Don’t neglect the baby boomer consumer

The pace of life may be speeding up, but more Americans than ever are slowing down.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans 65 and older is projected to nearly double by the middle of this century, when they will account for more than 20 percent of the population (in 1970, it was fewer than 10 percent). By 2050, 83.7 million Americans will be in that senior age group, compared with 43.1 million in 2012.

Businesses need to adapt. Executives and entrepreneurs should already be asking: What do older consumers want? What do they not want? How can companies use those insights to serve customers better and improve bottom lines?

“Since around 2011, every single day 10,000 Americans have turned 65 — and this amazing statistic will continue till 2030,” said David Tina, corporate broker and owner of Urban Nest Realty in Las Vegas. “With people living longer, more active lives, I see this as a trend that is just beginning. We may start seeing different segments of the over-50 population divide when the Gen Xers hit their 50s and their boomer parents are still going strong in a different demographic in their 70s.”

As baby boomers have joined the over-50 age group, the employment picture has reflected the example they’re setting, said Glenda Lippman-Monkarsh, CEO of Lippman Media in Las Vegas. “Many people are working longer than they used to. They have more expendable income as they age, versus years ago when a person automatically retired at age 65 and lived on Social Security.”

Baby boomers want to enjoy the good life as long as they can, she added, “and want to be active, keeping up with the younger generation.”

Tray Abney, director of government relations for the Reno, Sparks and Northern Nevada Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the swell of baby-boomer consumers “has been accelerating over the past few years and will only continue to increase.”

Chief among the business sectors benefiting from the growing population of older Americans is health care.

“Americans over 50 now want and often need to extend their productive lives as long as possible,” said physician Eva Liang of the Center for Sight in Henderson. “Driven largely by this demographic, the field of regenerative medicine is growing quickly to meet the demand for services. With so many older Americans either in the workforce or wanting to lead very active lives well into retirement, nowhere has this trend been more evident than in ophthalmology.

“Conventional wisdom is that Americans over 50 spend very conservatively, when in fact they spend more than any other age group,” Liang said. “Many thriving businesses today … are succeeding as the result of their recognition of Americans over 50 as a group not in decline, but attaining its most productive and creative years.”

Lippman-Monkarsh notes that one of Lippman Media’s local clients, Desert Radiology, sees many patients in that group for diagnostic or interventional services that become more necessary as people age. She said baby boomers had the financial means to go “beyond minimal health care and are able and willing to invest in top diagnostic care to preserve their active lifestyles.”

“Obviously, health care-related industries will grow rapidly,” said Urban Nest Realty’s Tina. “In my industry, we are seeing a significant impact from this demographic. Active-adult communities, 55-plus, are being constructed as quickly as possible to try to keep up with the high demand. And especially locally, where Las Vegas ranks third as the place for relocation for retirees, there isn’t enough inventory.”

Industries and the businesses within them can cater to the older consumer by focusing on being accessible to older people “and ensuring they are treated with kindness and respect,” Lippman-Monkarsh said. “Every customer wants to know he is valued, but this is especially key when dealing with an aging person who may feel that their dignity is being compromised in some way.”

Using advertising and customer service to make it clear to older consumers that their patronage is valued, she added, “goes a long way to meeting someone’s immediate need of feeling accepted.” The biggest pitfall? Assuming that an older person is incapable of making his own decisions.

“Get to know who this customer really is and bring them the things they want, not what a 25-year-old buyer thinks they want,” said consumer anthropologist Georganne Bender, a partner at the Kizer & Bender consulting firm in St. Charles, Ill. But it’s important to temper respect for their decision-making with awareness that some in this demographic don’t have the best grasp of new technologies employed by businesses. Sensitivity must go both ways.

“Be sure to communicate clearly, and go over all the steps slowly,” said Patrick Casale, managing partner for the Multicare Group, an employee-benefits consulting firm in Las Vegas. He said those between age 50 and 59 were in the greatest earning years. “However,” he added, “this phenomenon … may come from the real issue in America — underemployment — which may cause people to work into their early 70s.”

Marketing to this group, Abney said, would take “a much different approach than the current trend toward communicating with millennials.” Business owners “have to strive to touch them on a more personal level and not communicate only via an iPhone or tablet screen. ... This will be the last or next-to-last generation that will expect face-to-face, one-on-one customer service.”

Abney also noted that this group had lived through a few recessions and was more likely to be value-conscious. But Jenna Gross, chief marketing officer of Pennsylvania marketing firm Moving Targets, points out that “the most dangerous (miscue) is to view baby boomers as a single group. The next mistake is to believe the notion that baby boomers are averse to trying new brands, not wanting to use technology, or not seeking new life experiences. None of these assumptions is substantiated by research.”

Thus, the ways businesses communicate with older consumers must be carefully evaluated.

“One-size-fits-all marketing is no longer an option,” Gross warned. “Successful companies will segment the market by life stages, lifestyle choices, behavior, interests and needs.”

Gross said Facebook ads allowed businesses to tailor messaging and measure the success of campaigns at optimizing that messaging over time.

Considerations need to extend to the simplest things, such as physical signage.

“Around the age of 40, presbyopia kicks in and most of us require bifocals or reading glasses to see up close,” said Bender, the consumer anthropologist. “Can a customer read your in-store signs? How about the menu, or your email blasts? Around the age of 63, we need three times the amount of light to see as clearly as we did in our 20s. We ask businesses when they last had their facilities relamped.”

Many so-called “zoomers” (“baby boomers with zip,” defined as people in their 50s to 70s who want to remain socially and culturally engaged and active) “suffer from some form of arthritis,” Bender said. “Can they lift product off of the top or bottom shelves?”

In short, business owners and executives need to put themselves in these older consumers’ place both emotionally and physically as much as possible. Sure, that goes for servicing consumers of every age, but this bracket is growing — and has real money to spend.