Supermarkets are on a learning curve when it comes to marketing to the potentially lucrative 50-and-older audience.
As the baby boomers begin to push America's demographic profile over the hill, retailers and manufacturers who stand to benefit from the graying group's purchasing power still haven't figured out exactly how to attract the mature masses.
"Even the experts are still learning how boomers are changing the rules of marketing," said Allison Patterson, editor of Selling to Seniors, a monthly marketing magazine published by CD Publications, Silver Spring, Md. "All the normal rules have been scrapped, as everybody tries to figure out what it takes to reach these people."
They had better learn fast. Every 7.7 seconds, another American turns 50, according to Age Wave Communications Corp., Emeryville, Calif., a consulting firm that specializes in reaching the mature market. Moreover, recently released figures from the Conference Board, a New York-based private research firm, indicate that one-third of the U.S. population is now over 50.
The over-50 club's financial clout is even bigger than its slice of America's demographic pie would suggest. The group controls 50% of the nation's disposable income, 70% of its personal assets and 80% of its savings, the Conference Board noted.
That means supermarkets, particularly their health and beauty care departments, have an unprecedented opportunity to cash in on boomers' evolving consumer interests, which appear to include skin and hair care products, nutritional supplements, herbal remedies and menopause-related products -- in short, anything that slows the aging process or makes it easier to bear.
There is already a strong sense among HBC buyers and managers that the tide is rolling in.
"There's new excitement in herbal remedies and nutritional supplements," said Larry Murak, HBC category manager at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine. "I think a lot of it has to do with HMOs, and older people relying on themselves and not a physician to take care of them."
Murak said adult-oriented supplements such as Bayer's One-a-Day herbals and Warner-Lambert's Quantera, both launched this year, are flying off the shelves. Other herbal aids, such as gingko biloba and St. John's Wort, and menopause products, like Rexall-Sundown's "Nature's Beauty," are enjoying brisk sales as well, he said.
One of the most successful skin care products targeting women over 50 is Oil of Olay's ProVital.
Backed by a $23-million print and advertising campaign, ProVital was launched in May, after manufacturer Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, conducted extensive surveys of women 50 and older. Respondents told P&G that, among other things, they were proud of their wrinkles and didn't appreciate beautiful, 20-something models pitching them creams and lotions, said Vicki Thomas, president of Thomas & Partners, Westport, Conn., a "mid-life market" communications firm that assisted in the ProVital rollout.
The result? A 51-year-old model touts ProVital in ads, emphasizing its "gentle scent" and its effect on the pigmentation of aging skin, while making clear the product doesn't try to flatten facial creases.
P&G was also careful not to use terminology that older women might find offensive. "We didn't go on about how the product was 'age-defying,' " Thomas said. "We thought that would be a turn-off."
Nevertheless, most advertising to older consumers is off the mark, said Steven Gordet, president of Miami-based Steven Gordet Associates Advertising, a marketing and communications firm that focuses on seniors.
"A lot of advertisers think the best way to sell to seniors is to show a picture of a pretty sunset," Gordet said. "But seniors aren't sitting around waiting for the end of their lives. They still see themselves as young and vital, probably 15 to 20 years younger than they are. You don't want to remind them how old they are."
Gordet said retailers and marketers should exercise caution when naming products or promotions catering to the elderly. "No one really wants a 'senior' card, but a 'primetimers' card might be OK," he said. "You've got to be careful."
Targeting this demographic group without acknowledging age is, of course, a marketing challenge. But several companies seem to have caught the attention of 50-plus boomers while at the same time attracting consumers in their 30s and 40s. For example, antiwrinkle patches, such as University Medical's Face Lift Anti-Wrinkle Patch, and men's hair-replacement aids, such as Pharmacia & Upjohn's Rogaine Extra Strength for Men and Merck's Propecia, appeal to boomers across the spectrum.
HBC executives should take care to distinguish between two baby-boomer submarkets when planning their approach, said Al Springer, founder of Touch Marketing, Phoenix, and a former marketing executive with MediSys, Bayer and Quaker.
The first group is what Springer calls the "matures," those who are 65 and over and usually retired. "This is a crowd that tends to shop at drug stores," he said. "They tend to be looking more for established brands and value."
The matures are especially difficult for large supermarkets to attract, Springer said, but well-lit parking lots and other security features can help, and extra-friendly customer service is essential.
The second -- and far more lucrative -- segment is boomers, 55 and younger. "The baby-boomer market is perfect for retailers," said Springer. "They say, 'I was born, therefore I deserve this.' Retailers can play off that."
Nonfood buyers should concentrate on stocking premium brands, because the perception of quality is important to boomers, Springer said. And any self-care item designed to tame the effects of aging, from reading glasses to foot care products, has a built-in appeal for this demographic group, he added.