Online retailers’ duty of care to elderly customers

Recent months have seen an unusual phenomenon emerge – the elderly and digitally reluctant customer. While online retailers can prepare for, and target, shoppers who don’t know about them yet or who usually shop with competitors, the section of customers who come to them almost against their will are trickier to plan for if it’s a segment you’re unused to serving.

As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, more shoppers have been pushed online than ever before, and some not by choice. The elderly, in particular, have been forced to shop by phone or go digital - entering the world of online shopping as novices. To give some context, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that for April, online spend as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 30.7% as a result of consumers switching to online purchasing following the pandemic.

A retailer’s emphasis on customer service tells the consumer that they’re interested in building an ongoing and loyal relationship, not just a one-off transaction. Now’s the time for online businesses to prove it.

TransUnion’s research on the impact of Covid-19 on consumer finances in the UK tells us that three out of five households have been negatively impacted, meaning many people are feeling financially vulnerable. At the same time, fraud is on the rise, with the same research showing that nearly a quarter of UK consumers have been targeted in a digital fraud attempt.

With more people signing up to potentially unfamiliar online services, this figure could be even higher if people haven’t yet recognised they have fallen prey to a fraudulent website or scam, or the fraud goes unreported. In fact, our recent survey suggests that 75% of Covid-19 related fraud has not been reported.

For those among the ageing population who had chosen to opt out of digital shopping, there is a nervousness about getting engaged in it when they now have to, according to a scientific study by Lancaster University. Retailers should be considering how they are making that step easier for this segment. 

Ultimately, it comes down to that essential retailer skill – knowing your customer. Retailers of all sizes need to reconsider how they will they adapt their online storefronts and experiences to attract and protect this new type of digital shopper.

The approach needs to be ‘friction-right’ – with the right level of checks and security in place for customers to feel like their transaction is secure, but without creating so many steps that they have difficulty or need to abandon the purchase altogether.

To keep all customers safe when they’re visiting a digital store, especially the vulnerable and elderly, there are several steps as a retailer should take.

Technical security

Every online retailer today should have basic site security in place to protect shoppers – ranging from encryption to anti-fraud monitoring.

Older and more vulnerable customers may have difficulty navigating email or mobile apps, are less able to generate and use passwords and overall are less digitally fluent. The use of email addresses for authentication can also create significant risk if these have been compromised in a breach – and those aged over 61 are more likely to have an account compromised through a data breach, according to fraud prevention service Cifas. So, retailers need to look at whether email and passwords are actually good enough as an identifier and authenticator of the customer on an ongoing, long-term basis.

Setting up customer tracking on your platforms to monitor patterns of activity can be an extremely useful second line of defence. Identifying individual customers and setting alerts when activity doesn’t fit an expected pattern can help prevent fraud though account takeover. In its most recent available data, Cifas noted a 90% increase in facility takeover among UK online retailers. So, make sure you have the right digital checks in place across all touchpoints.

Adding to this, mobile and device data can provide a deeper level of insight as part of a holistic check on customer ID and verification. Confirming ownership of the phone or device in a one-off interaction or gaining a better understanding of the validity of an email address is a crucial first step, quickly followed by ensuring no critical risk factors are at play.

Customer experience

We have recently seen retailers rightly prioritising the elderly and vulnerable for delivery slots for online grocery shopping, or adding delivery partners in some cases. These are welcome measures but they can only yield the right results if the people they are intended for have the confidence and skills to book them.

Customer experience is not just what you offer, but how. Designing for accessibility should be a priority for those who want to serve elderly customers – or at least including an option to switch the site to a simpler design if needed; across mobile, tablet and desktop.

It is incumbent on retailers to protect their users as they move through the site. This will also create valuable data that can be used to refine and improve security for the future. With more and more elderly people now moving online for their shopping needs, the least retailers can do to repay their faith for trusting them in these unsteady times is to ensure they are worthy of that trust in the first place.