with escalating divorce rates. We were labeled latchkey kids as our mothers were more likely to work. This made us independent and self-sufficient. We were distrustful of authority, cared about the environment, were willing to sacrifice money for happiness and unwilling to work at unfulfilling tasks.

Then we grew up, had children, got homes with mortgages and started behaving much like the generation that came before.

It's true that millennials are, indeed, unique in many ways. And much of what makes this generation unique is of concern to mobile marketers and retailers, thanks to Generation Y's technological prowess.

This group sleeps with a smartphone (I once saw a teenage girl 'sleep text,' unable to remember later she'd even done it). So why then is it so difficult to engage young consumers on their preferred device, particularly when it comes to mobile payments? After all, this is a group that should be comfortable enough with smartphones that tapping to pay would be an easy leap.

When it comes to marketing, retailers are catching on. Gap and Macy's have been particularly savvy, developing interactive marketing campaigns that will expressly appeal to this group's interest in social engagement and music by launching summer long events surrounding concert tours and music festivals designed to keep younger shoppers engaged on various platforms.

But when it comes to mobile app use and payments, assumptions are being made that, frankly, seem off base.

When researchers wonder why millennials aren't embracing mobile wallets, are they looking at how many millennials actually have credit cards? This is a generation that came of age during the recession, they are distrustful of credit and already burdened by a staggering amount of student debt. They are more likely to pay with cash, or be young enough that credit cards are not yet available to them.

There are reports that teens are shopping less, in malls or online. But, in truth, teens are in malls less because the social aspect of the mall as meeting place has been replaced by social media. They aren't shopping online in large numbers because many don't have access to credit. It's a lot harder to spend an allowance on a website, mobile optimized or not, if that website doesn't accept cash.

Starbucks has been so successful in both engaging millennials and getting them to pay with a mobile app for three very good reasons. The My Rewards program is essentially a digital gift card. Consumers of all ages, and their families, can load and use the program. Purchases are relatively small, ideal for an age group with little disposable income and, finally, rewards are targeted to this age group and only offered if purchases are made through the program.

Mobile payments from PayPal and others would be more successful, and more accessible to millennails, if they more closely mirrored Starbucks with pre-funded accounts attached to the apps of places millennials are most likely to frequent: quick serve restaurants like Chipotle and Panera, Whole Foods and even Forever 21.

A new report out this week from Juniper Research predicts one in five handsets will have mobile wallet functionality by 2018, driven by contactless payments for peer-to-peer payments. A type of payment likely to appeal to younger users, according to Juniper.

Will millennials ultimately "grow up," have children and behave like the generations that came before them? Undoubtedly, and once they have access to the financial products that can facilitate easy and safe mobile transactions, then mobile payments may finally take off. --Laura