Aging baby boomers are looking for life-enhancing experiences, even in their grocery shopping, and retailers would be wise to take advantage of that desire in marketing their products and their stores, marketing consultants, who study the aging population, said. Some supermarkets already are doing this successfully.
The growing number of older baby boomers, who will continue to push the median age upward as the years pass, are setting the pace for the type and brands of consumer goods that are being bought and determining which products and stores are the ones coming out on top in the struggle to gain consumers' attention.
Although there are differences within the group that is 50 years old or older, there are also common characteristics for boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, that a retailer can appeal to, marketing consultants said.
For the first time in history the median age in the United States topped 40 in 1989 and went to 44 last year. The speed at which the median is being pushed upward is increasing and will reach 50 within 14 to 15 years. Because of the advancing median age, retailers and advertisers are forced to pay increasing attention to the desires of this older group and one of those desires is for healthy foods to prolong an active lifestyle, said David B. Wolfe, principal of Wolfe Resources Group, Fairfax, Va., and a consumer behavior consultant.
Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., is taking advantage of that desire of baby boomers for healthy, low-fat, natural and organically grown foods and recently purchased Star Markets, Cambridge, Mass., and its line of natural-food stores, Wild Harvest.
"Wild Harvest is directed at exactly these shoppers," said Bernie Rogan, spokesman for Shaw's, which now has 170 stores in New England.
"There are 42 Star Markets and 12 of them have a Wild Harvest 'store within a store', and then there are four freestanding Wild Harvest stores. These carry healthful, organic and homeopathic products. We recognized that as an asset we were acquiring when we acquired Star."
"Baby boomers are awakening to the fact that they want to perpetuate themselves into eternity. They have an awakening desire to live forever and an awareness that they now have the money to try to do that, or at least to live longer and healthier. This puts Shaw's in a great place at a great time," Rogan said.
"Health and wellness foods take on added meaning with each birthday," agreed Dick Ambrosius of Phoenix Associates, a marketing consulting firm in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Convenience for the shopper is as important as supplying the right products.
"The Wild Harvests that are 'stores within a store' are clearly delineated from the rest of the store. They have their own dark green packaging and their own signage.
The Wild Harvest stores are located at the front of the Star Markets. In this way, all the health-conscious products are packaged together as a convenience to the consumer so they don't have to search all over the store for these things," Rogan said.
"At the same time, some of these healthful products are being integrated into the main part of the supermarket. This started first with produce that has been organically grown. The more consumers buy this kind of product, the more farmers are going to be encouraged to switch to organic growing. That in turn is going to make the products better and make the prices come down," he said.
"As baby boomers age, they will continue to drive new product introductions," said a report by Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
"Currently, 20% of the U.S. population is over the age of 55, a number that will grow to 33% by 2030. More and more, this group focuses on wellness and nutritional concerns when making purchasing decisions."
Empty nesters, described as two adults 55 years old or older with no children in the household, buy disproportionate amounts of such things as fruits, vegetables, vitamins and over-the-counter medications, according to the Consumer Facts Report for 1998 of ACNielsen, market researchers, Schaumburg, Ill.
Another chain taking advantage of the trend is Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.
"We have expanded our natural-foods section quite a bit in the last couple of years and our vitamins and natural remedies section has been expanded in recent months to include the new products that are out there," said John Schnepp, director of advertising. "In produce, we are including more and more organic products to accommodate the desires of baby boomers who are getting older and want to eat healthier.
"We have a whole line of products called Eco-Terra that use a more natural growing process," he added. "This is relatively new for us."
Big Y also tries to accommodate older shoppers who have only one or two people in the household by offering smaller serving sizes on products.
"That way people can buy two pork chops instead of having to buy 5 pounds of pork chops," Schnepp said.
Some stores are taking other steps to accommodate older shoppers, such as H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn.
"We offer free coffee all day so a shopping trip can turn into a social occasion for retired people," said Ashley Caldwell, spokeswoman for the chain. "It is mandatory for all front-end workers to offer to help people to their cars with packages."
H.G. Hill also has easy-to-handle motorized shopping carts and in some stores has drive-up windows for easy service, she said.
At the same time boomers begin to find it more necessary or convenient to accommodate their declining physical abilities, they are starting to desire more meaningful experiences in everything they do, according to consumer consultant Wolfe.
"Price and product features are no longer the telling differences aging boomers look for," the consultant said. "They are searching for meaning in their lives and want what they do to be a worthwhile experience. They have learned their limitations and want things of emotional and spiritual value, rather than just the practical or the least expensive. This is the biggest shift in consumer psychology to ever take place.
"Wegmans is one store that takes advantage of this. Going into their store is an experience in itself," Wolfe said. "Increasingly, you are going to have to be able to evoke emotions and to tell a story with meaning rather than just have the cheapest product. Baby boomers are no longer into just accumulating things."
The desire for meaning can define what an aging baby boomer wants in a store, too, as well as what he or she wants in the store's products.
"It is important for a store to be a good corporate citizen and to offer good service. A store needs to have people on staff who know about the health and wellness foods so they can explain the benefits and compare the products," said marketing consultant Ambrosius. "Ultimately, an older customer will consider such things as how a company treats its employees."
In more practical terms, the placement of items on the shelf will be important only to much older shoppers, Ambrosius said, but type size can make a difference even to those in their 50s. In addition to being difficult to read, small type looks like someone is trying to hide something, he said, so large advertisements that make reasonable claims are a plus for a supermarket.
"Supermarket operators need to be more cognizant of this older baby boomers' market, which is obviously growing," said Steve Love, national partner for the food industry for Senn-Delaney, a unit of Arthur Andersen, Chicago.
"This audience is print media-oriented so mailers and coupons direct mailed or in newspapers are a good bet for this demographic.
"Supermarkets need to stress whole health products and cross merchandise grocery products with vitamins and pharmacy items that are tied to their health benefits," Love added.