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Companies set sights on aging consumers

By Ely Portillo, The Charlotte Observer –

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Easier-to-chew foods, brighter lights in stores and bigger, clearer fonts on packaging: Those are a few of the changes marketers discussed at a conference Friday about how to sell to aging consumers.

The retail innovation conference at Wake Forest University’s uptown Charlotte campus was sponsored by drugstore chain CVS Caremark. It was the first of what the school says will be an annual series.

“There’s a silver tsunami coming as the baby boomer population moves into seniors,” said professor Roger Beahm, executive director of the school’s Center for Retail Innovation.

That tsunami is expected to change everything from the width of store aisles (wider, for easier navigation) to where popular items are placed on shelves (not too low or too high – within reach of motorized scooters) and how stores are laid out (smaller, with benches for tired shoppers to rest on, and more carpet to avoid slips and falls).

Executives who make packaged goods and foods talked about how they would change labels (contrasting colors to make them easy to read) and snacks (saltier and sweeter, for aged taste buds).

Chris Gray of senior adult marketing agency Zillner said companies need to adjust because older people will only increase in relative importance.

“The senior group is the only one that is actually growing” as a proportion of the population, he said.

There are already about 50 million Americans age 64 or older, who spent an estimated $50 billion last year on packaged goods. That number is expected only to rise.

Stores are already adapting their assortment of goods to draw in older consumers. Matthews, N.C.-based Family Dollar was cited as an example of a company that is adding more health and wellness items to appeal to older customers, and seeing higher sales as a result.

Ellen Furuya, senior director of consumer insights at PepsiCo, said her company is changing how it makes and presents products. The company has done studies with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to see how people’s senses change as a result of aging.

“We need to really brighten the lights for this consumer,” she said, showing a slide of how dim a 75-year-old’s eyesight is compared to a 25-year-old’s. To account for weaker grip strength in aging consumers, “There’s a lot of people working on, ‘How do we make those (bottle) caps a little easier to get open?’?”

The company is also changing its food to account for weaker senses in older customers.

“Imagine a salty snack that people can’t smell or taste,” she said, describing the problem the company faces.

She pointed to one of the company’s product lines, Stacy’s brand pita chips. The hard snacks are popular, Furuya said, but their extreme crunchiness can present a problem for older consumers with dental problems. “You need to have a little softer bite,” Furuya said. “You’re going to kill these people.”

So the company started a new line of Stacy’s chips, this time a light cracker that’s much easier to chew.

Even advertising needs to take such changes into account, executives said. Simple, linear story lines with memory cues test better in commercials with older audiences. For example, Furuya said a commercial that showed a camera slowly panning up the side of a cold Budweiser bottle tested much better with older audiences than a frenetic, split-screen ad for Pepsi.

Susan Viamari of retail data group SymphonyIRI said budget-conscious older shoppers are also leading much of the shift to cheaper, store-brand items. Among senior adults, she said, 47 percent report cutting back on their nonessential grocery services, and 41 percent report buying more store-brand goods.

“Seniors have made more sizable cuts than the country as a whole,” she said.

Older consumers are also more likely to be on restricted diets, such as low-sodium or low-cholesterol, Viamari said. But many of them don’t know how best to follow those diets.

“We have an opportunity as marketers to teach seniors, as well as other consumers, about all the great foods, beverages and products out there” for people on restricted diets, she said.

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