Grace Ehlers

About Grace Ehlers

Grace Ehlers is a trend forecaster, Gen Y consumer expert and freelance consultant in digital media strategy. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she often finds that everyone in the grocery store is under 30.

The New Normal: NORMCORE

PrintFirst it was Nikes replacing ballet flats. Then it was Birkenstocks replacing Nikes. Then Patagonia and Tevas became a thing. Then George Clooney’s fiancé was wearing mom jeans. Baseball caps, sports jerseys, mall chic, Jerry Seinfeld. What can we make of the anti-fashion trend that has bypassed hipsters and has translated into real market value (as we saw with this winter’s L.L. Bean boot selling out nationwide)?

More than any style trend, “Normcore” is a pervasive movement among Millennials to appear as bland — and as normal — as possible. It first surfaced in late 2013 in New York-based brand consultants K-Hole’s report “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” In the report, K-Hole described an evolution of Millennials’ legacy in defining themselves as individuals, moving towards “liberation in being nothing special.” This is a very new concept for the second Generation Me — to find freedom in the commonality of underachievement, and lowest net worth. And while this sentiment may come from the Occupy’s I-am-the-99%, it is a decidedly non-political statement, but rather one that is a bellwether ofthe predilections of the Millennial consumer.

[Read more…]

Who Will Buy?


Millennials Opt In To a Rent-a-World

Who will buy this beautiful morning? What about renting it? What about renting it on Airbnb? What if you could rent this beautiful morning with clean sheets for $150 and be done with it?

It’s a Renter’s Market

Millennials have bypassed their small net worths through membership programs that rent them early access to nearly everything they could need. Never mind buying a second home when you can rent a chateau in France on Airbnb for $200. Why hire a chauffeur when they don’t come with an app that tracks their relative location to yours, like Uber? Even owning the latest album of your favorite band feels a lot less appealing when you can stream it immediately on and offline with a Spotify pro membership, without taking up any space on your hard drive. Music, transportation and hospitality aren’t the only industries being hit, of course; retail rental start-ups, including Rent the Runway and Bag Borrow or Steal are betting that you really don’t need to keep that evening gown or this season’s It designer purse at five times the price of a rental.

Tasting Over Consuming

A 2012 Atlantic feature calling Millennials “the less-owning generation,” cited a federal study in which the share of young people getting their first mort-gages between 2009 and 2011 is half what it was just 10 years ago. What’s more, the new renter’s market makes it more cost effective not to own, with the quality and quantity of rental goods and services surging. Start-ups focusing on work environments like NeueHouse, a workspace club whose membership caters to creative “solopreneurs” and businesses under 10 years old in New York’s Flatiron District, allow Millennials to rent studios, desks, and even just entry to the club. NeueHouse’s facilities and resources are distinctly more hospitality-driven than OfficeMax, and their membership is very selective. Concierges can as easily order a catered lunch for 10 as they can give you a shortlist of video producers for your 60-second product reel. NeueHouse plans to expand to Los Angeles and London this year, hoping to build up to 20 locations by 2020.


The digital version of this rentable luxury is SquareSpace’s highly designed, highly mobile, and hardly-any-assembly-required website templates that let small businesses get started online with their own websites and domains for a $16 monthly start. Surface magazine, a forerunner of Millennial fashion and design tastes, rents studio space in NeueHouse and has just moved their website to a SquareSpace template. Two for two, and counting.

Banking on Entitlement

Brands that truly understand the Millennial consumer are banking on the Next Gen’s fabled sense of entitlement, and are positioning themselves as connectors to lifestyle upgrades. Transportation industry disrupter Uber used this sense of entitlement and applied it to the experience of having a private driver with their “Everyone’s Private Driver” tagline, along with a stellar mobile interface and different price point options of taxi to black-car service. But the real coup in connecting to the private-driver experience was a payment-less exchange. Uber’s interface connects your beginning and end destinations and processes online payment without any further exchange with your driver; you just get out and get going.

The Standard of Living Hang-Up

This appeal to Millennials’ feeling of entitlement works particularly well because of dually negative and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement comes from the five years of wolf-crying from the press, damning Millennials to a lower standard of living than their Boomer parents. (Pew released a recent report on Millennials’ lag to rejoin the housing market and declare themselves heads of households.) Positive reinforcement of Millennials’ entitlement comes directly from, whom else, the first Generation Me: their parents, the Boomers. Their mantra is, “If I lived alone in the East Village in 1973, why shouldn’t you?” Never mind that 200% rent markup.

Standards still need to be maintained. Boomers say they need a set of white wine and a set of red wine glasses to entertain in that said apartment, right? Right. Boomers’ high earnings during their early bread-winning years have affected the current generation’s expectations of acquiring the same household goods, clothing, entertainment, and travel. Even with an almost 60% drop in net worth from Boomers in their twenties to Millennials in their twenties, Millennials’ expectations of a reasonable standard of living have changed very little. The real change has been in size reduction, asset reduction and the level of investment in expanding their access professionally, culturally, sartorially, even romantically. The Millennials’ standard of living is a pragmatic mash-up of owning, renting and third-party resources. And they are proud of it.

Tree house

Millennials Are Not Having a Possession-less Moment

The nature of the Millennial buyer was changed by the Recession and then morphed into a consumer whose net worth is low, yet whose standard of living is high.

But to misinterpret the Millennial renter phenomenon into thinking that Millennials do not value possessions would be a big mistake. It is not that Millennials value their earthly possessions less, it is that they value access to higher quality possessions and services more. To give it to you from my perspective: would you rather commute to work in a car every day or have a private driver pick you up twice a week? And let’s face it, how many possessions do you really need in a 400-square-foot micro-unit apartment? What Millennials are doing is leapfrogging from the traditional route of buying modestly in the beginning and then trading up as they become more affluent, to going for the gold out of the gate, even if they don’t own it outright.

The Retail Gap

Retail brands have really missed the opportunity of this trend by offering aggregated, high-quality rentable goods and services. Why do retail brands depend so heavily on dispersed outlet locations to unload this season’s collections when they could rent them? Why don’t more stores have a leasing program where you could, for example, change sunglasses every season? The concept of ownership is turning on its head, with Millennials leading the charge.

So who would buy? This preference towards immediate, temporary access is particularly enticing for luxury brands trying to acquire the Millennial. With rentable luxury goods, they can experience luxury and sample a whole range of products and brands, now. The companies that foster a sense of connoisseurship through offering these programs will earn our loyalty and trust. I encourage retailers to look at Rent the Runway, Uber, Airbnb, NeueHouse, Warby Parker, Spotify and SquareSpace as disruptive innovators who could very well reinvent the new rules of retail.

A Whole New Kind of Club

Formal coupleHad Groucho Marx been a Millennial, his famous adage “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member” would read a little more like “I don’t want to be admitted to any club that will accept me the way I’m dressed.” Millennials everywhere are turning up their noses this fall to the informally dressed, seeking out venues like exclusive private clubs and retailers that help them fake it until they make it. [Read more…]

Brands Looking Forward, Look Back (Way Back)

gracearticle1Many of the most successful rebranding efforts of the last year, the most forward-facing of them all, have all used the same weapon of choice: their archives. Brands as highbrow as Dior, to as proudly lowbrow as Levi’s, have looked to the creative history of their designers to add a layer of narrative and credibility to the contemporary context of their brands. And while this type of endurance-branding may be partially a result of The Great Recession, Millennials. Are Eating. It. Up.

This is because Millennials are natural researchers; many of us were somewhere between 18 and 8 when Google arrived in our homerooms. While we haven’t always had smartphones, we have always had access. I don’t need to tell you how this has manifested in our shopping habits online. But much less is known about the compulsive way many Millennials forage online archives for stylistic inspiration. Think Netflix “binge-viewing,” or better yet, a “Google K-Hole” (an allusion to a Special K or Ketamine bender, in this case resulting in days lost to Googling). Online archives such as Getty Images or Google Image Search welcome us, for free; which is why it is easier than you may think for an influencer Millennial to pick up an obscure Fellini reference. We are such active researchers that we tend to forget what we saw, where. We can get to the point that we have to rely on our browser’s history tab over our own brand fidelity and crowded memory. [Read more…]

Bay Closes the Talent Gap

grace_gap1With the launch of the Spring 2014 lookbook in April, Gap Creative Director Rebekka Bay sets the tone of her six-month-old stewardship as Creative Director of Gap, Inc. For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with Bay, who joined Gap in October 2012, she is known for her conceptualization, development and launch of H&M brand COS (a higher end fast fashion brand).

The Logo Rioters Get Their Way

Bay’s Spring 2014 lookbook does two things: it tells us that Bay is defining who Gap is through her own COS lens (which is great), but also through Gap’s no-frills, 90s aesthete past (even better). Gap’s target influencer demographic is wearing COS abroad and vintage 90s Gap minimalist casualwear right now. Influencers everywhere are pouring into Opening Ceremony for clothing that is essentially Gap in 1999… for $300 a shirt. Think of this demographic as the one that threw a fit over losing the original Gap logo to the Helvetica-ized version, and had their way when Gap reinstated the original logo under pressure. This is because while Gap has been in flux for a decade trying to figure out who it is and who it could be, the Gap consumer has had a very strong understanding of the brand’s identity, and how the brand should continue. And over and over again, in focus groups and style forums around the world, the answer has rung out: bring back the Gap of the 90s, and become the classic brand that you once were. [Read more…]

Millennials in the Workplace – True or False

grace_ehlersWe Millennials can be a little difficult to decode at work; our incessant attachment to our phones; our buddying up with senior executives; our loose understanding of office hours. Many of our coworkers ultimately begin to believe that we are haphazard workers and that everything you need to know about Millennials at work can be had from any Girls episode.

I am here to tell you otherwise: Millennials are incredibly dedicated workers—many of us placing work before our relationships and lives outside of work. Here are a few myths about Millennials in the workplace, busted or verified, to help you actualize the potential of your Millennials on staff.

1.They do not have a strong work ethic.

FALSE: This is the top Millennial-in-the-workplace myth I have come up against over and over again as a Millennial brand consultant. There are many reasons for this misinterpretation. They may be lackadaisical about office hours, but they will answer your email at any time of the day, any day of the week. They may be wallflowers inside sales meetings but will lead dynamic, impromptu brainstorms. Give them the benefit of the doubt and encourage them by showing them you have confidence in their work—they will show you their work ethic is strong and sustainable.

2. They feel they are entitled.

½ TRUE, ½ FALSE: While Millennials continue to be humbled by a 68% diminished net worth compared to the generation before them, not to mention crippling student loans, Millennials do feel entitled to a piece of the pie. In their eyes, pay scales should be relative to hard work and productivity, not exclusively based on seniority. Which is to say, yes, your associate is eyeballing your salary and willing it to be adjusted to his or her 20-hour workday.

3. They expect to be promoted without the years of experience necessary to warrant the promotion. They seem to think they can fast track it to the future.

TRUE: This is the #1 point of tension between Millennials and generations past. In our eyes, if we have the skills and can handle the responsibility of our superiors, and have demonstrated that we can, why shouldn’t we be allowed to advance? Why measure experience by time instead of skill level and capability? In your eyes, experience is developed over time. Agree to disagree.

4. They are not loyal and will bolt to another job if they feel like it.

½ TRUE, ½ FALSE: Millennials are very loyal employees, but if they feel stifled, or if the only way up is out, they have less than no problem showing you they know how to use the door.

5. They want to be part of the decision-making process, no matter what level they are.

TRUE: A truism of truisms for Millennials is that they want to be involved in the decision-making process; politically, professionally. What they love about work is seeing how their work ties into the bigger picture. Bringing them into the formation of that bigger picture will not only make their contributions richer, it make them emotionally invested in the company—and you will hold on to them longer because of it.

Hey JCP: We Millennials Will Demand Fair and Square

grace_ehlersRon Johnson’s highly publicized tenure at JC Penney has ended, and perhaps with it, the potential of JC Penney to compete for the middle class Millennial. Sure, they may regain the customers they lost by reinstating the deals-centric retailing of Myron Ullman, but the customer base that JC Penney took losses to acquire, short of their $1 billion loss in 2012, is the lost customer base of JC Penney — the middle class Millennial, from the young family segment all the way to the senior in high school.

Older Millennials will tell you they remember the uncool Target of their childhoods; the deals, the cheap quality, the ducking-out-if-you-saw-anyone-you-knew Target. The pre- (ready your best French accent) “Tar-JSHAY” Target. It was really uncool, and what’s more, it was really uncool to shop there or have anyone shop there for you. Fast-forward a decade, and the Target website is crashing in response to the millions vying for anything from their Missoni X Target collection launch. JC Penney became what Target was, and if significant directional changes are made to Johnson’s visionary long-term plan, JC Penney will stay that uncool store.

Assuming JCP does not stay the course, they will not finally secure their hard-earned, first-time customer. The return of pre-Johnson deals will drive Millennials further from the brand (“fair and square” pricing could not have a better fit for this demographic). Removal of all the brands that Johnson acquired, such as Joe Fresh, will leave Millennials without any reason to try the brand out in the first place. Taking away the innovative tech options, which we’ve come to expect, to enhance the experience won’t go over so well either.

It is impossible to say if Johnson’s plan would have ultimately worked– each quarter seemed to prove otherwise. But there was something happening in Johnson’s tenure that wasn’t yet quantifiable with ROI– the middle class Millennial was reconsidering their disgust for JCP. We were intrigued– we may have not yet visited a store, but we could see ourselves actually doing that. Joe Fresh is in JCP? Really? We might have checked that out. The necessarily slow process of attracting the Millennial consumer was just beginning, the only thing missing was the mandatory push of recommendations from friends – the viral marketing connection. Johnson’s last step, and his most crucial — from a brand standpoint and an investment standpoint — was getting that consumer inside the store, if only to replace the droves leaving the retailer after “fair and square,” which proved to be the undoing of his entire legacy. But what Mike Ullman and the rest of us should understand, is that we were standing there right outside the door, just about ready to walk in.

What Your Intern is Really Thinking

Intern at workI’m here to set the record straight about the Millennial work ethic, by giving you a little insight into the world of internships. They have become the popular alternative to entry-level positions, and businesses have convinced my generation that this is an acceptable way to start a career. If you don’t continue on to graduate school (hoping that the job market will open up when you get that Masters), many of us find ourselves in a job black hole where we can’t practice what we’ve learned, and at the very least, pay back our student loans on time (the average in 2011 was $26k). And all this plays out with collateral damage in terms of Next Gen’s loyalty to employers and desire to build a long-term career with one company. Remember, we are risk averse, want financial stability and a future worth working for.

What’s really happening here? All businesses today, from top corporate hedge funds to design firms to retail stores to your neighborhood nonprofit, rely on interns. And let’s face it, you can get just as much out of an intern as you can from entry-level staffers — right? So why not give some deserving under-employed college grad the chance to beef up their resume, right? You’re really helping alleviate the famed Millennial unemployment rate (now 13%), right? What kind of 20-something really needs job security or healthcare, right? [Read more…]

Y Do I Care?

ydoicareAnd Why You’d Better Care About These Five Words of Activation

Brands love me. They find me in the recesses of my social interactions and they ask (read: incentivize) me to be their brand ambassador. Who am I? I am any Millennial/Gen Y, and broke as we are reputed to be, we are quickly (like in the next five years) about to start outspending your other favorite customers, our parents, the Baby Boomers. And brands (not all, but definitely the ones we will be interacting with for years to come), are quickly taking the initiative to not only put themselves where we are, but also to make themselves known as one of us.

You might ask, “How do they do that? How does Nike become a twenty-something?” I will tell you how: they speak to us like we speak to each other. Because for the first time, your brand is in conversation between posts made by my own twenty-something friends. And how better to relate your brand to me and my friends than by using terms we use, or that excite or interest us. Clearly, I am not talking Internet-speak (LOL)—I am talking activation words; words that convey to us who we want to be; how we understand the world to be; or even how we would like the world around us to become. Because those who understand the way Gen Y ticks, understand that more than anything else, we are an aspirational generation. Helping us aspire—feeding your brand vocabulary with words or concepts we aspire to—activates us as customers that want to interact with your brand, both socially and commercially.

I’m going to share with you five words of activation that have the potential to activate your Gen Y or Millennial customer, and why knowing what each one means and why it matters will let them know you know the “Y.” [Read more…]

He’s Got It: Menswear in the Information Age

The Robin ReportIn my last article we gave you three shops that were bellwethers of an emerging trend: a bottom-up trickle effect that has innovative brands skewing small. Here are three more bellwether retail stores that are becoming the go-to brands for modern young men, and are further redefining and reprogramming their customers’ experiences, online and off. What’s interesting about these three is that the founders are innovators who play to the online and offline strengths of their aging Millennial consumers, act as a disruptive force for traditional retailers, and capitalize on their customer-centric behaviors that are defining this generation.

Many innovative next-gen retailers are fully informed, and framed by the digital age and gifted in using all its disruptive tools. One such business that is uniquely online customer-focused is menswear retailer Indochino; a custom tailoring service based in Vancouver and Shanghai. Catering to the individual, Indochino provides each global customer with a 10-minute online measuring process and then delivers a custom tailored suit “at your door anywhere in the world” in four weeks. The suits (including tuxedos) retail from $399-$699 each, making custom tailoring a reality for the next generation that thrives on Mad Men over the Mod movement. Co-owners (and Millennials) are Heikal Gani, and Kyle Vucko. Heikal was inspired to create Indochino after diligently researching and then overspending on his first suit that was ultimately a disappointment, and needed extensive (expensive) tailoring after the fact. Gani’s initial disappointment in buying his first suit mirrors the paradox of an entire generation that has come of age after an adolescence of unprecedented customization, yet find themselves without choice in bespoke, affordable tailored menswear. This generation as preteens customized their skateboards, Nike sneakers—even developed their own brands through social network profiles. Why wouldn’t they also want a fully customizable experience in investing in their first suit—all done online? [Read more…]

Shopifying: When Less is More.

The Robin Report - Saturday'sIt may be counterintuitive and even surprising when retailers decide to skew small, but in an era of unlimited accessibility, many big-box brands are looking towards the archetypical “shop” for the next directional shift of retail. In other words, favoring a curated, specialty shop experience as an alternative to the over abundance of choice and lack of personal community a typical retail store offers today.

This new movement also addresses the emerging customer backlash of having to deal with too much stuff and too many stores that is not only fatiguing, but also in some cases, devalues choice. From the “Shops at Target,” to the shopping village model that JC Penney’s Ron Johnson has begun to implement as the store’s headline-making new direction, big brands are starting to think small, specialty, and curated.

Here’s a brief review of three independent New York shops that are catalysts in the shift towards intentional limitation. Each is an epicenter, creating an emotional connection with customers, often extending out of the shop to the beach, the general store, the boudoir and of course, online. Customers are loyal, built on the trust of a shared worldview that each shop offers and to the narrative; the storyline to the shop. Each store is worth looking at as a bellwether of a new emerging retail theme of small being big, less leading more, and experience trumping all. [Read more…]