It was in the early 1980’s that a young woman completely changed her appearance and mannerism to look and act like an elderly shopper. In fact, she lived like that for many years and discovered an incredible truth: Retailers make it very hard for seniors to shop. She made her case in international studies and even testified before Congress. A woman we’ll call Harriett showed me once that her favorite bran cereal was on the top shelf, far from her reach and when it took a store clerk more than 20 minutes to come and help her, she gave up and went home without the cereal. She spoke about younger shoppers with big carriages who virtually pushed her out of the way. To say the least, she was a very unhappy shopper.
In 2016, a major study showed that seniors are an incredibly important customer segment for many businesses (McKinsey Global Institute). Despite the obvious benefits, retailers of all kinds by and large do not create a friendly environment for shopping for the elderly. Harriett said that one store manager told her that “if you need any help, do not hesitate to call me, but after the second time I felt embarrassed to bother him since he looked so busy.” Her friend chimed in that she felt very uncomfortable “up and down the aisles with my shopping cart.”
What’s more? Retail experts say that if retailers created a positive shopping experience for seniors, the in-store purchases by seniors would go up dramatically. Many seniors complain about the design of products themselves, Archie, 79, says he has a hard time opening some bottles, including prescription drugs. An innocent twist-off cap can be an arduous task for a senior, especially for a woman. Lids of all kinds appear to be a challenge for the elderly especially the tightly sealed take-out containers.
Some retailers, including national box chains, have taken senior shoppers into account. Best Buy, for example, created a full category initiative that’s focused solely on providing products that can help seniors age in place. One Midwest supermarket has a whole aisle of products that are easily accessible for seniors, especially items like napkins, paper plates, tissues, and toilet paper, usually stocked on the highest shelves. A refrigerator stocks milk, juice and cottage cheese as part of the store’s “grab ‘n go’ offering.
There are a myriad of concerns that retailers fail to address for the senior market. Harriett mentioned that prices are often too small for her to read or absent altogether, replaced by a tag with a scanner tag. When she asked a clerk, he showed her where there was an electronic price checker. Several studies found respondents had difficulties reaching high and low shelves and to use deep freezers (Leighton et al., 1996). Seniors suggested that in such cases they either did not purchase the item or had to find staff to help. It just so happens that items like tissues and some cereals are usually placed on high shelves. Juices, on the other hand, are often on floor level. Older consumers would like to have seats in stores when they feel tired or good lighting within the store. Yet others said that restrooms were often a good walk from the shopping area or non-existent. One senior said she tried three different restrooms only to be told that they were for staff.
The check-out process can be a very disturbing experience for seniors. Squeezed in between carts with children screaming and often kicking, the lines may be long. Packers make the bags too heavy to carry and are often inpatient if the senior takes too much time unloading the carts. It was refreshing to see a young man in a heimishe supermarket help an elderly couple unload their wagon. Several national studies found disturbing results when questioning seniors about their check-out experience. Most found the experience daunting and physically challenging.
An elderly man in a heimishe take-out store was furious that everything was packed for large families when all he needed was some food for himself and his wife for Shabbos. What bothered him even more was that when he complained, he was told “sorry but we cater to families.” Studies have indeed shown that seniors complain about the quantity in packaged food. The quantities of food normally packaged were reported as being too large for older people with smaller appetites, particularly when the food is bought for one person (Lumpkin, 1985).
There are more than 46 million older adults aged 65 and older living in the U.S.; by 2050, that number is expected to grow to almost 90 million. Between 2020 and 2030 alone, the time the last of the baby boom cohorts reach age 65, the number of older adults is projected to increase by almost 18 million. Those are significant numbers, and it behooves retailers not to take notice. In our community, in addition to the important value of respect for the elderly, an aging population is a big part of the customer base and needs to be addressed.
One possible solution is to train more people about the needs, physical limitations, and other sensitivities towards seniors. Staff and service are important in ensuring satisfaction among older consumers (Johnson-Hillery et al., 1997). This is particularly relevant in availability of staff ready to help with locating products, information on products and advising (Goodwin & McElwee, 1999). Just as staff can bring satisfaction, it can also cause dissatisfaction when they are unfriendly and unhelpful. Hence, there appears to be a broad range of factors influencing the satisfaction of older consumers when shopping for foods.
Some retailers are wont to dismiss the senior opportunity. They say that the investment to change the shopping experience for seniors would be too expensive. They lament that the elderly spend a fraction of what a younger consumer spends. But at the same time, they do not dismiss the fact that senior shoppers spend money. One hemishe store said that “derech eretz dictates that we treat our seniors with respect and dignity, but I admit that we don’t pay enough attention to them.” And that needs to change!