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."