Gen Z talent is shaping the future of e-commerce in a time of digital acceleration

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Students making a purchase online via laptop using a credit card

By: Krista Henry

With an estimated buying power of $44 billion, Generation Z is shaking up the retail industry as both consumers and employees.

Gen Z (born between 1996-2014) is the next generation of consumers and talent hitting the workforce. Despite their age, they hold unprecedented influence over family purchasing decisions and wield economic power of their own. A 2018 study predicted Gen Z would make up about 40 per cent of all consumers in 2020. Understanding, attracting and retaining this talent is key to the future of retail.

By the end of 2021, Canada eCommerce sales are expected to reach $86.52B or double the amount reached in 2019. According to the Retail Council of Canada, the pandemic accelerated the shift from physical stores to online e-commerce by roughly five years. This is where Generation Z student talent can make a world of difference.

Raised in a digital world, Gen Z has access to online resources that make them educated and knowledgeable when it comes to deciding which products and brands they want to work for or support. For retailers to remain ahead of the curve they need to understand, reach and speak to these Gen Z consumers and employees.

Waterloo co-op students bring key insights to the retail industry in roles like finance associate analyst, UX research and design, marketing coordinator, merchandising student, technical specialist, brand marketing, social media marketer and operations support, among others.

Seeing the potential of early talent recruitment

Zuleika Sgro headshotCanadian wellness brand, Saje Natural Wellness, looks to the talent potential and skills of Gen Z. “We want our team to reflect our community,” says vice president of people at Saje, Zuleika Sgro.

“We cater to every demographic, and we want to be part of their wellness journey at any stage. That’s why it’s important for new grads and students to see the value of the retail business as a great career path—they are going to drive retail business.”

According to Sgro (BA’ 07), the retail industry needs an evolving set of skills that promote being digital first.

“We need talent that understands the e-commerce side of business and the customer journey. How do you evolve the in-person experience, especially in light of COVID-19? Communication is another critical area of expertise. These skills are really important moving forward.”

- Zuleika Sgro (BA' 07), vice president of people at Saje

E-commerce needs digital skills

Rency Luan headshotLeading the way for skills needed is technical and digital-savvy talent. Last year Shopify, and other industry leaders, partnered with UWaterloo to offer the Digital Skills Fundamentals courses. The courses help students to sharpen digital skills and ultimately will help transform businesses. The Digital Skills Fundamentals introduce students to the skills needed for digital marketing, web design, video marketing, problem solving and sales.

Retailers such as Mejuri are utilizing co-op students to strengthen their digital networks. Arts co-op student Rency Luan has worked in two positions with the company, first in brand marketing and now growth marketing. Luan has used her digital skills to work with Mejuri’s social media platforms, create influencer marketing campaigns, analyze data, manage digital ads and help to grow their websites.

“What I really like about the retail industry is looking into the purchasing behaviors of consumers. Your ads are directly impacting them, so you have a huge effect on them,” says Luan.

“The retail landscape is constantly changing with new trends. You have to be aware of current pop culture, listening to podcasts and looking at social media.”

- Rency Luan, Arts co-op student

Retaining early talent best practices

Investing in early talent can make an impact. A recent study by Deloitte showed that for every $1 a business invests in a co-op student, they see a $2 economic gain. How can retailers retain amazing early talent? Sgro gives her top best practices:

1. Invest in onboarding and enhancing skills

“We’ve invested in onboarding, training and their skill enhancement in terms of how to understand the store as a business. At any level in the retail business, you need to understand how the store operates all the way from receiving a shipment to selling a product. We believe in transparency and giving people skills outside of what you signed up (for) in the job description.”

2. Train future leaders

“This year we launched, through an employee driven piece of feedback, something called an accelerated Leaders Program. It is driven by our retail leaders themselves. They brought this forward, they are running the program, and it is just an opportunity for peer-to-peer development. Ensuring organizations give space for that type of development is so important.”