February 3, 2002

Catering to the Elderly Can Pay Off


At first glance, there may not seem to be much in common between a Borders bookstore in a suburban mall and a Cracker Barrel restaurant along an Interstate highway somewhere.

But both are examples of "senior friendly" retail establishments, says Gary Onks, president of Sold on Seniors Inc. He is an author and consultant who helps corporations attract older customers.

And there's every reason they should, argues Mr. Onks, who spells it all out in his book, "Sold on Seniors: How You Can Reach and Sell the $20 Trillion Senior Marketplace" (Sold on Seniors Inc., $29.95). Mr. Onks points out that:

The 50-plus age group is the fastest growing segment of the population.

Seniors control 48 percent of all discretionary spending; 43 percent of new cars are bought by seniors.

The net worth of seniors is five times that of other Americans; people over 50 had a total net worth of $20 trillion in 1998, up from $7.6 trillion 15 years earlier, according to data from AARP, an organization of retired people and those approaching retirement.

So why are advertisers so fascinated with the 18-to-49-year-old age group? What makes television executives act like they've just been handed a stack of Enron stock when one of their shows starts attracting older viewers?

"For 40 years, corporate America has been focused on the baby boomers, viewed as a youth group for many of those years," Mr. Onks said. "Executives are used to looking to younger people; older people were seen as retired, over the hill, done. The corporations have gotten into a pattern, just like people do, and it's hard to change."

He also faults advertising agencies and companies' advertising departments for being composed mostly of people 25 to 30 years old who "only see their own plateau."

Younger people also forget about the elderly, in part, he said, "because of the increased divorce rates in recent decades and the breakdown of the traditional family, not to mention the mobility of Americans."

"As a result," he said, "a lot of younger people have lost contact with their grandparents and don't know how to bond with older people."

He says this attitude will change as seniors become a force that companies cannot ignore without the risk of declining sales. Smart companies, he contends, already recognize this.

Which brings us to Borders and Cracker Barrel, a unit of CBRL Group Inc., based in Lebanon, Tenn.

Borders, Mr. Onks writes in his book, makes it "so very easy to shop, browse, linger and socialize: lots of chairs, sofas, helpers, refreshments, room to move about and excellent lighting." He adds: "Their stores simulate warm, cozy dens or family rooms. Seniors love it."

On a recent weekday morning, I spent an hour at a Borders bookstore in Wayne, N.J. The atmosphere was indeed pleasant and a number of older customers were sitting about in comfortable chairs reading magazines or books from the store's shelves. In the cafe area, there were newspapers available for people to read with their coffee.

The bookstores also offer free musical programs and literary discussion groups.

Jenie Carlen, a spokeswoman for Borders Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the company wanted people to think of its 360 bookstores around the country as a "third place" besides work and home.

"We provide an atmosphere where people can meet," Ms. Carlen said. "This is good for people who are retired and want to start book clubs or discussion groups. It helps get them out of the house and into a more social atmosphere."

Of Cracker Barrel restaurants, Mr. Onks writes: "These places literally ooze every aspect of marketing to seniors. The buildings themselves are designed to look like old country stores. The wide front porches are filled with rocking chairs, just like front porches of homes and stores used to have. The food is down-home, country- style cooking."

It's hard to disagree with his assessment; a Cracker Barrel sign can be a pretty welcome sight for a hungry driver. But, let's face it, Cracker Barrel's cloverleaf competition is usually pretty mediocre, especially for older people who might want more than a smashed hamburger and salty fries.

Julie Davis, a spokeswoman for Cracker Barrel, said the chain had no data on what percent of its customers were seniors, but the number was "clearly significant."

"We didn't start out to appeal particularly to seniors, but it has certainly evolved that way," Ms. Davis said, adding that older customers especially liked the restaurants' large- print menus.

Sam Craig, professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business, agrees that there are a lot of untapped opportunities for the senior market. But he contends that mass-market advertisers sometimes appear to ignore seniors not out of ignorance but because of a "basic and subtle dilemma" rooted in the fact that a lot of older people, especially the aging baby boomers, don't think of themselves as old. And they don't want to be seen as old.

"So if advertisers target the 18-to-49-group, they will pick up some older viewers," Professor Craig said. "But if they skew their ads to older viewers, they'll lose the younger ones as well as the older ones who don't see themselves as old. Companies are aware of the demographics, but if they target old they run the risk of being rejected by both groups."

He added: "Look at ads specifically directed to older people, like vitamins. They don't put people in these ads who are old and decrepit. They pick people who look younger, with gray hair the only real sign of aging. They could be 35-year-olds with prematurely gray hair."  

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