As the first boomers turn 60 this year, a contingent of marketing specialists and consultants wonder when producers and retailers might start making major adjustments for an aging population.
They all say the same thing: There's a huge opportunity. And it's slipping right by people who could be taking it to the bank.
"We have a list," says Georganne Bender of St. Charles, Ill.-based retail consultants Kizer and Bender. "We've been talking about this since 1994, and no one's been listening. No one's been getting their stores ready, which they need to be."
Consider the statistics. Bender pointed out that people over 50, for instance, are in the prime of their lives and far more affluent than other generations. The baby boomers and the 64 million people who are at or beyond retirement age control 70 percent of the wealth in the United States, says Bender, quoting a survey from the New York consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. Those groups—the 50-somethings through the early retirees—have a new name, the zoomers.
George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif., agrees that boomers make up a sizeable market with unique needs.
"I think there are vast numbers of things that cause aging adults, boomers and seniors problems," he says. "Signage, for one. It's unreadable. The biggest problem is that the people who design [signs] are 22 years old. They don't understand that when you get old you can't see."
Packaging is another key, says Consumer Network President Mona Doyle of Philadelphia.
"When you have the group that's into ageless aging, packaging that makes a difference is important," Doyle says. "It has more importance for the 50 to 74 group, even though the older ones need it more."
Zoomers, Bender says, also include plenty of what her firm calls LOMLOTS—people with lots of money and lots of time to shop.
"It is mind-boggling to me when you look at who has the money in this country," Whalin says. "The older people get, the less attention they get."
Retailers try to get as much merchandise as possible on the shelf, consultants point out, but whatever's below the knees or above the shoulders will likely go unnoticed by boomers, zoomers, LOMLOTS and seniors with bifocals, poor eyesight or arthritis. Add to that young clerks who may not be inclined to help older folks, and you have a formula for lost sales.
"There are older people who tell me, 'I feel like I'm invisible. Sales people get annoyed when I ask questions. I can't hear as well,'" says Bender.
Whalin says some retail clothiers, such as Chico's, Talbots and Coldwater Creek, figured out that women between 40 and 60 have money and cater to that age group with stylish and colorful clothes in appropriate sizes. The result, he says: "Those three haven't had a bad quarter."
For retail watcher Warren Thayer, associate publisher of Private Label Buyer magazine, the population shift is evolutionary. Some smaller stores have put benches around the perimeter for people to rest, or improved signs and in-store information. A co-op near him in New Hampshire, he says, employs a full-time dietitian to advise customers, but he doesn't see across-the-board changes.
"There are more elderly customers all the time," Thayer says. "The mass merchandiser is not going to capture them. They're not going to walk" through a big-box store.
Thayer doesn't think there will necessarily be a large-scale change, though.
"I don't think there's enough critical mass out there to undergo the expense of the change, which is phenomenal, to make it profitable in some cases," Thayer says.
But Whalin believes the economic realities are going to force retailers to look at what they can change. "Watch the customers. Pay attention. That's crucial."
Last spring, Target rolled out new medicine bottles in its pharmacies. Family members can choose one of six colored rings to attach to the bottles so they don't mix up prescriptions. And bottles are flat on one side to make instructions easier to read.
"A few years ago, Target widened the aisles in all their stores. They lost room for merchandise, but they made it easier to get around," Whalin says.
Lori Ozzello is a writer and editor in Greeley, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 58-59