Older shoppers are getting new respect from merchants

Senior baby boomers have cash and willingness to spend it, retailers find

April 28, 2002|By Susan Chandler | Susan Chandler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the 15 years since he retired from Sears, Roebuck and Co., Melvin Schultz has developed a whole new respect for his wife, Reta.

"I am married to the world's greatest shopper," bragged the 74-year-old Northbrook, Ill., resident. "When I ask her, `Where have you been?' she will tick off four or five shopping centers in a couple of days."

The Schultzes are regulars at Wal-Mart and Kohl's, sometimes visiting more than one Kohl's store in a week, all in search of the best deals.

Mostly overlooked or taken for granted, older shoppers are getting new respect from the nation's merchants. Their ranks are growing and will continue to expand for the next 20 years as baby boomers give up the daily grind. Moreover, retired shoppers have the money to spend and the time to do it.

Compared with teen-agers and the twentysomething customers that many retailers crave, individual consumers ages 65 to 74 have an average income of $24,090, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. That's almost double the $12,169 income that consumers 15 to 24 can play with.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has long realized the potential of older shoppers. The nation's largest retailer regularly features senior citizens in its TV advertising and actively recruits them as employees, especially as trademark "greeters" positioned at the door.

Now, with the economy in the doldrums, more stores are trying harder to attract and hang on to older shoppers.

Coldwater Creek Inc. is one of the converts. The catalog retailer from Sandpoint, Idaho, has made a name for itself since 1984 with colorful clothing that features flowing lines. Its core customers are professional women 35 to 55, but in recent years that range has widened to include women 60 and older.

"We are welcoming them. These are folks who have grown up with our brand," said David Gunter, spokesman for Coldwater Creek, which has opened more than 30 stores during the past three years. "While we understand the perceived threat to some retailers, that hasn't been the case for us. We see it as icing on the cake."

To accommodate its older customers, Coldwater Creek has increased its offerings of casual weekend wear. It also doesn't use models in its catalogues.

"Customers don't have to get past that perfect 20-year-old specimen and say, `I'll never look like that,'" Gunter said.

Retailers are placing themselves in peril if they continue to fall back on stereotypes of older shoppers that no longer apply, warns Sid Doolittle, veteran retail consultant with Chicago's McMillan/Doolittle.

For instance, retailers used to believe that seniors didn't buy new clothes, didn't redecorate their homes and, in general, were miserly spenders.

Some are, but the newest crop of older shoppers is better educated, more traveled and in better physical shape than their predecessors.

Most of them want to stay current with fashion. Many are moving to new homes or acquiring second homes, making them prime targets for home furnishings and accessories retailers. Hobby and craft stores can cash in, too, because many seniors avidly pursue hobbies with their newly discovered spare time.

Older shoppers aren't just buying for themselves, either.

"Seniors buy a lot of goods for other people, including their children and grandchildren," noted Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a Florida-based retail consulting firm.

And their interest in not looking their age makes them avid consumers of high-end beauty products that promise to erase wrinkles and defy gravity. They not only look younger, "they think younger," Doolittle said.

So reaching out to aging shoppers doesn't mean scattering rocking chairs around stores, retail consultants say.

However, value is an important draw as older shoppers have the time to seek the best deals. Some stores such as Kohl's are capitalizing on that appeal by offering additional discounts for seniors on certain days of the month.

As important as having the right products at good prices, it is key for stores to send subtle environmental signals that seniors are appreciated, said Candace Corlett, principal with New York's WSL Strategic Retailing, who specializes in helping retailers capture the 50 to 65 market.

That can be accomplished, in part, by playing mellow, eclectic music and by devoting prominent display space to clothes older shoppers can wear and products they can use.

Retailers that Corlett believes are doing a good job include Restoration Hardware, the retro home furnishings store; Talbots, the classic women's apparel retailer; and Williams-Sonoma, the high-end kitchen accessories emporium.

Department store chains should be on the list because their core shoppers are older, she adds, but few are, because department stores are chasing younger shoppers.

The exceptions are Neiman Marcus, the high-end store that has always catered to the nation's elite, and Nordstrom, which emphasizes excellent customer service.

Even Nordstrom slipped a few years ago, Corlett notes, making its fashions tighter and sexier. But the Seattle-based chain realized its mistake and has tried to do a better job of separating its youth-oriented fashions from its classic items.

Indeed, consistency is crucial in keeping the loyalty of older shoppers, said Christie Nordhielm, assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Offering the same level of service every time a customer drops in and having longtime sales associates on the floor is a big draw because older shoppers grew up at a time when service levels were higher.

Susan Chandler is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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