There will be 12 million pensioners in the UK by 2021. Their shopping needs will have to carefully met says Helen Gregory

At the Adeg Aktiv Market stores in Austria, the staff are just that bit older than usual. There are magnifying glasses on each shelf to help the customer read those tough-to-discern labels. And, if the shopper is finding it a bit too much, they can take a breather in one of chairs dotted around.
The older shopper has different needs. They are less likely to impulse and top-up shop, preferring individually wrapped items instead of bulk packs. Neither do they respond well to layout changes.
At the Leatherhead conference, Developing and Marketing Foods for the Ageing Population, information director Giles Shapley said the over-65-year-old shoppers were much more likely to know what they wanted and to use a list (61% compared with 38% of under-24-year-olds.)
Many older consumers like shopping because of the social contact with other people and staff, with 47% of over-65s choosing their supermarket on the basis they know the layout, says Angela Groves, senior consumer analyst at IGD.
But they have quite different ideas about some of the food on sale: “Some older people talk about fresh supermarket food as having been frozen because it is so cold - they think vegetables from the greengrocer are fresher because they’re not cold,” says Groves. She adds that elderly people found sell-by dates on this fresh produce irrelevant because they could tell when it had gone off, while they saw not highly fashionable foods such as cabbage convenient, because it was so quick to cook. They also have different views on packaging, with many thinking there is too much on food; only 10.8% of older consumers buy food on the basis of attractive packaging, compared with 19% of 15 to 24-year-olds, according to Leatherhead research.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, some of this dislike is based on the difficulty they have opening it; cans with a key opener, such as corned beef, cause the biggest problems for pensioners, followed by ringpulls, shrink-wrapped products and glass jars.
The change to ringpulls has met with mixed success because elderly people have started using electric devices to open cans, according to Dr Belinda Winder, head of the Industrial Psychology Research Group at Sheffield University.
Shoe polish tins, jam jars and cheese packaging are tough for arthritis sufferers, she adds. “Older people don’t like child-resistant containers and often decant products into other containers because their design doesn’t allow them to be opened by the elderly,” says Winder. She adds that those with poor sight find instructions hard to
read and have problems with transparent tamper-proof seals. “The older you get the more likely you are to read instructions, but the less likely you are to be able to read them.”
This could be a potential safety problem as pensioners might not store or prepare products properly, which could become even more of an issue as more information is squeezed on labels.
Winder adds that elderly people want light and grip-friendly packaging, clear opening instructions in large font size and constrasting colours and large tear-tapes and ringpulls that are easy to grip and lift.
They also like resealable packaging and packaging that can be easily opened with just one hand.
Manufacturers may also need to consider the consistency of the food, as denture wearers have problems eating particular food, and will avoid certain products or break it with their hands before eating it.
In general, older consumers like extra visual information about their food, enhanced aromas and flavours, but they don’t like mushy food, cloying and fibrous food, or any surprises.
However, their sense of smell is affected as they age, as well as their taste-buds, says David Kilcast, business development manager at Leatherhead Food International.
He suggests that manufacturers use more colour in food to give the impression of flavour, or changing the texture of food to make it noisier, so there is a perception of crispness - their favourite food texture.
Taste is probably the biggest issue for elderly people on medication, as a food needs to be twice as sweet to taste the same as normal for them, and a staggering 12 times as salty.
Says Kilcast: “This is a difficult issue because manufacturers are being encouraged to reduce salt in food.”
They might like more sugar and salt, but are often shocked into eating healthily by doctors. IGD research found that 17% of over-75s and 19% of those aged 60-69 have a medical reason for their choice of diet, compared with 2% of 30-39 year olds.
The main reason the over-55s want to be healthy is to prevent illness, and their concern with good health could lead many to seek out functional foods.
“There will be more demand for food and drink products that may delay the onset of age-related health problems,” predicts Susie Johnson, business manager for markets intelligence at Leatherhead Food International.
She points to products that delay mental and physical decline already on the market in the US and Japan, such as Smart Chocolate, Skin Cola and Refresh Eye, a skin management drink which contains collagen
in Japan, and in Germany, an anti-ageing beer from Neuzeller Kloster. There’s also more of a crossover in the US between supplements and mainstream products, such as fruit chews which help prevent osteoarthritis.
But Johnson says that consumer scepticism needs to be overcome, while products need to prove their efficiency before they really take off in the UK. “There’s great potential in anti-ageing drinks particularly, and products will probably offer more than one health benefit.”
Older people have been neglected by marketing people in their 20s and 30s, reckons Nick Murray, managing director of Galileo Brand Architecture, who says there is a new kind of older consumer that doesn’t always conform.
“They don’t want to be typecast as oldies, so it’s not a good idea to label a product as being for old people.”
A person hitting 65 in 2004 will be much healthier, heavier and taller, better educated, more likely to have their own teeth, better housed and travelled and know how to cook properly.
Developing new products for them is
pretty much the same as for any age group, although they used their money more carefully, and wanted more back in terms of the time and money they spent, says Murray.
Indeed, some of the issues facing older people now might not be relevant in the future. For a start, packaging will become more important as today’s younger consumers, who are more turned on by what food looks like, get older.
This older generation of tomorrow are likely to be more mobile, which means out of town stores will be just as popular. They’re also more likely to use internet shopping.
The IGD’s Groves adds that the industry couldn’t bank on today’s young people cooking and eating like today’s pensioners when they became OAPs.
“They might not want to spend time cooking from scratch.”
Although there’s a market out there with different needs, today’s aging population doesn’t like to recognise that it’s getting older or being labelled as elderly. And in the future, these consumers will probably be keener to shop for anti-aging, healthy products than shuffle round a specially designed supermarket.