Next boom will be in older consumers


June 16, 1994|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

The 76 million people who brought you Dr. Spock, SDS, rock 'n' roll, yuppies, soaring home prices and blue jeans at work are about to become grandparents and start shopping for retirement condos in Florida.

Baby boomers start turning 50 in two years.

Surprised? So, apparently, are many merchants who depend on the boomers' numbers and wallets. Many retailers still seem to think of the older consumer as somebody who was born when McKinley was in office and whose pocketbook instincts were molded by the Depression.

The International Mass Retail Association has a message for you, store operators: Wake up and smell the Geritol. Not only will older consumers be increasingly numerous in coming decades, but those consumers' shopping preferences and buying habits aren't what you think they are.

A recent study sponsored by the association shows a wide gap between the industry view of older shoppers and how the shoppers see themselves.

The report, illustrated with gray-haired people parasailing and operating computers, suggests that many retailers aren't ready for the "tidal wave" of boomers that is about to flood into the senior citizen category, said Stephen Sibert, vice president of retail affairs and industry research for the Washington-based group.

"I think there are some people that seem to be a little farther ahead on this," Mr. Sibert said. "But as a whole, the industry has an opportunity in front of itself."

Store operators and suppliers tend to think of 50-plus consumers as being penurious, unindulgent and keen for seniors-only discounts. It's not always so, says the survey, done by San BTC Francisco market research firm Age Wave Inc.

Majorities or near-majorities of older consumers told Age Wave that they often spend money on themselves, make impulse purchases, prefer established brands over generic goods and spend extra for quality merchandise. Nearly half don't find age-based discounts very important.

They're richer than is commonly believed; Americans over 50 own 77 percent of the country's financial assets, the mass retail association reported. And they don't see themselves as old.

"When you move into that bracket, you still think of yourself as a 30-year-old consumer, even though you're a 50-plus consumer," Mr. Sibert said.

That's not to say you can sell to older folks by treating them like they're still in bobby socks. Some things about senior shoppers don't change.

Safety is still "an unbelievable issue," Mr. Sibert said. Some seniors won't shop after dark. They like very bright stores. If your floors look slippery, they might not enter.

Merchants who want to attract seniors should consider adding bathrooms, installing rest benches, making signs and labels bigger and improving customer service, Mr. Sibert said.

But they also need to stop thinking of all senior shoppers as coming out of a Grant Wood painting.

The country's new old consumers, the mass retailers group says, are coming to a store near you.

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