Exploding Age: Are Retailers Ignoring Half Their Customers?

It’s often said that age is just a number, but for just a number, there are a lot of people talking about it. Quite right, too. After decades of youth-focused consumerism, the Baby Boomers have grown up and a demographic time bomb?is exploding.

The stats say it all. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2050 the over 60s will increase to two billion people, doubling from 11%?to 22% of the global population, and 400 million people will be aged 80+. It’s not just the developed world. Places like China and Iran will have a majority of older people. This is a demographic shift without precedent.

Ageing now is not the same as it used to be. Older people are wealthier, and healthier, than ever before. The Silver Dollar Report claims that over 50s consumer spending far outstrips that of the coveted 18-39 age group. It represents 60% of total spending in the US and 50% in the UK. Many over 65s are still working, exercising, and enjoying life in exactly the same way as they did before. And let’s not forget that as one ages, the later ‘old’ becomes. In this context, the continuing ‘cult of youth’ seems, well, old.

There’s no ?such thing as a beige, amorphous “over 60s” blob?and there probably never was. Age brings with it increased physical and health challenges, but every single 65-year old, 75-year old and 85-year old is as individual now as they ever were.

What does all this mean for retail brands? Bricks and mortar, and all the physical things that one has to do as a necessity to allow older people to move around spaces is important, but it's only part of the story.

Hello Alexa: Technology as enabler

As far as most marketing is concerned, you’re either hot, young, sexy, and sold products?to make you more attractive to your romantic target of choice, or you’re dressed in beige, on the margins, and in need of plain, functional, non-technical products. The reality is to the contrary. Far from technophobic, people feel comfortable with the internet until about age 75, only then tapering off, with this age point rising?by a year, every year. The over 50s market is driving tablet sales and the boom in Whatsapp and Skype.

More recently, Alexa and other voice activated tech have become hugely popular with seniors. They eradicate fiddly interfaces that require nimble-fingered typing, dabbing and swiping. For retailers, voice activation unlocks online shopping to this demographic. In fact, one of my colleagues recently told me about her 85-year old dad in Canada who was stuck at home with shingles in his eye. Unable go to the local supermarket or look at his laptop to do an online order, he turned to Alexa to help him with the weekly shop.

This idea of freeing people from the screen through voice activation is huge, particularly for older generations who can’t/won’t use computers or hand held devices. They’re no longer penalised for not being able to access special offers, online-only sales etc.

In-store experiences

The vast majority of in-store experiences aimed at the over 65s emphasise safety, functionality, reliability, and familiarity. Often simply meeting building regulations, this all targets the chronologically and cognitively old rather than the increasingly large group of ‘cognitively young’.

Investment in the statutory requirements can also often obscure those in-store experiences that really make a difference from ever seeing the light of day. However, some retailers do both. Morrisons introduced a ‘Quieter Hour’ in all stores, designed to help customers who struggle with music and the other noise associated with supermarket shopping. Whilst this was initially done with autistic shoppers in mind, it’s also a boon to older shoppers.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s has trialled a weekly ‘Slow Shopping’ session to help elderly or vulnerable people shop in a safe and relaxed environment. Aiming to make grocery shopping less stressful and more enjoyable for people who find it challenging, chairs are placed at the end of aisles, and specially trained helpers greet shoppers at the entrance and help them with their trip.

Emotions and aspirations

Of course the initiatives at Morrisons and Sainsbury’s are laudable, but for the ‘cognitively young’, this is not good enough. They want downright desirability for the products and services?they seek to consume. Function is a given, the lowest common denominator. They want retail brands to reflect their aspirations and appetites, not patronise their very existence.

It’s not about engaging older consumers explicitly through their age, because their age does not determine who they are. It’s about giving them things they’ll desire through in-store customisation – of products and services, and often delivered by specially trained staff.

My agency’s branch experience strategy for Skipton Building Society – a brand aimed at the over 50s – was all about redefining the idea of retirement. In a world where 60 is the new 40, retirement holds infinite possibilities. The ‘Ideas Centre’ reflects this ‘anything is possible later-in-life’ perspective – it’s a homely place that’s much more proactive, open, and welcoming. It celebrates the fulfillment of those hopes and dreams that had to be put on hold whilst focusing on career/raising the family.

If brands don’t get it, they’ll inevitably be left behind. Deservedly so. They need to appeal to their customers, whoever they are, not ignore them – and certainly not patronise them. Just as young people have personal tastes, abilities, and preferences, it’s the individual silver who is consumer gold.

David Martin is director & co-founder of M Worldwide