Are retailers making it too tough for seniors to shop online?

Photo: @NAO via Twenty20
May 05, 2021

Many older consumers have discovered and embraced digital communications and online shopping during the pandemic as the higher-risk group avoided stores. The onboarding experience for many, however, hasn’t been a walk in the park.

A survey commissioned last fall from Beyond Consultancy, found only 42 percent of U.K. consumers aged 65 and over found their online experience to be straightforward, with 13 percent labeling it as frustrating.

A survey of adults over the age of 50 taken last October from AARP found the biggest barriers to adopting online technology were cost, cited by 38 percent; awareness/lack of knowledge, 37 percent; and privacy concerns, 34 percent.

Many businesses sought to redesign their websites as more seniors headed online during the pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal. For many, mild cases of deteriorating vision or dexterity that come with age spoil the online experience.

Suggestions for website upgrades from the Journal article included increasing the size of fonts or using brighter colors to highlight important text. Displaying menu items clearly at the top of the home page and avoiding unnecessary scrolling or drop-down menus were other tips.

Instacart launched a Senior Support Service last October that provides an online specialist to walk older customers through their first order. The service also provided tutorials for setting preferred replacements, chatting with delivery drivers and changing orders.

A recent Washington Post article on the spike in online grocery spending by Baby Boomers noted how Kraft is working with retailers to group items online by category, such as breakfast or burgers, instead of mimicking traditional supermarket aisles. The packaged foods giant is also partnering on creating videos and interactive images that highlight a product’s size and ingredients, as well as setting up one-click options to purchase ancillary items such as ketchup.

Elizabeth Bennett, VP of e-commerce for Kraft Heinz, told the Post, “If you think about a traditional store, I can’t control which entrance you walk in or which aisles you go down. But online, when we see who you are as a consumer, we can surface certain items.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are website redesigns, onboarding tutorials or other steps necessary and practical to improve the online experience for older Americans? Do you see this market remaining significant for retailers now that states are beginning to lift pandemic restrictions?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Clarity of design and ease of navigation are great website design principles regardless of the age of the target customer. "
"Grandma has a wonderful message for all of us. She has more important social things to do."
"...only 10 percent of media spend is aimed at the Boomer and older demographic. Yet ... those over 55 years control 72.6 percent of household wealth..."

Join the Discussion!

29 Comments on "Are retailers making it too tough for seniors to shop online?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ryan Mathews

Clarity of design and ease of navigation are great website design principles regardless of the age of the target customer. Most Boomers are computer literate and shouldn’t have trouble negotiating a well architected site. If, as a company, you need to offer tutorials on how to use your site, perhaps the problem is with the site, not the user.

Ian Percy

Ditto, Ryan! Cannot be said better. If the customer doesn’t understand something, blame the customer. It’s a winning strategy!

Unfortunatley most user interface is created by 20 or 30 somethings who do not take into account that we all lose a considerable percentage of our perceptual bandwidth as we age. And yes you can join AARP at 50 but that is more a marketing strategy not a true sensitivity to “aging” or “retirement,” not these days.

Interestingly only 10 percent of media spend is aimed at the Boomer and older demographic. Yet, according to the Federal Reserve, those over 55 years control 72.6 percent of household wealth. Those over 70 control 27.8 percent. IMHO this category is an untapped treasure-trove of talent, ideas, energy and ambition — and wealth. And I don’t just say that because I am one! Still working on the wealth bit. 🙂

Ben Ball

Hey, we’re called Zoomers for a reason!

Gary Sankary

Simple always wins. Great points Ryan.

Dave Bruno

In my de facto role as tech support for my octogenarian parents and in-laws, I can say with complete confidence that commerce sites can make searching and action-taking functions (add to cart, view more details, apply promo code, checkout, etc.) more intuitive and obvious. The search – and especially filter – functions always confuse my senior family members. And the action functions are never obvious to them. They simply don’t see the buttons or worse, they don’t know what to expect when they “push the button.” These two small enhancements would make them much more efficient, more confident and, most importantly, more frequent shoppers.

Neil Saunders

My grandma is in her 90s and she uses online to do large, bulky grocery shops. We all assumed that this is because she found it tiring and too difficult to go to the store, but she adamantly informed us it’s because she has more important social things to do and doesn’t have time to go to the supermarket! When she first started shopping online we walked her through how to place an order and helped her set up an account and lists. That initial “tutorial” was important as she wasn’t familiar with how to use an iPad, how to swipe and click, and so forth. But now that she knows she is good to go!

Georganne Bender

Cheers to your grandma! And to you for not treating her like she wouldn’t be able to figure out online shopping. Far too many marketers and companies write off older people. Big mistake.

Gene Detroyer

Grandma has a wonderful message for all of us. She has more important social things to do.

Dick Seesel

“Seniors” paints people age 50 (AARP-eligible) and older with a broad brush. As Ryan points out, it’s not just those over 75 (before the Baby Boom era began) struggling with poorly designed websites, but it may not be such a struggle for “younger” seniors if the sites are easy to navigate and instinctive about search preferences.

The problem isn’t limited to retail websites — I’ve been on plenty of Zoom calls over the past 15 months, and I still find older participants in social settings struggling with how to use it. (Where’s that mute button?) Again, it’s not limited to seniors, but B2B site designers need to think harder about consumers’ end uses for their platforms.

Ken Morris

Retailers are missing the boat if they turn their back on the demographic with the wealth that seniors have accumulated. The genie is out of the bottle with online shopping for groceries and other necessities and it’s not going back in. We need to make our websites more intuitive to match the needs of this aging group. Easily modified font sizes, one-click purchase options and product substitutions are all consistent problems from site to site. The pandemic fear is not going to go away and shopping has been altered in some ways for at least a generation. We need to be prepared for the long haul and the next pandemic.

Georganne Bender

Talkin’ ‘bout my generation. Aging is super fun: Presbyopia kicks in at 40 and you can’t see anything close up without reading glasses, you need three times the amount of light to see in your mid-60s than you did in your 20s, and some lighter colors begin to look the same. These are things retailers need to take into consideration both in-store and online. Those drop down boxes that never stay up long enough to click drive younger gens crazy, too.

Baby Boomers range in age from 57 to 75 and they rarely act their age. They are 12 times wealthier than Millennials and account for over 55 percent of U.S. spending. If you want Boomers to spend that wealth on your online store you’d better make it easy.

DeAnn Campbell

Right on point, Georganne!

Georganne Bender

We all need to read Dr. Ken Dychtwald‘s book Age Wave again!

Ian Percy

You are SO right! Adding some points: The New York Times notes that Boomers are “the greatest source of entrepreneurism.” 60 percent of the United Inventors Association members are over 50. The majority of patents are issued to us. And Forbes estimated that 96 percent of Boomers are media and tech savvy. We rule!

Ron Margulis

Tutorials? That’s what the grandchildren are for.
Despite the stereotypes seen on many commercials, most older Americans aren’t luddites. They do want to use tech to make their lives easier. It is up to the retailer and partners to make it so.

George Anderson

I totally agree Ron.

Later-era Boomers, in particular, went from manual typewriters to the IBM Selectric (totally, changed my world), followed by fax machines, desktop computers tied to a mainframe and then on to personal computers by the late 1980s. Steve Jobs was still young then and the only Amazon we knew about was the forest in South America.

Some of us were talking about the potential of this thing we called the web back in the nineties as we sought dial-up connections to slowly go online. Over the course of our lifetimes we’ve taken the path from 45s to LPs to cassettes and from transistor radios to Walkmans, iPods and smartphones.

In short, we are much more likely to be intrigued than intimidated when it comes to new technology.

James Tenser

My own tech journey was exactly as you describe, George. From rimfire typewriters to punched paper tape, to Zywrite, WYSIWYG, Word, WordPress, social media and Zoom.

Oh yeah, and RetailWire.

As newer apps and concepts keep arriving at a faster pace, I find myself making practical choices. Maybe mastering TikTok just isn’t important enough in my priority scheme.

Tutorials can be helpful for complex applications, but most new tech experiences can be learned faster by asking a 12-year old, as Ron correctly observes. The lesson: intuitive application experience design is a far greater help than help screens. It’s up to younger designers to study how users perceive their solutions. Just as with any other product development cycle.

Kevin Graff

Better websites would help. But how about including a short tutorial video that walks people through how the website works? Show people how to add/delete from the cart, add promo codes — everything that you think they should know, but likely don’t. Don’t make the assumption that everyone has a relative to show them the ropes, or that everyone has tech skills.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Tutorials should be offered at a minimum. Plus, the website interaction needs to be more customer sensitive in terms of the type of shopper demographics. This is a terrific opportunity to capture high income senior shoppers. We should not assume that they cannot or will not make the move to digital if properly educated. Recall a decade ago when everyone was getting a cell phone. The thinking was everyone, except your grandparents. Not true for cell phones today and not true for online shopping!

DeAnn Campbell

This is another touchpoint where digital and physical must intertwine more deeply by ramping up the availability of human online support operators to interact directly with users as they navigate search and purchase. And it’s not just seniors who would appreciate this either. This would not only reduce UX frustration, but reduce cart abandonment.

Gene Detroyer

This question doesn’t just apply to seniors. I am one and have no trouble with the shopping sites I use. However I find many sites obviously have been designed by techies or creatives.

When a site is designed, the designer must take off their tech hats or their creative hats and put on their shopper hats. Keep in mind why people shop online — convenience. Don’t make the experience less than convenient. More sites could use a redesign than not. But for the most part, that does not include the Amazons, Walmarts, Targets, et. al.

Surprisingly, it is a few of the department stores and many little guys who need to rethink how people perceive their interface. Shopping online is very different than shopping in a store.

Natalie Walkley

Retail brands are smart to make things as easy as possible for Boomers, especially since some may be nearing the stage where they continue to stay home due to mobility or health reasons. These brands are thinking beyond the “buy button” and removing friction in the buying process, even if it may require more of their teams to do so. This is the best thing for consumers, brands, and the retail industry overall.

Doug Garnett

The “type for seniors” discussion is age old. Designers love neat, small type. Seniors struggle to read neat, small type (as I’m finding out — approaching seniorhood). There probably isn’t a solid answer to be found — except to note that when we look at where the U.S. wealth lies it’s with Baby Boomers who are now seniors. So it is quite worth ensuring they can read your website clearly.

Shep Hyken

Know your customer! All you have to do is study the surveys about the different demographics and you learn who is capable and comfortable with technology. It’s simple, play to the audience. If you don’t give them what they want, they will find someone else who does.

Venky Ramesh

It is not only unfair but also doesn’t make business sense to expect the seniors (Boomers) to adapt to a user interface built for the younger generation. The right way to make them feel comfortable is to provide them an option to call in and place the order – a modern-day version of catalog sales.

Bindu Gupta

An intuitive user experience has to be intuitive for all ages! With more and more Baby Boomers making purchases online, this strategy becomes even more important along with providing the necessary onboarding tutorials to help this generation navigate better. Given the ease and convenience of online shopping, I anticipate many Boomers to continue this pandemic-adopted habit post-vaccinations and easing of restrictions as well.