Older people want to shop shock

shopping trolleyIt is a paradox that older people make up a large and growing number of consumers – presenting a tremendous opportunity – yet they are almost entirely ignored by marketing executives. Over-50s need and want to buy stuff like anyone else, but some 90% of marketing spend is directed at younger people.

A report out today from the International Longevity Centre (ILC), published by Age UK, attempts to tease out some of the reasons behind this. These turn out to be a complex nexus of ignorance, prejudice, myopia (metaphorical as well as literal) and ineptitude. What’s more, according to the report’s author David Sinclair, many of the market barriers he has identified are exactly the same as those that were first noted 50 years ago. We may be a maturing population but our marketing techniques are going nowhere.

The Golden Economy is compiled from existing literature and new research and is full of ideas. The causes of market failure being so complex, unfortunately the report can offer no single explanation of what’s gone wrong or how to put it right. One of its clearest messages is that significant numbers of older people are spending less than their incomes would appear to allow: it’s not simply lack of money holding back spending.

The true barriers are best understood from anecdotal evidence: the housebound man who would like to buy by mail order but can’t get to the Post Office to return goods; the blind woman who would like to buy stylish clothes, but has no one to tell her how they look when she tries them on. In many European cities, over-50s are one of the main groups eating out, yet restaurant menus are printed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for anyone over 50 to read them without glasses.

Often these obstacles are the result of a simple lack of thought, of designers and marketers failing to put themselves in the shoes of their consumers. At the root of that lies ageism – a reluctance to think about getting older, presumably in the hope that, if ignored, it might simply go away. A vicious circle sets in: advertisers don’t pay attention to the older market, so the media don’t see any need to cover or address older people, so older people feel they don’t matter and have no right to assert themselves. Too often, they blame their own shortcomings for the lack of services (‘What else can I expect at my age?’)

There are dismayingly few examples of good practice, although David Sinclair cited an interesting case at the launch event for the report. Some time ago, Google doubled the size of its entry box without explanation. The only clue to what was going on came from a small blog by a designer, who revealed the move was meant to make the search engine more accessible. Good inclusive design, as has been noted again and again, is almost unnoticeable because it benefits everyone.

Girls shopping

This is how you have to look when you go shopping

There is a real problem in marketing to older consumers, in that no one wants to think of themselves as old, or even ‘older’. So you have to take age out of the equation while thinking of what works for people who for any number of reasons are not standard, or fully fit. But in a profoundly ageist society, that’s a big ask. Think of shopping, and what do you visualise? I’d be surprised if it’s not twentysomething girls with carrier bags: shopping is presented as an exclusively youthful pleasure.

Yet older people need to eat and care for their homes and wear clothes and have a good time as much as anyone else. This report is a useful reminder of that, while also painting a rather daunting picture of how far we have to go to give everyone fair and easy access to the goods they need.

ILC report


5 thoughts on “Older people want to shop shock

  1. The Golden Economy report is a useful analysis of existing literature which as you say highlights some important issues.However, the report is most noticeable for what it does not (and cannot) say: and that is because, as David Sinclair the author has agreed, there is a lack of research in many important areas.

    For example, your own piece begins with the assertion that ‘some 90% of marketing spend is directed at younger people’. I do not know the evidence base for this statement, other than a Datamonitor press release from 2004, or even the methodology that one might use to reach this conclusion. It would be a major project and the reality is that we do not actually know the answer to this question.

    As a marketing agency specialising in the ‘mature market’, we produced our own research report, in collaboration with two University Professors. It is written from a marketing standpoint and while it covers some of the same ground as the ILC-UK report, the scope is broader. The report is available via our website (www.rhcadvantage.co.uk) to bona fide applicants and we are happy to present the main findings to interested parties.


    • Thanks, Mark. The 90% figure is quoted in The Golden Economy, and is an Admap figure (p. 56 of the report). I take your point that there has been very little research and it’s difficult to know what the methodology might have been; however, it does chime with an intuitive sense of the imagery of advertising. Inclusive design and inclusive marketing (rather than age-directed marketing) would seem to be the best way of reaching older people – so it may be that youthful images aren’t meant to exclude, but to stand for all people. The question is whether the relentless focus on youth does, in practice, turn older people off.

      As you say, there has been very little research into this – but that in itself is significant, I suspect, and reveals a disdain for or dismissiveness of the older consumer. I am now very much looking forward to reading your report!


  2. Hi Geraldine,

    I have only now caught up with your reply to my comment!

    I’d be happy to send you a copy of our report – perhaps you could let me have an email address?

    I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, or with David’s report. I am sure that we live in ageist society and that marketing reflects this. However, I am sceptical of tertiary sources, whereby someone’s point of view in an article can easily become accepted fact.




  3. Pingback: Do all people aged over 55 constitute a single demographic group? « PuckstownLane's Blog

  4. Just found your site- checking out your interesting articles. People that run marketing these days tend to forget about the one day that are older or their parents. Everyone needs to have choices for home, eating, clothes, entertainment, etc.- no one should be forgotten or left out. There are alot of Seniors out there with quite a bit money to spend. Thanks for the info.


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