Gen Z

Two Zoomers dish on the struggles of being young founders, Gen Z shopper habits

Madison Semarjian, 24, and Ana Kannan, 23, both founded their companies fresh out of college.
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Photos: Madison Semarjian and Ana Kannan

· 4 min read

During her freshman year at Boston College, Madison Semarjian found herself in a predicament that many 18-year-olds find themselves in: not knowing what to wear on a first date.

She turned to her best friend whose advice was, “Why don’t you just wear what makes you feel like yourself?” Easier said than done, Semarjian thought, but that question got her thinking about what influences the choices made by people in need of a great look.

Semarjian is one of many young founders who are convinced that Gen Z wants a personalized shopping experience. Retail Brew spoke to Semarjian, founder of fashion-curation app Mada, and Ana Kannan, founder of sustainability-focused apparel marketplace Toward, about challenges they’ve faced and the Gen Z consumer.

  • “I was also really interested at the time in all the innovations happening with AI in the retail industry,” Semarjian, now 24, told Retail Brew. “I saw there [were] a lot of cool things happening, but no one was kind of really serving any real value yet. There were smart mirrors and all this cool stuff, but everything felt a little bit gimmicky.”

Cold calls, big dreams

When the Mada app went live in January 2020, the goal was to make personal style algorithmic. It matches shoppers with outfits for special occasions. It took three years of sending cold emails before Semarjian received responses during her senior year of college.

  • A turning point for her came when a mentor advised her to use her lack of experience as a selling point to convince brands of her vision.

When Toward debuted in August 2021, 50+ brands used the platform, but Kannan, a now 23-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California, similarly labored to win over brands.

  • After a flurry of cold calls, Kannan and her team developed a “responsibilities framework”—a set of standards brands had to meet to sell on the platform, which informs a survey with 100+ questions for brands to prove they meet them.
  • “Once [consumers] were able to see our framework, I think that really helped show that Toward has responsibility top of mind and that we really wanted to be the gold standard when it came to responsible retailers.”

The kids are alright (with personalization)

Semarjian believes that her fellow Zoomers, while tech-savvy, don’t want any and all tech to be part of the shopping experience if it’s impersonal.

  • Only 26% of Gen Zers have used virtual fitting-room tech, as opposed to 45% of millennials and 26% of Gen Xers, according to a June 2021 Harris Poll/Retail Brew survey.
  • Semarjian said that Mada is working with brands to integrate communication technology to put customers in touch with sales associates or personal stylists.
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“Sometimes [retailers] try to have all the bells and whistles, and that’s not necessarily the best way to do it,” Semarjian said. “Don’t give me access to the world; give me better access to things that I want to see in my world and what’s relevant for me.”

Kannan says that Gen Zers care very much about sustainability, but in a way that doesn’t only pay lip service.

  • In a recent Harris poll survey commissioned by Google Cloud, 82% of consumers say they want to buy from brands with values that align with their own.
  • 55% of those surveyed said they would pay more to shop from sustainable brands.
  • However, 72% of those surveyed believe that companies and brands overstate their sustainability efforts.

“It is good to learn that all Gen Zers, like consumers in general, are really interested in responsibility, and the ones that have the means to make more responsible purchases will do so, and they will slowly start moving [away from] brands and retailers that cannot meet their standards for what it means to be ethical and responsible,” Kannan said.

The big picture: Meeting sustainability targets and offering curated outfit options are a couple ways that Gen Zers want their shopping experience personalized to them. And Kannan and Semarjian believe their business models exemplify the relationship young shoppers want with the brands they frequent.

“I can get a product I want pretty much anywhere; It’s about, ‘Why should I actually come to you over like the next person?’” Semarjian said. “A lot of that comes down to relationship-building with the customer and also the values and how you connect with them.” —KM

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