Retailers retooling as first boomers hit big 6-0
By Ylan Q. Mui
By Ylan Q. Mui
The new Good Grips rip claw hammer has a fiberglass core and a nonslip handle to lighten shock and prevent injury.
Whirlpool Corp. created a front-loading washing machine mounted on a pedestal to reduce back strain.
Moen Inc. designed a new line of shower-stall grab bars that tries to mask its purpose — to prevent people from slipping — behind sleek metallic finishes and special detailing.
As the baby-boom generation starts turning 60, retailers are redesigning basic kitchen tools and high-tech electronics with a new end in mind: selling to older consumers who don't want to concede they are older. The conundrum was at the forefront of the National Retail Federation convention, which opened Sunday in New York. There, designers and marketers wrestled with the fact that it isn't enough to manufacture a can opener that's easy for someone with arthritis to use — they must market it without mentioning arthritis, or even age.
"You'll see a shift in focus," said Patrick Conroy, a consumer business analyst for Deloitte & Touche USA LLP. "If they ignore it, they'll do so at their own peril."
People older than 50 account for almost half of total U.S. consumer spending, according to a recent Deloitte report, "Wealth with Wisdom: Serving the Needs of Aging Consumers," which estimates their spending power at $1.7 trillion.
Yet retailers have preferred to focus on younger consumers to develop brand loyalty. The irony, said Gretchen Addi, a senior executive at design firm Ideo Inc., is that the boomer generation is the one that forced retailers to pay attention to the youth market in the first place.
"The problem is that this marketing hasn't grown up with them," she said at the NRF convention. "A lot of (retailers) are afraid that if they go to an older market, they'll lose the youth market."
The issue is further complicated by the tricky tactics required to target the boomer generation, people who refuse to believe they're over the hill until they're 6 feet under it, said Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a consulting firm. Labels such as "senior citizen" are immediate turnoffs. Retailers must appeal to boomers' interests, lifestyle, values — anything but age.
"With today's 60-year-old, it's a very different generation of 60-year-olds than the last generation. These guys are riding motorcycles," said Alex Lee, president of OXO International, which manufactures Good Grips cooking utensils. "The last thing they want is the kind of patronizing, help-me-do-something kind of tools."
Good Grips was founded by housewares giant Sam Farber after he noticed that his arthritic wife had trouble using everyday cooking utensils. The company now has more than 750 easy-to-use tools, such as a can opener with oversize handles for better leverage, that also boast sleek design. In October, Good Grips launched a line of 22 hand tools at Lowe's.
"We have almost a cultlike following among older consumers," company spokeswoman Gretchen Holt said. "At the same time, we have just as strong a following from people in the 20-to-40 age range because the products look cool."
Even youth-oriented companies are feeling compelled to market "older."
Sportswear company Fila has begun targeting 30- to 50-year-olds after several years of flirting with younger shoppers, spokeswoman Amy Dimond said.
And in August, Gap Inc., which built its brand on the youth market, opened its first stores targeting women 35 and older in New York and Chicago. Called Forth & Towne, they feature sweaters and T-shirts cut longer, to avoid embarrassing exposures. Employees, dubbed "style consultants," are all within the retailer's target age range — no gum-snapping high school students sullenly ringing up your purchases here.
"The store is really designed for mature, confident women. For grown-ups," Forth & Towne President Gary Muto said.
Home builders are beginning to offer houses with two master bedrooms to accommodate older couples who sleep separately because of restlessness, achiness or snoring, Denver architect Mike Kephart said.
Moen's new grab bars, meanwhile, look stylish but can also hold up to 500 pounds. "People want to mature in their homes but don't want it to look institutional," said Gary Pember, Moen's director of marketing and product development.