I’m going to tell you a secret, but you have to keep it just between us: my macaroni and cheese is better than my mother’s. But she doesn’t know that, so sssh. Mom and her friends use Velveeta processed cheese to make their hot, bubbly, baked delight. My crew and I prefer real cheeses.

According to my employer, The Nielsen Co., the keepers of all the buzz on consumer trends—including what you watch, buy, read, text and surf—mom’s and my differences extend way beyond processed versus real.


Our lifestyle and shopping habits give a whole new meaning to “the generation gap.” First you have to understand who we are, and when I say we, I mean you. If you, like my mom, were born before 1946 (64-plus in 2009), you’re part of The Greatest Generation, and were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. You tend to be more frugal, frequent shoppers and like to make deals.

For those of you born 1946-1964 (age 45-63), you’re a Baby Boomer and the highest earning demographic. You spend the most per household of any group (um, this makes sense, this is where I fall, and I can spend some money!). Gen Xers come next, born 1965-1976, (age 33-44) you are typically at the peak of your careers and raising young families. The final group of spenders is the Millennials, born 1977-1994, (15-32). You have bumped the Boomers out of first place as the largest population segment, with over 76 million of you. Together, Boomers and Millennials make up half of the U.S. population.

Nielsen asserts we all tend to have an overall “pack” mentality with people from our generation. We tend to think alike, dress alike, vote alike, live alike and share a similar attitude toward life and leisure activities. That’s why mom and her friends prefer processed cheese and me and my BFFs prefer the real thing. Birds of a feather and so forth. (Of course, other factors like racial and cultural differences all come into play; but the generational similarities are nonetheless strong.)

Nielsen’s data even contends that where we shop can actually reveal our age (Who knew? and you were worried about crow’s feet!), and that each generation has unique shopping interests and needs. Millennials and Gen X shoppers prefer supercenters and mass merchandisers like Walmart, Kmart or Target, (that’s Tarjae to some of ya’ll) over the more traditional grocery or drug stores.

Freebies and senior discounts appeal to the value orientation of the Greatest Generation; as do products addressing aging issues, special packs for smaller households, and conveniently placed magnifying glasses. Boomers are big online shoppers, and prefer cash-back savings programs and specials offers on prescription meds, travel, entertainment, wine or gifts. Time is precious for busy Gen Xers, who tend to price check online and text friends while shopping (but hopefully NOT while driving).

Retailers are smart to deliver quick hit information and offers via new media to this group. Young Millennials most appreciate immediate gratification, and tend to tweet and text about special deals real time as they cruise the store aisles about “what looks good today,” and where to meet up later. Piped-in current music, coffee stations with battery chargers and in-store WiFi are draws for this group.

How does Nielsen know all of this? We capture data in thousands of grocery, drug, convenience, mass merchandising and supermarket retailers, right there at the store, when you’re checking out (that’s one of the reasons stores scan your items). As a company, we also have consumer panels—groups of people who come from a wide range of age groups, neighborhoods and family sizes— who voluntarily agree to use Nielsen scanners at home. We use both the in-store checkout data and our panelists’ at-home purchase information to track the specific products you buy, where you buy them and the price you pay for them. The information is then shared with marketers so they can make decisions on pricing, promotion, advertising and special niche offers, hopefully to better meet your needs and influence your next shopping experience.

Did you even realize that you as a consumer had that much influence on retailers? According to a new book, “Black Is the New Green,” the African-American community crosses all generational lines with $87.3 billion of buying power. Money is always power; and we’ve got it with our spending patterns. Let’s remember to use it wisely—no matter which generation is ours.

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is SVP of Public Affairs and Government Relations at The Nielsen Co., the world’s leading marketing research company that measures what you buy and what you watch.)

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