U.S. retailers adjusting to aging baby boomers


CHICAGO -- The baby boom generation is beginning to find itself on a treadmill. It could be a $1,000 model that has all sorts of gizmos to measure pulse rate, distance walked, calories expended, time, incline and speed. Or it could be a more basic $299 model, said Mark Christensen, a buyer for Sportmart.

Boomers also are starting to buy washing machines with bigger lettering for the dials, fatter pens and medicine bottles that are so simple to open a child can do it.

"People tell us they don't want to get a rocket scientist's degree just to wash their clothes," said Carolyn Berweyst, manager of marketing communications for Whirlpool Corp.'s home-appliances division in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Corporate America, aware that the post-World War II population bulge is marching steadily toward age 50, has started to plan for that birthday. The event starts in 1996, when the first baby boomers reach half a century in age, and it will continue for a decade and a half.

That means huge segments of the American consumer market will begin to notice that their eyesight, taste, hearing and dexterity aren't what they used to be. In response, they will probably start buying products that are friendlier to their gradually diminishing senses.

L The stakes are huge for product manufacturers and retailers.

"There are 62 million people over age 50, and they represent the fastest-growing age group in America," said Gary Berman, president of Market Segment Research & Consulting Inc. of Miami.

Because they are at the height of their earning power, their children are grown or nearly so and their mortgages are small or paid off, those in the 50-plus crowd have greater disposable income than those in other age groups.

The 23 percent of the American population that is over age 55 controls 77 percent of the nation's wealth and half its discretionary income, said George Moschis, professor of marketing and director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"There are 54 million people who are 55-plus, and in 35 years that number is expected to double," Mr. Moschis said.

The mass-merchandising industry, especially the discount giants, are looking at ways to adapt to that changing market.

There is no radical technology involved for manufacturers or retailers, just a new emphasis on being user-friendly.

Baggier styles of clothing that better adapt to middle-age spread have appeared, and they fortuitously have been embraced eagerly even by style-setting teen-agers.

The mass merchandisers are likely to begin scattering seats around their giant stores so aging shoppers can rest a spell. Washrooms, often hidden in the stockroom, will become more accessible and clearly identified. Directional signs in stores will become larger, the experts say.

Even parking lots will have to get some attention.

"Home Depot told us that one of the biggest complaints they get is that older people forget where they parked their cars," said Mr. Moschis.

He points out that restaurants are going to have to start improving lighting so older customers can read the menus. Background noise will have to be limited because it is hard for such customers to hear above it. Mr. Moschis also contends that male announcers may become preferable to females because the male voice has greater clarity to older ears.

Whirlpool accidentally discovered the mature market 25 years ago when it installed its "cool line" -- a toll-free number customers could call for advice on products they bought.

"As we talked to customers, we found out the people were asking how they could adapt their existing appliances to their physical limitations," Ms. Berweyst said.

Whirlpool also discovered that Braille labels for kitchen ranges were popular among the elderly, some of whom found the printing on the control panels too small to read.

"We found that people who just can't read the graphics will feel for those little bumps," Ms. Berweyst said. The company designed larger knobs to fit over existing dials and printed control-panel overlays with large type for its washers and dryers. They are free on request.

"We thought the consumers would have to ask for them, but the dealers are using them to make sales to older people," she said.

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