Date published: Sunday, October 7, 2001Business Editor
Silver-haired market can be an untapped gold mine
When other kids were hanging out with their friends, Gary Onks was hanging out with Grandpap
and Meemaw. "There was a wood stove, no TV, no other kids for quite a ways around,"
says Onks, who remembers the stories, attention and love his grandparents lavished on him when
he spent time on their King George County farm in the 1960s. His connection with cherished older
folks has endured through the years, and it has been an especially useful tool in his latest
venture--a new book and a company that teaches corporate America how to tap an estimated $20
trillion market for aging baby boomers.
Onks, 50, says many companies are missing out on the opportunity by ignoring--or not
understanding--what older Americans want and need. His self-published book, "Sold on
Seniors," made its debut last week. "What I am advocating is for corporations to pay
attention to seniors," Onks said. In addition to having more disposable income than any
other segment of the population, "They own almost 80 percent of the homes, stocks, bonds
and savings. They are the focus that companies should be looking at." For the past 40
years, he said, most of the attention has been focused on baby boomers--the generation born
after World War II. "Seniors are like this invisible elephant in the lobby about to
materialize, but people just don't see it," he said.
According to AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for senior citizens, mature
adults--those aged 50 and over--are becoming an ever-larger share of the nation's population. In
2000, there were approximately 77 million in that category. That is expected to grow by 27
percent to 96 million by 2010. Tom Otwell, a spokesman for AARP, said it's hard to generalize
about different groups of older Americans--say, those 55, or 75--but that much of today's
culture remains fixated on youth. "Business has been and is dominated by young folks in
their 20s and 30s," he said, and advertising and marketing reflects that. But he added that
more companies are using mature adults in commercials for a wide range of products. "I
think more firms are stretching to fit grey-market needs." Georgia State University's
marketing department has a division devoted exclusively to selling to seniors, its Center for
Onks said there are myths about older consumers that need to change. "You've got
advertising or public relations people in their 30s who don't have a connection, don't know how
to bond with them, and view them as over-the-hill retired people who don't want to buy
anything." Whereas baby boomers like slick, quick information and sound bites,
"seniors are great readers and writers," Onks said, citing one example of why selling
to them effectively is different. Younger consumers will often toss junk mail without a second
look. "You can send materials to seniors and they will read every word."
And older consumers have goals. "They are concerned about their money lasting through
retirement; they're looking for safe, secure investments and they are extremely independent
minded," Onks said. "The last thing they want is to be a burden on a partner or to
their children." Another misconception, Onks said, is that senior citizens have what they
need and want and are not savvy shoppers. "[Companies] don't realize that a senior's most
precious commodity is time. When they come into your store, they are not window shopping. They
know whether they can afford it."
Onks grew up in King George and in 1970 after high school became a dispatcher for the
Fredericksburg Police Department. He worked in that post two years, and then became a police
officer for seven years. After that, he did some free-lance photography, then worked in
computers with Convergent Technologies until 1989 when it was bought out by Unisys. Following
the buyout, his search for a management job led him to MWH MediCorp, now MediCorp Health System,
which was looking for a marketing director for its new Chancellor Village retirement center.
Onks had to take a test to determine if he had an aptitude for selling to senior citizens.
When he'd finished, "The interviewer gave me a funny look," Onks recalled. He'd gotten
a perfect score; most applicants averaged 40 percent. "I told him about Grandpap and
Meemaw, my affinity and affection for seniors. He said, 'You're a natural' and hired me on the
spot." Chancellor Village, Onks said, was sold out before it was completed. "I
identified with seniors, and I'm able to communicate with them well." In late 1992, he was
promoted to executive director, but when his contract ended, he decided to pursue another
interest--his own business. He opened ProfitFinders, a telecommunications business, and worked
in the industry until last year when he sold the company to his partner and founded Sold On
"I knew all along I wanted to do this," said Onks. It took him roughly 10 years to
research and write the book. And the timing was right, he added. In January 2001, the first of
the baby boomers started turning 55.
Said Onks, "If corporations don't start waking up, they're going to miss the boat."
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