Alison LePard, a 19-year-old college sophomore from Wellesley, Massachusetts, says that when she shops for clothes and accessories, her goal is a look that is uniquely hers. So she does a lot of mixing and matching.
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"I don't blindly follow what they put out," LePard said of store displays. "I don't want to wear just one brand. I don't want to be a stereotype."
She's hardly alone. Recent surveys have found that members of the U.S. Millennial Generation - the roughly 80 million Americans born between 1977 and 2000 - pride themselves on their individuality, and shop accordingly.
Compared with their parents, millennials are far less likely to identify with a political party or to formally affiliate with a religion - key indicators of an independent streak - according to Pew Research Center. As shoppers, they are less attached to brands and more willing to create their own style, surveys by Nielsen, The Boston Consulting Group and other researchers have found.
This generational trait is forcing retailers to rethink everything from their merchandise and marketing to their dressing rooms and logos. Some companies, including H&M and Urban Outfitters Inc <URBN.O>, have ridden the individuality wave while others, such as Abercrombie & Fitch <ANF.N> and Aeropostale<ARO.N>, have been slow to react and are paying the price.
At stake is the $600 billion millennials spend a year in the United States, according to Accenture, a sum that's projected to grow to an estimated $1.4 trillion in 2020, when the oldest of the cohort will be 43. Millennial men spend twice as much a year on apparel as non-millennial men, while millennial women outspent other generations by a third, the consultants said.
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Abercrombie's woes came into sharp relief last month when the company said it was shrinking its well-known logo and increasing its assortment of fashion for women, all to appeal more to 16- to 22-year-olds who don't want to look like everyone else. The move came after 10 straight declines in quarterly same-store sales.
"They no longer want to be a walking billboard of a brand," said Michael Scheiner, an Abercrombie spokesman. "Individualism is important to them, having their own sense of style."
Other companies are also adjusting their strategies to reach this elusive group.
Gap Inc's <GPS.N> new ad campaign, with the facetious tag line, "dress normal," is all about creating an individual style -- the idea being that there is no normal. Aeropostale, for its part, says its new product lines by blogger Bethany Mota are meant to convey "authenticity, emotion and relevance."
Mall owners have had to adjust, too. Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc <SPG.N> is now working with fashion magazines and fashion website Refinery29.com to entice millennial shoppers to the mall with videos, new designers and personalized advice.
"Not looking like everyone else is key to everything about what we do," said Chidi Achara, Simon's global creative director.
The drive to reach millennials comes during a difficult environment for retailers. Retail spending was flat in August, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, and household spending dropped by 0.1 percent in July, the first decline since January. In August, retailers ranging from Wal-Mart Stores Inc <WMT.N> to Macy's Inc <M.N> cut their sales forecasts.
HOW MILLENNIALS SHOP
Thanks to the Internet and smart phones, millennials are more informed shoppers than older generations. More than 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds recently surveyed by The Intelligence Group said they research options online before going to a store.
Millennials spend a higher share of dollars online than other generations, according to market research and consulting firm NPD Group, though they still make 75 percent of their purchases at brick and mortar stores.
With vast amounts of information easily available, they are savvy shoppers who know how to compare price, quality and convenience.
Accustomed to building Facebook pages and other online identities, millennials are comfortable with the notion of mixing and matching different elements of their persona, a trait that carries over into their shopping choices, according to analysts and academics.
To reach this first generation of "digital natives," it's no longer enough for stores to offer a rack and a dressing room.
"People are looking to create a unique identity," said Allen Adamson, an author and branding expert at Landor Associates. "They want to put together their own story rather than have someone else tell them."
In addition to an inviting website and easy payment system, retailers are trying to make shopping more exciting for this over-stimulated generation. At H&M's midtown Manhattan store, for example, shoppers can strut their stuff on the store's fashion walk and then possibly have their video selected to be displayed outside.
Gap is stressing that same aspiration with its new "dress normal" ad campaign, which uses taglines such as "dress like no one's watching" and "simple clothes for you to complicate." Sales at Gap stores fell 5 percent in the last quarter.
The company said the ad campaign is aimed at customers who want to "dress for themselves."
That certainly describes Brianne Casey, a 24-year-old New Yorker, who studied marketing and now works as an assistant to a buyer for a retail chain.
Casey said she shops at a variety of stores to get the best prices and follows fashion trends on blogs to see what's hot. But in the end, she said, "I like creating my own style."