The Results Are In: Gen Z College Students Talk Beauty Products

By BNC Marketing

Beauty products—hair- and skincare, makeup, and fragrance—comprise an $18.8 billion category* that’s growing steadily, in large part due to Gen Z’s purchasing behavior. This consumer group is influenced by a multitude of factors, in large part social, and their beauty brand preferences often sway with rapid force.
Talking beauty, we’d be remiss without mentioning the VSCO Girl, the Gen Z subset that’s taken the world by storm and is popularizing what could be described as a basic, no frills product niche. These gals and guys are driving sales of facial spray, lip balms, and other similar, modest products. We are keeping an eye on VSCO Girls as they continue to influence beauty and many other consumable categories.


We wanted to understand how Gen Z college students shop skincare, hair, makeup, and fragrance products, so we spoke with 18-to-22-year old consumers about how, when, where, and what they purchase.
What we found yields valuable insights for beauty brands and retailers in terms of distribution, pricing, and promotions.


  1. Haircare items are the most frequently purchased, while fragrance is bought the least often. Most beauty products are purchased about once a month (hair, skin, and makeup), except fragrance, which is shopped for on a yearly basis.
  2. The bulk of beauty purchases are made in store at mass retailers. Fragrance purchase locations are somewhat fragmented, with departments stores factoring more heavily into the mix. While some products are purchased online, that is not considered the main go-to for this beauty shopper.
  3. The average monthly purchase in this category is less than $20.
  4. While it means different things to each consumer, “natural” is important. Sometimes natural is defined in terms of what it contains, what it doesn’t contain, or other features like no animal testing, cruelty free, or organic.
  5. Peers/friends have the most influence on purchases in this category – even beating out influencers, a long list of tactics like product reviews, in-store events and influencer marketing.
  6. Free samples are viewed positively, as the majority of students are willing to try them and say their purchase decisions would likely be influenced by them.


Gen Z Talks Beauty


So, what does all this mean for marketers in this category?

  1. Realize the pull of in-store shopping for the 18-to-22-year old shopper. How well are your reps trained? Does your distribution mirror where this consumer shops? How can you refresh your instore shopping experience? (Get tips on what Gen Z wants from retail.)
  2. Looking to drive more shoppers online? Figure out how to remove the risk with generous return policies and smaller product sizes. Provide greater incentive for online purchases.
  3. Is your product priced above the $20 average monthly purchase? Consider smaller, lower priced products to boost your chances of making it into their shopping basket. Test promo codes to lower the price below the $20 threshold.
  4. Make samples a larger part of your marketing mix. If you have a sampling program, by all means keep it going and consider ramping it up. If you don’t use samples now, figure out a way to start testing them to see their impact on sales. Tie your samples to moments along the college journey, such as acne control products at exam time and makeup just before prom. (Read about the college journey here.)
  5. Capitalize on friend influence in this category Strongly consider referral programs and bring-a-friend events to engage new consumers.

Methodology: We conducted an online survey among 419 Gen Z college students about their behaviors, preferences, and top brands, when it comes to shopping for beauty products.
About Us: Barnes & Noble College delivers the most effective and efficient Gen Z media solution. Z360™, our unique approach to engaging with this audience through campus retail, seamlessly connects brands with millions of students throughout every stage of their college experience.

* NPD Group annual survey.

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