TORONTO - Baby boomers are becoming an increasingly important market for retailers, and one that can become highly profitable if stores and manufacturers can figure out the right way to target their products to an increasingly discerning group.
"Retailers need to get much better at understanding the specific needs of this very valuable segment of consumers and they have to work out the different ways they can help satisfy these needs," said Graeme McVie, vice-president of business development at U.S.-based marketing strategy and research firm LoyaltyOne.
"Tailoring the shopping and the products that are in the store to cater to this group is actually a really good idea because there's a huge number of them and they're actually willing to make trade-offs when it comes to value to get health benefits."
Many baby boomers who have become empty nesters or retired have the disposable income to spend and they're willing to spend it on themselves, especially when it comes to buying healthier food and high-quality beauty products, McVie said.
That may mean spending more for the heart-friendly omega-3 eggs instead of the plainest and cheapest kind, or getting a high-quality soap that will be kind to their skin.
McVie says this comes in part from a growing awareness about healthy living, as well as a realization that if they are going to live longer, boomers should take better care of themselves.
"They think about it as making an investment in their own health rather than an expense to minimize at all costs," he said.
Susan Eng, vice president for advocacy at CARP Canada, says that while she agrees there are high-spenders in the boomer demographic, many seniors are also struggling and shouldn't be forgotten.
A sluggish economy, boomerang kids who won't move out, aging parents, a lack of savings and medical challenges are all weighing on boomers, who are ending up with high debt levels, more working years, and even the threat of bankruptcy.
"The one thing about the boomers is that they're such a big demographic, that anything that the group does, in all its variety and diversity, will suddenly seem to be a trend," said Eng.
"It is true that there's a whole pile of them that are well off, and yes, they will spend on their health. But you also have people facing the same health-care challenges and they don't have the money. They're looking around and saying: 'Where do I turn?'"
To boomer Chuck Nyren, who has spent years working in advertising and has written a book about selling to his demographic, one of the keys to drawing in the 50-plus crowd is to stop treating them like they're old.
The problem with ad campaigns for products targeted at boomers, he says, is that advertising firms don't know how to treat that group.
"If they do it at all, it's only for products that are medical, maybe vacations," he said in an a telephone interview from his home in Snohomish, Wash., near Seattle.
"If you're over 50 and you watch television, it just keeps reinforcing the fact that you're sick. That automatically kind of turns you off to everything. They think of baby boomers as either old, smiling vapid people on a beach, or as old hippies."
Boomers buy a variety of products, just like younger people do, and pigeonholing them into certain categories isn't going to help retailers make the most out of their shopping dollars, he added.
And to Nyren, 62, in-store marketing isn't doing much better.
"If you walk into a mall, it just gets annoying because there's so much noise that is directed toward younger people, even for products that are for older people, and it doesn't really grab you anymore," he said.
Clearer labels and product information that is more easily available are two simple ways McVie says can help draw in consumers.
Smaller shopping carts at grocery stores with magnifying glasses attached, an emphasis on single or double-serve portions instead of family packs, promotions that target price over quantity and mobile apps that help people locate and learn about products are also ways to cater to the boomer group, he said.
Some changes can be as simple as moving where an item sits on the shelf.
"You've got people that are in their 60s and 70s who want those products but actually find it hard to reach them, and when they do reach them, sometimes they knock things over and they fall on top of them," McVie said.
"The smarter retailers need to realize that they need to tailor the in-store experience for those individuals."