BrainTrust Query: The Disappearing Boomers

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Sep 21, 2009
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By Bill Emerson, president, Emerson Advisors

Kimberly-Clark, in conjunction with Walgreens and Rite-Aid, has a project to understand and learn from what the shopping experience is like for seniors. Test subjects, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, put on thick glasses to blur their vision, put unpopped popcorn in their shoes, and, tape their thumbs to their palms, all to emulate the senior experience.

The Baby Boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, are getting older, entering retirement age, and preparing to live on Social Security and investments. And their habits are changing. In a recent Gallup poll, the average daily spend by the Boomers has gone from $98/day in 2008 to $64/day in 2009. Obviously the recession has played into this, but the more important news is that the Boomers are no longer the biggest spenders.

So what should retailers and product manufacturers be focusing on to prepare for this inevitable trend? The real question is “Are the Boomers my target market?” If your business model today relies on the Boomers, here are some obvious things to consider:

Real Estate: If they are spending less and are less mobile, do you really need to have as many stores? Do you really need to open more?

Internet: How big is your Internet business? Can it replace the lower business in the stores? How easy is your website to navigate overall and particularly for people with diminished vision?

Sales and Inventory Plans: With the exception of big gains in market share, the days of “blowing the doors off” are probably over for anyone focused on the Boomers. Emphasis has to be on margin and profitability.

Navigation in the Store: How easy is it to get around the store? How easy would it be with a bum knee or with arthritis?

Fixturing: The so-called “strike zone” or most productive selling space is from 3′-6′ off the floor. This will no doubt become the “selling zone” over time, with all other areas becoming the “markdown staging zone.”

Apparel Sizing: Gravity always wins. The size scale will surely shift to the right over the coming years. Are you looking at and reacting to sales by size?

Apparel Silhouette: Sleeveless? Low rise? Cinch waist? Probably not big volume drivers in years to come for this market segment.

Product Packaging: The lawyers and Loss Prevention folks have made opening most packaging into a physical fitness routine. Do you think your customers will buy something they can’t open?

Labeling: If they can’t read the label or tell what it is, will they buy it? Ditto for ticketing, signage, and receipts.

While not immediate, these trends are surely going to have a profound impact on how many retailers and manufacturers operate over the coming years.

Discussion Questions: Do you think drastic changes will be needed for retailers to serve aging Boomers? In what areas do you see the most urgent need for change?

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21 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: The Disappearing Boomers"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

As a certified Baby Boomer (born 1954), I have always wondered why CPG companies and retailers have seemingly been more focused on a twentysomething target customer, at least in terms of their sales pitch and merchandise content. (But I may be just a typical self-absorbed Boomer.) I think there are a couple of issues worth focusing on: First, the very real physical changes that will affect the health and mobility of our biggest and most affluent population bubble. In this regard, Kimberly Clark and its retail partners are conducting a valid experiment.

But just as important is the psychographic makeup of the Baby Boomers, if it’s even possible to classify their mindset. There is likely to be a “forever young” mindset (just as there has always been with this age demographic) that runs somewhat contrary to the physical reality of aging discussed above. It’s hard to picture Baby Boomers suddenly turning into their parents or grandparents — attitudinally — no matter how much trouble they may have reading the labels or reaching the top shelf.

Roger Saunders
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
The “Baby Boom” generation is just now turning 65, and the tail end of that group is some 18 years behind, so don’t write it off too quickly. This population group represents 76 million adults. They will still greatly impact retail sales, operations, and represent needs that have to be fulfilled. And, they are not hobbling around with canes, enmass. This particular generation is now at the place where their household size is smaller. So the product mix, IF a Retailer sees them as part of their target, represented in the store (type of furniture, sizing of clothes, package goods size, etc.), will have to change, but not dramatically. “Generation X” has some 51 million Adults — they are in their 30’s and 40’s, and the “Millenials” are 77 million strong. Retailers will find the niche that they need to serve on a local and store-by-store basis. One of the larger challenges will be that each retail location in a chain will have to have its own form of “mass customization”. Sharp retailers will recognize… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

OK–I’m here in Florida visiting my mom, who’s 78. She walks just fine, wears glasses, and lives in a warm climate so her arthritis doesn’t act up all the time. Let’s not make cripples out of the aging population–they are not nearly as handicapped or challenged as we may find it so easy to believe. Yes, some things can be done to make shopping easier for this group, but it is unlikely that age-related degradation of the body is the primary issue.

Joan Treistman
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
Help me understand why the research has to be conducted with senior wannabe’s instead of people who have the characteristics of seniors, i.e. SENIORS!!! If this large segment of the shopping population is a worthy target, I believe it makes sense to examine their wants and needs directly. Why “imply” when you can “know.” Simulation as ethnography is fraught with danger. Having said all that (I feel a little better now) it’s a challenge for some marketers to acknowledge physical needs of their target consumers when they don’t sync with their own. For sure there have been seniors for years…who have trouble reading labels, opening clam shell packages and other boxes. There have been non-seniors wearing glasses for years who have trouble with the small print. And there have been disabled individuals, both temporarily (e.g., broken arm) and permanently who cannot navigate around some packaging. I’ll bet some of you have used your teeth to open snacks. I am sure cost is a factor, not necessarily gauged against lost opportunities. How serious can this particular… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

I don’t understand how every senior gets lumped into a group that has bad eyesight, arthritis and lumps in the feet. Most of the people I know in their late 70s or early 80s get around just fine. Is this study what Kimberly Clark thinks all boomers will be like? Instead of creating a scenario that may or may not be realistic, why not recruit real seniors and watch how they shop the store?

Marge Laney
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

Geez, what a lousy picture this paints! Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I don’t see it happening like this. Just as we boomers created big changes in almost everything back in the day, we will create big changes in how we navigate our sunset years. Will we become our parents or grandparents? Not between our ears at least. We may end up looking like them but we will try to be forever young; gravity be damned! I think the retail winners will make subtle changes to their offerings to us; making fashion comfortably cool (and I’m not talking temperature here) and stores and websites easy to navigate. We may not spend as much on each shopping trip, but we will still be shopping in large numbers and among other things attempting to reverse the aging process with supplements, natural and organic foods, etc. Just the sheer number of us will require adjustments by retailers that we no longer frequent and the retailers we now turn to. Maturity rules!

Ryan Mathews
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
I agree with Joan. Putting popcorn in people’s shoes so they can “feel” like seniors is like putting a man in drag so he can “feel” like a woman. It may, in fact, work for some but it’s a lot easier — and reliable — to model from real life. I also agree that Boomers (yes, guilty as charged) are aging in significantly different ways than their parents, grandparents and other forbearers. For one thing, Boomers have never agreed on the validity or utility of the idea of growing up in the first place, opting instead to define maturity in terms of a quasi-endless period of adolescence punctuated by access to self-indulgent adult benefits. True the flesh is failing but denial is a powerful force in both personalities and markets. The key isn’t to find out how old people relate to the world, it’s to discover how Boomers relate to the idea of being old. I suspect that, at least for the near-term future, there will be more of a market for “Good Grip” handles… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

Let me put my cane down and pick up the laptop to chime in here.
Pump up the signage. Sandwich shop sign type could be a lot bigger. We boomers aren’t trying to cut into the line at Potbelly Sandwich Works…we’re trying to read the sign so we can choose our lunch.
Blow up the type on products. Really, putting the serial number in 4 point grey type on a white background? Amazon’s Kindle, you know who you are.

Someone is going to make a lot of money by appealing to an older market. Now you young whippersnappers go back to work.

Kim Barrington
Guest
Kim Barrington
11 years 7 months ago

This is typical of why many things are going awry in retail….not just because of the economy, but decisions being made by people who really don’t understand things.

Boomers aren’t being accommodated, they are being discounted and while their spending may be going down, because of sheer size, they need to be catered to.

Because they are over 50, doesn’t mean they’ve got one foot in the grave. No doubt they are in better shape than the 20 something who put the stupid study together in the first place.

Toss the study out and start over. Think more like you are taking them on a date and all those possibilities throughout the day/evening, and you may be able to understand a little something called “customer service” which doesn’t mean bringing a wheelchair and a magnifying glass to the door. That’s insulting.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

I agree with those who found this experiment “odd.” Yes, my joints creak more than they used to, and I carry around a couple of different pair of glasses…but all Baby Boomers are just not the same. My partner works out more than most 30 year olds and is incredibly active.

In any case, most of us are not going quietly into the dark night. As for changes to accomodate us, courtesy will do – just like it will for the “younger crowd.”

And as for discretionary spend…for me, it’s all about the recession, and I don’t think that’s much different for 20 somethings, 30 somethings or 40 somethings. I’m still itching for a new car…just not comfortable that the economy is stable enough for me to afford a new Beemer.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
This is silly research. I agree with Joan Treistman on this. Why not use real older people instead of synthesizing the experience. There happen to be millions of shoppers out there that are 10 years past Baby Boomers that can give one an indication of how Baby Boomers may change their buying habits as they age. Baby Boomers will experience all the same physical difficulties that seniors do now. The big question is the psychographic question. What will be on their minds? What will be their desires? Will an 80-year-old Boomer think differently than current seniors in their 80’s? That is the real question and that is where the research money should be spent. But, it is much more important to determine the best way to market to the changing attitudes and desires of a brand’s/retailer’s/product’s sweet spot. If I have a product targeted for those in their 40’s and 50’s, in 10 years I want to capture the new consumers in their 40’s and 50’s. If I follow my current users as they age,… Read more »
Rick Myers
Guest
Rick Myers
11 years 7 months ago

Put on thick glasses to blur their vision, put unpopped popcorn in their shoes, and, tape their thumbs to their palms?

Most of the baby boomers I know are in as good, if not better, health than I am at 40. They are constantly on the go, and need products that fit that lifestyle. We aren’t talking about elderly people here. The fashion industry has failed to take advantage of this segment. I think the industry as a whole needs to take a step back and see what their aspirations are, what they want to look like, and how they want to live and emulate that in their product offerings. They have a lot of disposable income. Admittedly, not as much as they used to.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
11 years 7 months ago

Here is my sincere message to professional advertisers, marketers, retailers, management consultants, (and journalists). If you continue to equate Boomers with the dreaded “seniors” word you will be making a huge, very large, enormous mistake. For most of us Boomers in our fifties and early sixties the “senior population” is firmly still ensconced in our parents’ generation—people in their seventies and eighties with varying degrees of health. To converge the purchasing needs and desires of Boomers with the needs of the true oldsters is laughable–and for many of us highly insulting. So just stop it, OK?

If you want useful research results go interview and also go out shopping with real older people to find out what today’s actual oldsters need (and wish was different) to enable them to function comfortably i.e., smaller stores and larger parking spaces, smaller shopping carts, dresses with sleeves, smaller handbags). That way you will also then be prepared to help the Boomers slide seamlessley into that special Senior category a decade or two down the pike.

Tom McGoldrick
Guest
Tom McGoldrick
11 years 7 months ago

Good grief, this is wrong on so many levels. First I agree with the other posters, if you want to learn about seniors then use them in your study! Second, this is a gross over simplification. I spend a significant amount of my time at cross country ski, bike and running races and I can tell you that boomers make up one of the largest segments at these races. They also usually thoroughly stomp on this gen x racer (once a slacker always a slacker?). I did a 40 mile mountain bike race on Saturday and was 15 minutes behind the 70+ age group winner! I can tell you all those boomers would be thoroughly insulted by this study.

This is the generation that invented forever young; they may need some accommodation but never let them know you are doing it!

Warren Thayer
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
Oh, please. I actually laughed out loud about the glasses, popcorn in the shoes and duct tape on the thumbs. You simply can’t simulate being “old.” You have to experience it. Years ago, I did some dinner theater and the hardest thing for me to do as a 20-something was to walk and talk as if I were old when all made up. (Didn’t use any duct tape or unpopped popcorn, but maybe I should have.) I’m in full-blown denial of being 61. Took a six-mile hike thru mountainous terrain with my dogs yesterday after work, and I still go to fires with my Scot pack and gear here on our local fire department, although I am now happy to let younger members take the nozzle. Funny thing is, I’m not all that atypical from other people my age that I know. But active as I am, I have a hard time opening certain child-proof bottles and reading type that isn’t against really contrasting backgrounds. I don’t know if those observations would be made by… Read more »
Lee Peterson
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

Let’s start with being able to read things in stores. I’m not a senior (classic baby-boomer remark) but I do need ‘reading’ glasses (over 45). NO store, not just some stores, but NO store accomodates that. And it’s not just labels, etc, but pricing, benefits, flavors (!), sizes — critical purchasing decisions. What would happen if I forgot my glasses?? I’m not going to ask an associate to read something for me, that be soooooo anti-boomer — we’re not that old!

There’s no doubt that retailers really need to re-think some fundamentals when it comes to the 80+ million people that are looking at retail differently now . . . literally.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 7 months ago
Merchants and manufacturers can’t avoid the silver tsunami of seniors. This global demographic shift is already underway, and smart brands like KC are getting ahead of competitors by figuring out how to serve a demo that defies stereotypes. The business areas the author cites are all quite valid, and ones each brand should examine. Essentially, brands must look at their entire operation, from A to Z, and determine whether each area should be ageless or age aware. A good example of the former is building shopping environments that are good for the 70-year-old and equally good for the 30-year-old (think wider aisles and lower shelves). A good example of being age aware is creating/stocking health and beauty products designed specifically for the aging consumer. In short, serving the senior consumer isn’t about drastic changes. Rather, it’s a matter of keeping pace with changing demographics, consumer lifestyles and shopper expectations. Brands must continue to evolve, just as the successful brands have done for decades. What is different is that most brands have little or no experience… Read more »
W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

I am not sure you would call it a drastic change, but some adjustment will be required. There are two sides to this issue. First, would be the shopping experience. Good lighting and uncluttered aisles are important. Rational space allocation helps as well. Second, would be the product offering. Older customers eat less. Many are in one and two person households. Family packs are too much food. Shopping a Costco can be like buying a life’s supply. The answer to the problem already exists: just go visit the successful stores in the retirement areas like Florida and Nevada.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
11 years 7 months ago

As just an observation, many retailers would do well to open a store in The Villages, FL and use it as research on how to appeal to the aging demographic. This active adult community has over 77,000 residents and in many ways has changed the way some retailers have viewed older demographics.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 7 months ago

I thought given the subject article for this discussion, the BrainTrust and readers might find the attached interview interesting. It’s with Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm.

I just finished the interview with Ken today.

Shilpa Rao
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
Agreed that putting on thick glasses, popping popcorn in the shoes, and taping their thumbs to their palms does not emulate a baby boomer experience and it does not represent majority baby boomers. However, the article pops some valid questions which are relevant for all, baby boomer or not. For example, the packaging, it should not be a fitness routine to open a can for anyone, not just the boomers. Similarly, making things easy is always appreciated. One of our customers, keeping in mind their elderly target audience, provided magnifying glasses with a stretch wire at the end of each aisle, to help read the fine print. When I shop at their stores, I find this quite handy to read instructions and contents. Another change they made was on their website. When I first saw the prototype, found it quite shabby, with font size over 25 on the home page as a default setting. But after the launch, website was an instant hit, as they had researched their customers well. They had found that most… Read more »
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