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Senior Market Ripe for Action

WASHINGTON -- The 50-plus crowd represents a big market with a lot of disposable income, but many retailers don't seem to know how to get their attention.<BR><BR>This was among the findings of a research project commissioned by the International Mass...

WASHINGTON — The 50-plus crowd represents a big market with a lot of disposable income, but many retailers don’t seem to know how to get their attention.

This was among the findings of a research project commissioned by the International Mass Retail Association, focusing on shopping habits of older consumers.

The study aimed to find out whether mass retailers and suppliers understand the needs of the 50-plus customer. It revealed that there are some big gaps in the perceptions among retailers and suppliers of the older consumer’s buying habits.

“In 1996, the oldest of the baby boomers turns 50, and every 7 1/2 seconds, somebody turns 50 from that point on,” said Ken Dychtwald, president and chief executive officer of Age Wave, a firm specializing in research on older Americans.

Age Wave conducted the survey for IMRA by polling 1,000 manufacturers and suppliers and surveying 500 people over 50 in shopping malls. Dychtwald revealed the results at IMRA’s annual convention here last month.

Dychtwald said there are 65 million Americans over 50 — more than twice the population of Canada — and they spend 40 percent of all consumer dollars.

Dychtwald offered these statistics about older consumers:

  • People 50 and older control 77 percent of all financial assets in the U.S.
  • They control 80 percent of the money in savings and financial institutions.
  • Sixty-seven percent own their homes free and clear.
  • They control 50 percent of all discretionary income.
  • They buy 67 percent of all prescription drugs and 51 percent of over-the-counter drugs.
  • They buy 25 percent of all toys — there are 55 million grandparents over 50.
  • They buy 48 percent of all luxury cars, and 80 percent of luxury travel.
“The group coming up is very different from those they are replacing,” Dychtwald said. “They tend to feel 10 to 15 years younger than their actual age, but they’ve been marketed to as if they were 10 to 15 years older.”

For example, when asked whether health problems have changed the lifestyle of the 50-plus customer, 68 percent of retailers said yes, while only 53 percent of consumers said yes.

While 71 percent of consumers said they have more time on their hands, only 28 percent of retailers said consumers had more free time.

“That new free time can be spent shopping,” Dychtwald said. “You can arrange special events and promotions during the quiet times of the week. The 50-plus crowd is more flexible about their time.”

Asked if safety and security was a concern among older shoppers, 32 percent of retailers said yes, while 52 percent of consumers said safety was a concern.

Is the 50-plus consumer willing to be self-indulgent in purchases? In a large discrepancy between reality and perception, just 16 percent of retailers said yes, while 73 percent of consumers said they would.

“People in their 50s and 60s are very self-indulgent and materialistic,” Dychtwald said. “They aren’t saving to pass assets to future generations — they’re enjoying themselves.”

He added that Depression-era people, who tend to be more fiscally conservative, are now over 70.

About 80 percent of people over 50 are also willing to try new products — the idea of brand loyalty among mature customers is a myth, he said.

Dychtwald outlined 12 tactics for capitalizing on the increased spending power of 50-plus consumers:

  • Improve labels and signs, with larger type, contrasting colors and convenient placement.
  • Increase product trials with in-store demonstrations and sampling.
  • Display supplier-provided brochures with product information.
  • Reformulate the product mix and packaging to meet the needs of 50-plus consumers. Big handles and easy-grip packages are two suggestions.
  • Increase the number of features in the store to make it a destination for more consumers. For example, a retailer might add photo services, food, video rental, mailing and package services, in-store banking or other business services.
  • Reduce stocking activities during heavy shopping hours. This will make movement in the store easier.
  • Add seating throughout the store.
  • Make security personnel visible in and around the store and parking lot.
  • Match shopping music with customer preferences. For example, if the store is running a senior-citizen discount, don’t play loud rock music. Also, make sure the public address system is loud and clear.
  • Explore nontraditional consumer media, like noon TV news shows, talk radio, or use high-value coupons.
  • Make department personnel accessible.
  • Provide seasoned or age-sensitive employees for in-store customer service.