Aging in Suburbia

Discussion
Jul 15, 2011
Bernice Hurst

As those of us involved in retail and related industries are aware, an aging population has wide-ranging implications. Amongst other things, the ramifications of boomers’ home ownership are just becoming clear. Many bought homes in the suburbs when their families were young but are still ensconced now.

A study by William Frey at the Brookings Institution, based on the 2010 census, focused on trends in different types of neighborhoods. In The Uneven Aging and “Younging” of America, he examines some of the resulting changes.

The mature population of the suburbs has apparently grown much faster than that in urban areas. According to the report discussed in The Washington Post, “four in 10 suburban residents are 45 or older, up from 34 percent just a decade ago.” Furthermore, Mr. Frey believes that while concerns when people first moved to the suburbs focused on their children and families, older people think more about themselves, their health and well-being.

According to the Post, local planners are predicting younger boomers may consider moving to a more suitable retirement area when they hit 45 or so, but those who haven’t moved by the time they hit 65 are not likely to. John Kenney, chief of aging and disability services with the Montgomery County health department, reckons this could be due to either “choice or default.”

Quoting AARP research that shows nine in 10 older Americans want to stay in their homes as they age, the Post notes opportunities for home adaptations including “kitchen and bath remodeling designs that make the areas accessible for wheelchair users.” Ways to make shopping easier might also be welcomed by those less able to drive than they were when younger or needing more time to cross the road when walking. An observation that more older people are working rather than retiring throws another dimension into a picture of how much money they have and how they are willing to spend it.

Mr. Frey describes the situation as baby boomers “aging in place.” Although his observations relate more specifically to the need for age-related public resources, the inference that retailers need to take note cannot be ignored.

Discussion Questions: How might consumption patterns and shopping needs change with an aging population in many of America’s suburbs?

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10 Comments on "Aging in Suburbia"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Mark my words…suburbs will become the sites for geriatric feminist collective housing. Don’t believe it? look around…it’s happening already.

From another perspective older people need to live closer to emergency services (EMS, hospitals, cardiac care specialists) and may lose mobility over time. So, I’d say the future of “suburbs” has to be examined on a case by case basis and through a new set of filters.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

Given the wealth of data being collected on an item level today, retailers should be able to successfully adapt the mix in their stores to match the demographic shopping there. Offer variations should include changes in product, packs, sizes offered, price points, etc. What changes are needed within each variable will depend on the market. There are significant differences between marketing to retirement community dominated area and one that has a more age balanced mix.

As Mr. Mathews pointed out, there are many non-retail related changes that will incur impacting the services needed. One of the changes is the move from private to public transportation–some not found in most suburbs. Retailers may have to start to consider how we get our customers to our stores or take our stores to the customers.

Liz Crawford
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

In many suburban communities, there is a bimodal population: growing young families and aging couples. The shopping needs of these two groups varies significantly even though there may be some work-life similarities. Imagine a 55-year-old woman who drops off her mother at the senior center on the way to her real estate job. She meets up with her colleague, a 35 year-old woman, who has just dropped off her two children at school. The younger working mother buys gigantic boxes of cereal and gallons of whole milk, which she loads into her SUV. The older working boomer buys single-serve frozen dinners and a few small, non-fat cheesecake flavored yogurts, which she loads into her Mini Cooper.

It seems to me the most significant differences here have to do with scale. Older means smaller everything and fewer calories per serving (low fat, sugar free, etc). Younger means bigger portions, bigger store footprints, bigger cars and potentially higher calorie products.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

I directionally agree with Liz but I’d offer I caveat.

Let’s not get caught using “older” definitions of “older” and “younger.”

“Older” for example could mean bigger orders if the “older” person in question is re-housing to their children and possibly grandchildren.

Ditto for “younger.” These very well could be households of one; households never intending to have children; and even driving smaller (more energy efficient) cars.

It’s always dangerous to get too comfortable with assumptions about demographic cohorts.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

These buying patterns are not new. The suburbs have been aging for years, not just last night. In many aging inner cities we are finding young and mainly single people buying starter homes and staying until they are married and have children. That is when they have a need for added services such as schools. Then the migration starts to the suburbs.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

“Aging in Place” is a huge movement that is well underway. If you Google it, as I did just now, you get 31.6 million hits. Would be good for retailers to go to some of the major sites, and become familiar with it, to get ideas. Here in Vermont, I’m one of many active in the program, going to seniors’ homes to help with chores, driving seniors to doctors’ appointments and grocery shopping, etc. Ryan’s communal living point is also spot-on, as many seniors of all persuasions are going this route. Hey, it’s not new to some of us. Back in the ’60s, I briefly lived on a commune that shared a driveway with a bike gang led by “Captain Ugly.” (Really.) It sure was quite a time. But I suspect if any of us return to communes in our old age, things will be a tad different! (Sigh.)

Anne Howe
Guest
9 years 9 months ago
Bringing the store to the shoppers could be a good option for the future for aging suburban shoppers. It’s hard to imagine too many suburban areas actually reforming the transportation options to bring aging shoppers to current store formats, and even harder to imagine a bunch of old shoppers truly navigating today’s supermarkets successfully. Check out this Tesco video! What I like about this is the size of the product images and the ease with which older shoppers can scan the QR code even with less than perfect vision. Imagine having this kind of a virtual wall for shopping in the common gathering areas of collective senior housing. The retailer delivery van shows up at the same time every day with all of the orders from any resident who shopped by a certain time every day. Compare to the reality below: I watched my vision impaired Dad shop at Meijer when he lived at a suburban senior residence. Trouble getting to and on the bus, trouble seeing the store navigation signs, more trouble seeing product… Read more »
Dan Stanek
Guest
Dan Stanek
9 years 9 months ago

The aging population is a sea-change trend for retail in general, in suburbs and urban markets. The reduction of spending on goods is already having a profound impact on the economy, which will not catch up entirely until GenY reaches their higher earning years. The aging in place opportunity is a real bright spot for spending with this group however. It is likely to spur activity in products and services related to staying in ones home, but is not likely going to be large enough to offset the decor and remodeling activity these customers did in the recent past when they were borrowing from their home equity.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 9 months ago
Greetings from Sun City Lincoln Hills (55+), Lincoln, CA. My neighbors would disagree with the notion of “aging in place.” They’re having a blast with golf and the hundreds of activities at the several clubs on the property. An ambulance does park nearby 24/7 and sirens can be heard every day in the ‘hood. Every house is equipped with a porch light that can blink so the ambuli can find them more easily. Lots of dog walking. Food delivery services, lawn services, and mobile pet groomers love this place. It’s golf cart friendly, with those suckers zooming all over the place, and the pelotons are large, frequent, and aggressive. Profuse Harleys. I love it. Wish they had a gun range, though. Maybe next year. My neighborhood would seem like a good place to determine changing shopping needs of an aging population in an American suburb. Our numbers dominate the local retail area. But I can’t figure this one out. Case in point: The local Safeway and Raley’s stores began carrying half-loaves of the various Orowheat… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 9 months ago

I see the issues lying along 2 major fronts:
1) Mobility; let’s face it, the suburb–by definition–has long been car-centric, which will become an issue where/when substantial portions of the population can no longer drive;
2) Recreation; suburbs have also long been youth oriented, with a several swing sets for every shuffleboard court…whether this is a need private enterprise can fill, or whether community priorities will shift is the question.

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