The demographic shift has profound implications for pensions and public service provision. However, as a recent report from the Science and Technology Select Committee points out, over-50s have enormous economic whack, holding 80% of all assets, 60% of savings, and representing more than 75% of UK residents with assets of £50,000 or more.
But watch commercial TV and you’ll be hard-pressed to recognise this. In fact, the only time you’re likely to see someone over 50 fronting a marketing campaign is when they’re selling life assurance or stairlifts. Not surprisingly, older consumers feel somewhat neglected - a recent survey by Age Concern found that 59% of people polled thought marketers and advertisers were ageist.
The fact that an estimated 39% of UK marketing directors are under 35 (Institute of Practitioners of Advertising) goes some way to explaining the industry’s myopia.
“When it comes to older people, it’s easy to have the typical Victor Meldrew character in mind,” says Mike Greene, chief executive at HIM. “In fact, statistics show older consumers are more active and healthier than ever before. They are often the first generation to own their houses and are also very health focused. But they need convenience as much as anyone else.”
If youth is wasted on the young, the opportunities offered by older consumers are wasted on many businesses. Older consumers control 40% of UK disposable income, they purchase 25% of all children’s toys, and are the single biggest buyers of gifts at Christmas (Science and Technology Select Committee). And, according to a new guide to understanding the grey market from Age Concern - Older, Richer, Fitter - half of all face care products are bought by the over-50s.
This neglect could mean businesses are losing out, says Dr David Metz, co-author of the guide. “Marketers and businesses so rarely design, create and promote products with older people in mind and it’s a wasted opportunity,” he says. “We’re living in a spending culture with a demographic balance that is tipped towards older people - what are they waiting for?”
There are signs that the penny is beginning to drop. Marks & Spencer recently featured 1960s supermodel Twiggy Lawson in its TV advertising, and although Yakult is keen to stress its probiotic drink is aimed at all age groups, it is celebrating its 70th birthday with a competition to find Britain’s healthiest 70-something with a first prize of a 15-day luxury health cruise for two.
Complan is also unashamedly talking to a mature audience with the launch of Complan Active Hypotonic energy drink, for which it recruited the iconic 1970s dance troupe Pan’s People to help drive home the message that you don’t have to be in the first flush of youth to be healthy, energetic and enjoying life to the full.
“Complan powder product’s traditional audience has been 60-70 plus, the ill or those recovering from illness or operations. What we’ve done with Complan Active is try to open up the brand. It’s targeted at anyone leading an active lifestyle but who is now getting older and feels they could do with some additional health benefits,” explains Complan Foods marketing manager Will Abbott. “These people are older but they don’t want to be labelled as old.”
Communication’s not the only challenge for businesses gearing up to meet the needs of the older generation. As a recent report from Datamonitor shows, manufacturers and retailers need to reappraise who their key consumers are. For example, analysts found that the ready meals market - a product usually associated with families and busy young singletons - is actually being driven by the 55-plus consumer, which accounted for 26% of the European market in 2004.
As Datamonitor consumer markets analyst Daniel Bone points out, this trend is likely to continue as more of us retire later.
“Just like 20- and 30-somethings, older consumers constantly seek ways to maximise their limited leisure time,” he says. “Those in the 25-34 age category and mid-lifers (35-44) who are generally thought of as the most likely group to spend more on ready meals accounted for only 19% and 22% of total spend on ready meals in Europe respectively.”
Greene at HIM says that while older consumers may see the value in ready meals - which reduce wastage and can cost less than buying raw ingredients - many still cook from scratch and this should be reflected in ranging. “It’s not just older people - the number of single-person and single-parent households is increasing all the time, so you need to offer individual vegetables rather than just large pre-packs, as well as single-portion meals,” he says.
While the wider grocery industry may neglect older consumers, convenience retailers are well placed to meet their needs, provided, that is, they stock the right products, make sure the store is easy to shop and recognise how important this market is to the business.
“We tend to all target the family which typically can have eight or nine loyalty cards, but an older person is more loyal to one or two stores, so if you do get them you’ll get much more of their business,” says Greene.
What is heartening is that older shoppers rate service and staff friendliness as the most important parts of the c-store experience. “These are things convenience stores can offer and, because older shoppers tend to shop daily, retailers also have the opportunity to build relationships and serve them better than the supermarkets,” says Greene.
Rae Weeks is well aware of the social benefits his store brings to the older members of his community. He’s been offering a home delivery service from Knighton Stores in Wembury, near Plymouth, since he opened 16 years ago. He has about 30 regular home delivery customers, makes no charge and has no minimum order. Personal contact is as important to his customers as getting the groceries. “We take time to talk to them. One lady who is 95 has just gone into a home and we’ll sit with her for half-an-hour.”
Nayan Patel, who has recently opened his Crystal Palace store in London under the Budgens fascia, often delivers older customers’ shopping if they can’t manage to carry it home. He hopes to broaden the service once the refurbishment is complete. “We’ll start with one van and cover a couple of miles’ radius using telephone ordering and maybe take orders once a week from their doorstep,” says Nayan.
Since extending his range the number of older people visiting the store has increased. “They come more often now I have fruit and vegetables. Older people are more concerned about fresh produce but they can’t travel far and so they need it on their doorstep.”
HIM’s Mike Greene suggests another way of attracting more older people to a c-store: a joint venture with a local taxi firm through which, during quiet times of the day, they could offer a pick-up service which the store can promote.
“It generates business for the retailer, the taxi firm gets some business, and the elderly get some time out and about,” he says.
It may also be worthwhile contacting local voluntary organisations such as the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service who may be able to provide transport.