Chicago Tribune
Prime Time Special Section
Feature Article

October 24, 2001

Stores offer discounts, but not everyone bites
By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

A woman stood in line at a cash register at the Stein Mart department store in Wheaton recently. While she was waiting, she spotted a sign that advertised a 15 percent discount for shoppers age 55 and older from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. "I'll come back on Tuesday," she said to herself as she left.

Across the country, consumers are receiving discounts and special offers on purchases of all types simply because of their ages. The details vary, but savvy senior shoppers can find reduced prices on travel, entertainment, restaurant meals, prescription drugs, utilities, clothing and more. Whether the trend continues as the Baby Boomers move into their golden years remains to be seen.

"I don't see any end to them," said Gary Onks, a marketing consultant, author and motivational speaker in Fredericksburg, Va., who trains corporations how to sell to the mature market. "Seniors have become conditioned to expecting them and, frankly, have been indoctrinated by marketing types that you've earned them."

Will Baby Boomers use them? But Baby Boomers may be reluctant to claim their discounts, said George Moschis, director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies and professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "Some research suggests that Baby Boomers want to maintain their so-called youthful appearance and deny anything that reminds them of old age," he said. "Using discounts is admitting to themselves their older status." Senior discounts have been around since the end of World War II. Merchants first promoted them as a gesture of respect to those who had given service to the country. More discounts appeared after Medicare was enacted in 1964, when popular thought was that seniors were not as financially well off as the rest of society and needed a boost. When the 1980 U.S. Census showed that many seniors did have discretionary funds, sellers of nearly every product and service instituted discounts to help them spend it. Discounts are everywhere. Today, shopping breaks proliferate.

"It's become self-perpetuating," Onks said. "You can't take it away. "If Company A and Company B both offer discounts and Company B takes it away and they both sell the same commodity, where are you going to shop?"

Here are a few examples of area discounts: Kohl's department stores offer a 10 percent discount--and occasionally 15 percent--all day on Wednesdays to shoppers 62 and older. Ames discount department stores offer a 10 percent discount all day on Tuesdays to shoppers 55 and older; in addition, the stores open an hour earlier that day, at 8 a.m. rather than 9 a.m. Dominick's offers a 20 percent discount on prescriptions to shoppers 55 and older who pay cash, unless their insurers prohibit the practice. Denny's restaurants offer a special low-price senior menu all the time. Most of the major airlines offer ticket discounts to older fliers, as well as four-coupon booklets. Each coupon can be used for a one-way flight within the 48 states. Restrictions abound, though: Some are good only on certain days, between certain hours or at certain locations. They also may apply only to regularly priced merchandise--better deals might be found at sales that are open to everyone.

The age at which they kick in varies but is typically 60, 62 or 65, but occasionally 50 or even 45. "Historically, it was always 62 or 65, the traditional retirement age, but now there's no consistency," Onks said.

Discount shoppers might have to first join a club, either for a no- or low-cost membership fee. Many discounts are in the areas of travel and leisure, said Joan Rattner Heilman, author of "Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50." One trend Heilman has noted is more discounts given to American seniors traveling abroad. "Many foreign countries, if they have senior cards or identification cards that allow you to travel half-price, extend them to tourists," she said. "Many foreign airlines have discounts for seniors too." Chicago's program The Red Tape Cutters Program, offered by the Chicago Department on Aging, links residents 60 and over to more than 40 city, state and federal benefits and services. Among them are property-tax relief, health care and screenings, prescription medicine assistance, legal aid, home-delivered meals, reduced automobile license plate renewal and Medicare premium rebates. Some, but not all, have minimum income and asset requirements. Agency staffers help seniors fill out a short form and enter the information into a database. A printout lists the benefits and services the seniors are eligible for, along with information on how to apply for them. Many seniors who are eligible for benefits and services do not take them, perhaps for reasons of pride, said Marsha Naas, project coordinator for Red Tape Cutters. But "there are always going to be people who stayed home to care for their families, divorcees and people who have outlived their incomes and who need the services and benefits we can provide," she said. Increased benefits, services Anna Willis, commissioner for the Chicago Department on Aging, said she has seen the number of benefits and services increase over the past decade and believes they will continue to be offered.
"I feel that Baby Boomers try to get the most out of their dollars," she said. "They are educated, smart enough to know where to look and like to bargain. I think that companies will see that and offer them discounts." With their active lifestyles and relatively good health, Baby Boomers may be more attracted than today's seniors to discounted cultural, travel and fitness programs, Naas said. In addition, Baby Boomers probably will need discounts more than their parents do. The average 50-year-old has saved less than $50,000 for retirement while the assets of today's seniors 65 and over average more than $130,000, Moschis said. "Baby Boomers are in big trouble," he said. "That's why they are so deal- and price-conscious, because they are trying to make ends meet. A lot of them are heavily into debt. They're accustomed to spending rather than holding onto money. Their parents held onto their money." Are discounts effective?
Recent research shows that from the merchants' perspective, senior discounts are not particularly effective in drawing new business. Shoppers merely rearrange their schedules to shop on a different day or stock up on a product they already buy regularly. "When a lot of companies offer discounts, they no longer have a competitive weapon," Moschis said. "But those discounts cut into profits."
Moschis' rough projection is that companies will curtail their discounts and use their resources to entice customers in ways that are more difficult for competitors to duplicate. "If they can offer some special type of service or convenience to customers that is very important to them, that could make a difference," he said.
"I have a feeling they will continue because people have a sense of entitlement," author Heilman said. "There are people who are loaded [with money] who go up to the movies and get in at half-price or make sure they get their discount at a hotel." Baby Boomers, who may never consider themselves senior citizens, won't care what they are called when they can get lower prices, she said. "There are very few people who don't like to save a buck or two if they can, and there are many seniors who need it," she said. The key to saving on any product or service is to ask, Heilman said. "That's my major point," she said. "If you don't ask, you're not going to get them. "Nobody's going to say are you a senior unless you're really hobbling around. You have to speak up."


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