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Barbara Busse about Gen Z and their furniture: “We’re going to see a lot of market fragmentation.”

Photo: Future+You

Members of the coming generation live digitally, consume more spontaneously and furnish their homes differently. Individualisation means smaller batches, many products will be self-designed, brand lifespans will be shorter, and unknown start-ups are feted like stars. For established companies, the future scenario could be bleak if they do not adapt to changing market conditions. We find out what this scenario might look like in an interview with Barbara Busse, proprietor of Future+You.

In the course of your research, you’ve studied Generation Z and Young Millennials. What’s this generation all about?
Generation Z is a very large generation that will account for 40% of total global consumers in two years. Along with the Young Millennials, they’re the first digital natives. They’ve grown up with round-the-clock Internet access and are at home in worlds like music and video on demand. As a result, they have different expectations of things and products.

Will these expectations influence home living for this generation?
Yes, it will have an effect on their homes. This generation is almost ready to start furnishing their homes, which makes them especially interesting. They’re growing out of their teenage bedrooms and into their own homes and lives. And their lives will be very different to how we shop and live today. They place great value on individuality, convenient ordering and very, very short delivery times. None of them wants to wait six weeks for a sofa. And they’re very sensitive to certain issues.

Issues like sustainability?
Yes, they are a generation that thinks very sustainably because they are directly confronted with the consequences of climate change themselves. But at the same time, they don’t want to go without things; they expect manufacturers to take on the responsibility instead. Sustainability is simply standard practice for them, just like following health and safety regulations. Any company that doesn’t want to move in this direction is not accepted.

The Generation Z convenients very short delivery times. Photo: far.consulting

For the younger generation, brand loyalty is also a big problem. Many of them even find it difficult to commit to a mobile phone contract for two years.
The typical consumer expectations of brands used to be trust, an easy life and sustainability. Today it’s innovation, coolness and sustainability. Any company that offers consumers innovation and coolness is the brand of the moment. But loyalty and customer retention is a thing of the past. The experience will become more important than the heritage footprint, which some brands build. It only has to work for the moment.

Isn’t it also the case that brands from other sectors have greater credibility than established furniture brands?
Before there used to be 80% loyalty towards government bodies and companies. That has now fallen to 20%; the proportions have reversed, especially where large companies are concerned. Young people support other young people. A kind of peer economy has developed. Start-ups can quickly achieve superhero status based on the idea that anybody can be a star – “heroes like me” as it were – or Germany Seeks the Superstar on a wider scale. Young entrepreneurs can become marketing icons much more quickly. Having a start-up is seen as cool. Underdogs are encouraged, and it’s almost uncool to buy from a large company.

With the trend for selling self-made products and reselling products via services such as PayPal, there’s a constantly growing network with its own value chain – you might even say with its own currency. Can we talk about a parallel world here?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a parallel world, and that’s no longer a problem with digital production. Production lines are becoming more flexible, too. In LA, there’s a fabric manufacturer that can weave a new pattern every 30 cm because the whole process is computer-operated. Their business model is based on the fact that they don’t have to weave 2 km of red and then 3 km of blue anymore. Production on demand and batches of one, that’s the future.

At network-based platforms you can order with just one click. Photo: Dai Ke

But established manufacturers such as Sophisticated Living are also already heading in that direction with completely custom-made furniture …
But you’re still dependent on those manufacturers because you have to order from them. That isn’t the network-based thing where you come up with something yourself, design it yourself and then present it on platforms like Instagram – and anyone who likes it can order it with one click. A completely image-and-follower-driven economy is emerging here.

So the principle works like this: “I make something for myself, and anyone who likes it can order it from me.”
That’s right. A key trend here is premiumisation. That’s when someone makes something very special and does it particularly well so that it is attractive to others, too. Another trend is limited access – a limited edition that sells out very quickly because the community knows that it will only be available for a very short time. The term for this trend is “fear of missing out”, or FOMO for short. If I know that an item is one of only seven, and my only chance to buy it is right now, then it’s as if some of them lose all control. They buy it there and then. Missing out on an opportunity like that is the worst thing for these people.

So the times when we owned our favourite sofa for 20 years are over now?
There probably will still be some people who keep their favourite sofa for a long time. But those buying furniture now are open to new ideas. In the future, we’ll play a part in designing our own furniture. One example of this is Tylko, a shelving manufacturer with an app that enables customers to adjust the shelf to their own room with the swipe of a finger using the AR function. Added to this is co-creation: playing a part in designing something is a source of joy and pride. That’s very important to Generation Z. There are some very creative people among older millennials, too, but it is Generation Z and the young millennials who really see co-creation as simply the way that things should be done.

In future, we are taking part in designing; we adjust a shelf to our own room with the swipe of a finger using the AR function. Photo: Tylko

When you think of individualisation and self-designed products, you immediately think of the trend for furniture hacking that has been around for about four years now. Isn’t it also moving in that direction?
Furniture hacking – the trend for improving standard products with your own creativity and technology in order to make something of your own – has an immense attraction. And everything with an immense attraction will become established. We’ve simply got to get away from the idea that furniture is something that a few large manufacturers make. We’re going to see a lot of fragmentation. And it’s probably going to be easier for small labels to adapt.

Further information:

Young Millennials & Generation Z
These buzzwords are used to characterise social groups whose members, by virtue of their age, have been socialised differently into the explosive digitalisation of our environment. For example, the first “generation” of the so-called digital natives is referred to as “Generation Y” (the successor to Generation X., i.e. those born before roughly 1980 and a play on their tendency to ask questions). Especially in the USA, the distinction between “old” and “young millennials” (those born after 1989) is based on whether they came of age before or after the financial crisis hit and the smartphone took over a large part of social life.
“Generation Z”, on the other hand, refers to the second generation of digital natives (born between 1995 and 2010 or between 2000 and 2015, depending on the source), whose members often encountered smartphones and touchscreens at an early age, while Generation Y and the Millennials have consciously followed the transition from keypad to touchscreen. As a result, Generation Z experiences the use of ubiquitous digital media and tools as something completely natural and intuitively accessible, with fluid boundaries between the real and the virtual world.

Barbara Busse studied design in Cologne and graduated in 2005 with a degree in product design. One week later, she started working for an agency in London that specialises in solar architecture and product development. She went on to work in South America, Australia and Munich before spending eight years as a designer with Deutsche Telekom. Busse has worked in