Growing older in style: Catering to baby boomer shoppers

 —  Article by Laura Agadoni
older shopper looking in shop window
Image credit: Shutterstock

From trying on new fashions in America’s first malls to seeing the introduction of technology in modern stores, today’s baby boomers have been a key target market for retailers throughout their lives.

While they’re now older – and their tastes and expectations may have changed significantly over time – it doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped spending. On the contrary, they have significant spending power.

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, have a net worth three times greater than that of younger generations. And people ages 55 to 64 make up the biggest spending group in almost every retail category, according to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Because the boomer generation is so large, the group is often split into two cohorts to represent the different life stages: leading boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and trailing boomers (born between 1956 and 1964).

Trailing boomers still in the workforce tend to spend their money on groceries, household furnishings, pet supplies, personal care, and entertainment. And this spending is significant. A trailing boomer, on average, spends almost $8,000 more each year than a typical millennial does.

For leading boomers it can be a different story. “Leading boomers have recently or soon will be retiring, which means for many people, a fixed income,” says James Cook, Americas Director of Retail Research at JLL. “So spending habits are going to trend toward penny pinching. From a retailers’ standpoint, this is good for discount department stores and dollar stores.”

Among the more affluent leading boomers with time and money on their hands, many choose to use their funds for travel, electronic purchases, and leisure activities. This group also shows an increased interest in going to the movies. “There’s a fragmentation around the cinema right now where it’s splitting off into a few different elements, some of which have a particular appeal to boomers,” says Cook. “You have the segmenting into luxury. Some theaters add easy chairs, assigned seats, and high-level sound.”

Dispelling stereotypes — what makes boomers tick

Longstanding stereotypes of older shoppers are simply untrue for the so-called ‘rock and roll generation’. Cook points out that boomers do not identify as being old and that many are digitally savvy when it comes to tech products and how to use them: Apple says that 41 percent of its customers are boomers.

Like Millennials, they use the internet to research and buy products. In fact, 85 percent of boomers research products online, and 66 percent make online purchases. But there is a generational difference both in how the two groups use the internet and their relationship with stores.

Although boomers shop online, they still prefer going to brick-and-mortar stores to interact with a salesperson. “Younger shoppers tend to go on YouTube to find tutorials, and older shoppers prefer to have in-person demonstrations,” says Cook. “Boomers are comfortable interacting with people to get the information they need. So having a knowledgeable sales staff on the floor that can offer advice and guidance is especially appealing to the boomer generation.”

Although baby boomers do not fit into one mold, they do have a defining characteristic. “A trait especially salient to baby boomers is that they are lifelong learners,” says Cook. “So mall owners might have learning environments within a shopping center, such as a mini satellite campus of a community college, or do what Microsoft and Apple do, which is to offer classes in their stores.”

Cook explains that retailers are also offering more experiences to attract boomers. Besides the ever-popular culinary events and cooking classes at upscale kitchen stores, such as Williams-Sonoma, athletic apparel company Outdoor Voices, for example, hosts regular events, such as Pilates and yoga. REI offers classes to prepare customers for camping and leisure-time activities, such as camping basics, wilderness first aid, smartphone photography, and gourmet camp cooking.

The realities of aging

Although boomers might feel and look more youthful than their parents did at their age, no one can evade some of aging’s effects. Older shoppers with mobility issues need convenient parking near the stores and perhaps mobility aids to help them navigate once there. They also value increased and visible security in a controlled environment, says Cook.

“As people get older, legible signage becomes more of an issue. Good way-finding within a shopping center becomes more and more important. And what’s great about that is it’s not good for just boomers; it’s good for everybody to feel as if they can easily navigate a shopping center.”

Yet providing an agreeable shopping experience for the baby boomer generation doesn’t mean neglecting other age groups. “The good news is that many of the prescriptions we have to appeal to boomers are just good retail best practices anyway: knowledgeable sales staff, a pleasant store environment that’s easy to navigate, and training and learning experiences,” says Cook.

“We think these things will make an overall good store experience for all generations.”

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