Millennials are foregoing the traditional consumer-brand relationship, leaving brands scrambling to reclaim their influence.

Editor’s Note: To many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, the millennial generation is a mystery. These 18- to 29-year-olds are history’s very first “always connected” generation, defined by all their phones and gadgets, and they’ve been accused of being overly entitled. The series “Millennials: A Generation Revealed” takes an eye-opening look at this group of Americans coming into their own, what they want out of life, and how they plan to get it.

Story highlights

By embracing tech, social media, millennials are changing the retail landscape, experts say

Millennials favor shopping based on "what's interesting to them," Copious founder says

Frugality, loyalty to brands with social agendas characterize their habits, experts say

Millennial says she puts her own twist on popular trends: "More than anything, it's about the look"

CNN  — 

When she’s not working her day job at a used bookstore, Brittany Jasper spends most of her time perusing consignment stores, yard sales and flea markets for clothing and accessories.

She’s not really brand-loyal, since she can’t afford the ones she likes at full price, “but secondhand isn’t so bad.” Instead, she tends to gravitate toward whatever fits her style and budget, which could be a pair of lightly used Banana Republic chinos one day or a vintage oversized tunic and tangerine leggings the next.

“I am drawn to things that are different, that I’m not going to be able to find just by shopping in the mall,” said Jasper, 26, of Nashua, New Hampshire. “More than anything, it’s about the look. I’m not afraid to pick up anything no-name if I like it.”

It’s a fairly conventional approach to personal style until she gets home, takes pictures of herself modeling the clothing and uploads them to Copious, an online marketplace that lets her share, buy and sell items. If she doesn’t like pieces for herself, she posts them for sale on her page and shares them with followers from a variety of sources, including Facebook and Twitter. When someone “likes” a dress on Jasper’s profile, her social media followers are notified, along with followers of the person who liked the dress, creating web of notifications that feeds back to Jasper’s page.

It may sound complicated to the uninitiated, but Jasper is hooked, and not just because it’s a place to buy and sell. She’s used platforms like Etsy and Suvi, but none of them came close to the interactive community she has found on Copious, she said.

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“I really like that it’s so social and tied into the people you like and what you like and what you express interest in,” she said. “It kind of molds itself around you.”

Personalized shopping and browsing experiences

Technology and social networking distinguish Jasper and her peers from previous generations of shoppers in the eyes of brands, retailers and market researchers. By creating personalized shopping experiences around themselves, millennials are upending the traditional consumer-brand hierarchy, leaving brands and retailers scrambling to reclaim their influence.

“Millennials are at the forefront of the change in the retail landscape, based on their adoption of online and virtual behavior,” said Ana Nennig, executive vice president of global consulting firm Havas PR.

“As the first generation that truly embraced instantaneous gratification, they mixed with that a desire to be fiscally aware of pricing and value and set the ground for shopping attributes (that) other generations and groups are adopting.”

That doesn’t mean millennials are completely brand-agnostic, Nennig said. They just put more time and effort into finding brands they identify with in terms of voice and social agenda. Conversely, brands are investing more of their identity into social agendas, from TOMS Shoes’ “one pair sold, one pair donated” business model to west elm’s collaborations with Etsy artists.

“For millennials, brands are an essential way of identifying, expressing and supporting what they find personally important. Using brands that embody their values makes them feel good,” she said. “Retailers also need to keep in mind that millennials tend to seek brands and products that are socially responsible; this generation is looking for products that are sustainable, fair-trade and offer lower carbon footprints, for example.”

On the whole, they’re just as trend-driven as previous generations, said Samatha Bergeron, founder of market research agency Uncover, which performs consumer research for fashion and retail brands.

Millennials tend to have a wide knowledge of fashion, and how they act on that knowledge distinguishes them, she said.

“They’re more fashion-savvy, not in terms of what they wear but what they know. You can go to Duluth, Minnesota, and find a girl who can tell you about Stella McCartney, and that’s pretty much the norm where it might not have been the case in the 1980s,” she said.

“But they’re still taking direction; that hasn’t changed. We’re not a society that goes it alone,” said Bergeron.

The rise of the ‘curated’ platforms

To meet these needs, brands and retailers are working furiously to create “seamless” experiences from stores to online portals. New social media networks and apps are emerging with the goal of delivering “curated” experiences.

“This is how millennials shop: They want experiences based on what’s interesting to them,” said Jonathan Ehrlich, co-founder and COO of Copious. “What we’re trying to do is organize a marketplace personalized and customized to you. You don’t see a top-down curated experience; you see an experience related to your connections.”

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Copious entered the ever-expanding landscape of “curated” and “edited” online marketplaces in January with women’s apparel and accessories. It expanded into menswear last week with the introduction of stylist and reality TV star Brad Goreski as one of its newest sellers.

“I think it can be really hard to distinguish between e-commerce sites. It often comes down to the basics. Can I get that bag on site X or site Z faster? Which one has free shipping? What’s their return policy?” Goreski said in an e-mail. “Copious is building an experience that reflects individual style and taste, and I think that’s really powerful. When I think about styling for my clients, I don’t show each person the same dress, or the same handbag, or the same pair of shoes. I try to understand what best reflects their personality and taste.”

It’s also the latest example of a model that’s threatening the traditional influence of brands and retailers. Instead of walking into Ann Taylor or Forever 21 for inspiration, some millennials are sourcing style cues from a variety of portals and social networks – online and in real life – and finding the version that suits their budget, Bergeron said.

“Relationships with brands have become more transactional,” she said.

“That emotional connection between brand and consumer is weakening,” she said. “They don’t need to rely on (brands) so heavily for inspiration and resources. They have 2,500 bloggers and a variety of social networks telling them what to do.”

Online browsing = online sales?

There’s bound to be variation within a generation spanning about 20 years, from high school students to newlyweds in their 30s. At the top end of the cohort, there’s a greater focus on employing a mix and match aesthetic to create an individualized personal style, said Lauren Kaufman of trend forecasting group WGSN. Going down the spectrum, people are taking pictures of themselves in dressing rooms and sharing them with friends for instant feedback.

“They’re definitely sharers; they’re all about community and wanting to talk and share with peers and friends,” she said. “Social networking makes that feat easier.”

In response, some stores are installing interactive mirrors that let you take pictures and share them with friends via text or social media, she said. Other dressing room mirrors are equipped with remote access to stylists and editors to field questions or provide tips.

Even if millennials find and share inspiration online, that doesn’t necessarily translate to online sales. A Pew Internet poll from 2008 found that 26% of internet users ages 18 to 29 had bought a product online, which is significant but far from a majority. An overwhelming majority of respondents in the same age group also said that shopping online is convenient (83%) and that the internet is the best place to find bargains (62%).

But 85% also said they prefer to see things before they buy them. Katey Mote falls into that category, especially while she’s paying off student loans and living off modest earnings from a temporary gig in Phoenix.

The 22-year-old ends up in Target most of the time looking for the best value, she said, but tends to steer clear of the fast fashion at Forever 21 because she wants her purchases to last.

Still, she prides herself on putting her own twist on conventional looks, even while at work for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, where she assists on projects in disease surveillance and urban planning.

To personalize her look, she wears a lot of colorful jewelry and funky shoes.

“For me and my friends, I think there’s a kind of an entrepreneurial spirit with clothing,” she said. “People are making their own or finding similar items to brand names without needing the name. Just being thriftier while trying to keep up appearance of trying.”

A generations that resists ‘buying in excess’

Entering the work force amid a tough economy and high unemployment has influenced the way a lot of millennials shop, said Kaufman, making them more selective about everything they purchase.

“This is not a generation of buying in excess,” she said. “It’s about mixing and matching and high and low-end pieces. Investment pieces are still key, but it’s not the same throwaway culture as with previous generations.”

Matthew Clairborne says his spending habits have become more conservative since he traded a decent salary in advertising last year for student loans to attend journalism school in New York. He and his friends aim for stylishness amid frugality, he said.

“A lot of us are in transition: unemployed, grad school, in jobs that don’t relate to our degrees,” said the 23-year-old Louisiana native, who describes his style as hipster-preppie. “We’re in phases where we have to be economical and smart about our shopping habits.”

He considers himself a shrewd shopper with a good sense of where to get the best bang for his buck. H&M works for cardigans, sweaters and hats but not much else, he said. Otherwise, he rarely buys items at full price. Bloomingdale’s tends to have great sales on shoes, and he subscribes to e-mail alerts from Zara, H&M and Macy’s.

While he gets most of his style inspiration by walking the streets of New York, he did buy a cardigan online once while watching TV on his laptop. The network’s website offered viewers the option to shop the looks they saw on actors with just one click. It matched a vintage denim vest he already had.

“I try to shop for versatility, because I’m on a tight budget. I want to be able to wear it to multiple events and occasions and transfer between seasons,” he said. “Style is a recurring event, a process, a cycle. I never buy a complete outfit, because feel like it’s a waste of money. I’ll only wear it once.”

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