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 Senior Marketing.

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 Seniors Inc.

"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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