The over-50s account for more than half of grocery spend. So how can their needs be better met, asks Nick Hughes

Margaret is 63. She’s retired, has few debts and a secure pension. She likes cooking from scratch and buying local foods but dislikes bogofs and illegible food labelling. Health is important to her, as is good customer service.

Margaret may seem unremarkable, but she is a member of the most powerful consumer demographic of the 21st century – the over-50s.

Representing 34% of the UK population, the over-50s accounted for 80% of the UK’s disposable wealth and 51% of UK grocery spend in the year to September 2008. And they’re the most recession-proof shoppers around, according to a recent IGD report, The Golden Generation.

“Half of the elderly market are particularly well protected, even though we’ve got the credit crunch,” says Michael Freedman, senior consumer analyst at IGD and report author. “They are retired and have savings, they’ve got secure pensions and they’ve got few debts, so they will be resilient and remain loyal to high-quality products.”

The over-50s are a diverse bunch (see box, over), but they have much in common, argues Bryan Urbick, director of research agency Consumer Knowledge Centre. The main factor is how frequently their basic shopping needs are let down by the grocery industry.

“I think marketers need to completely rethink how they promote to the over-50s,” he says. “We don’t do well at understanding their deeper needs. For example, why are so many of our promotions about increasing the quantity that people buy, when bogofs are completely irrelevant to people who live in single households?”

More than a third of the 1,200 over-50s surveyed by IGD say they prioritise price-saving promotion mechanics over multi-buys such as 3-for-2 or bogofs, particularly on perishable products. Smaller portion sizes are also favoured by older shoppers, the majority of whom live in one or two-person households.

“They’d rather spend the right amount of money and not waste something than get something for free and throw it away,” says Urbick.

Harry, a 75-year-old shopper from Leicester, agrees. “What bugs me is that we have a bag of potatoes and there are only two of us,” he says. “By the time we’ve got halfway through them they are already sprouting. What a waste.”

One of the few upsides of the recession is that it is forcing the big four to reassess their strategies after years of targeting family shoppers, arguably at the expense of the ‘grey market’.

In a bid to emulate the success of Kaiser’s Tengelmann’s East Berlin Generation Market, a store featuring a number of innovations to make the shopping experience more comfortable for older shoppers, Tesco is planning to build the UK’s first pensioner-friendly store in Newcastle, having recently flown a group of over-65s to Berlin to try out the Kaiser’s store.

Last month, Waitrose launched free-range organic eggs in a smaller pack – four, rather than the standard six or 12 – and in 2008 it increased its range of wines in 25cl and 50cl bottles by more than 50%.

Marks & Spencer, meanwhile, has launched single-serve packs of pre-prepared vegetables and, like several leading bread manufacturers, launched smaller loaves of bread, while Arla Foods has launched a 50g pack of Lurpak butter. And Asda is one of several retailers that use Braille guns to label products for blind customers, has looped hearing systems and at least one mobility scooter in each store.

Older shoppers: the five groups that matter

At 43%, experimenters form by far the largest group. Typically females aged between 50 and 69, they are open to trying new foods, like to cook from scratch and are unlikely to trade down during a recession. Many are semi-retired with private pension and savings arrangements.

Convenience seekers
Also more likely to be aged between 50 and 69, convenience seekers comprise almost one in five (18%) of older shoppers. This group likes to try new food, but is happy with pre-prepared meals. IGD believes healthier convenience foods could be well received by this group.

Traditionalists make up a quarter of older shoppers (26%). Likely to be aged 70 or over, they tend to stick with the food they know. Traditionalist shoppers are more set in their ways and have less money and it's this group that demands traditional British meals and ingredients, IGD claims.

Bargain driven and uninterested
Significantly smaller in size than the other shopper-types, the bargain driven (5%) and uninterested (7%) groups are both typically aged over 70. IGD says offering basic products that offer the best value for money appeals to these shoppers.
It’s about time retailers and manufacturers started meeting the demands of the older shopper, says Freedman. “We’ve got a massively ageing society and the over-50s are one of the fastest-growing markets,” he says. “Their importance as we go on is only going to increase so it’s right for the industry to look at this market and focus on what their needs are.”

It’s not just the shopping environment and pack sizes that need to be addressed. Labelling should be another major consideration. Font size and colour schemes are core issues for older shoppers, many of whom suffer from impaired vision. The regulations on clarity of labelling are currently being updated at European level, but in the meantime the industry can help itself by increasing the font size of the most important information or having allergen advice highlighted in an easier-to-see colour.

Waitrose has changed the colour of its nutrition summary bar and has also increased the size of its cooking times to make them easier to read. Kaiser’s Tengelmann has even attached magnifying glasses to trolleys to help hard-of-sight shoppers. The problem of recognition, however, stretches beyond legibility.

“If you know you’ve got a product aimed specifically at older shoppers, then you can potentially make that labelling larger, particularly information that they really need,” says Freedman. “But it’s equally about getting the merchandising right. A lot of the time, they can’t actually find the product if the range is too large. With things such as spices, they found it difficult to work out which was the right one.”

Sainsbury's shopper Jean sympathises. “The labels on some of the cooking sauces are confusing. They are all different but they look the same with similar colour labels. If you don’t look properly you pick up the wrong one.”

Once the shopper has made their choice, read the label and bought the product, they face yet another challenge - accessibility. It's a serious issue, not least because scientists have made the link between elderly consumers' inability to access foods, and malnutrition.

"I understand the manufacturers' and retailers' reservations that developing products that are easier to open may cost them money," says Dr Alaster Yoxall, an expert in consumer packaging at Sheffield Hallam University. "But the reality is that the sheer number of people who have problems opening food is only going to increase. The question is, do elderly people make purchase decisions based on accessibility of food and not just cost? Intuitively, you would think they do."

Jars and cans pose a particular problem for older shoppers. The food and packaging industries have to address these problems, and quickly, he says.

Accessibility is a fundamental requirement, but healthy ageing relies on the product itself being healthy. According to a recent British Nutrition Foundation report, a plan is needed to ensure better physical and mental health in old age and lessen the increasing burden on the health service. Almost half (48%) of shoppers surveyed by IGD want the industry to offer more healthy products. Many also want more products aimed at people with specific conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

"Will health encourage them to make a change and do things differently? Absolutely," says Urbick.

British Nutrition Foundation nutrition scientist Heather Caswell believes retailers should consider offering healthy eating tips at point of sale, such as recommendations to eat wholemeal bread over white, or low fat spreads over butter, or highlighting softer fruits for those with dental problems. "It may be a good idea to help guide consumers who have a fairly limited level of nutrition understanding, and therefore may be particularly good for older adults who may not have received the same level of exposure to healthy eating messages as younger adults have," she says.

Health cannot, however, come at the expense of taste. "Don't forget the taste," says Urbick. "It tends to get forgotten."

Local and regional
Taste is one of the driving forces behind another key trend, the demand for local and regional products. This influenced the choice of store for more than a third of shoppers (35%) in the IGD report.

"They should introduce more local products like they do in the rest of Europe," says Jim from north London. "Hertfordshire is full of producers but you never see their products in local supermarkets."

Despite the economic downturn, over-50s are 20% more likely to be willing to pay a premium for locally sourced products than the average consumer. This suggests that for the over-50s whose disposable income remains intact, the desire to support local producers is still paramount - and marketing and branding should reflect this.

"Some of the retailers have done well in introducing more local food," says Freedman. "It's something that older shoppers, particularly experimenters, are really wanting."

The desire for authenticity also has ramifications for a category that has hit a brick wall with other demographics thanks to the premium associated with it - organic. "There's a huge opportunity with organic," says Urbick. "Older consumers tell us they tend to feel organic tastes better because it's closer to the ground, it's perceptual."

Collective memories
Nostalgia-driven NPD is another area that youth-obsessed brands all too easily forget appeals just as much - if not more - to older consumers than younger ones.

"Memories and associations are incredibly important in understanding older shoppers, so what we look for when we work with this age group are defined collective memories in a category," says Urbick.

He cites an example of positive associations influencing purchasing. "There was a limited edition Kit Kat bar that came out in a bluey-purple pack rather than red, and suddenly older people were buying it. Why? Because for a time after the Second World War, Kit Kat came in a blue wrapper and that created a sense of nostalgia."

If this all seems overly brand-centric there are implications for retailers too. As many as half (48%) of older shoppers surveyed cite customer service as the area they'd most like to see improved. Among the changes they would like to see are: more staff on tills, service counters and on the shop floor answering questions; more areas to sit and take a break; and more logical layouts.

Key considerations
Urbick believes there are two key considerations for retailers. "Number one - navigate a clear way through aisles. Older shoppers would rather go to a store where they feel they understand the layout, rather than having to ask someone to help. And number two, it's about making them feel they're not in the way. If supermarkets are about long queues and getting people in and out as quickly as possible, it's intimidating. But a supermarket that has even one person who says 'we're really glad you're here today, how can we help you?' - they're likely to go back again and again."

Shoppers like Margaret don't want to be patronised. They want to be respected. And they want stores and products that better meet their needs. Given how significant their spending power is, shouldn't retailers and manufacturers be doing more to grasp the golden opportunity?
Case study: Kaiser's Tengelmann
Large and clear signs
Anti-slip synthetic flooring
Shopping trolleys equipped with magnifying glasses
Shopping baskets with long handles and wheels
Long metal steps running along the lower edge of the dairy and frozen food areas making it easy to reach items on the top shelves
Shelf signs highlighting products 'for the smaller household'
The senior corner - near the exit, which is equipped with black couches, a TV/computer screen, a water cooler and a coin-operated massage chair
Wider aisles and generous space at checkout counters
Shopping trolleys with seats and locking wheels for short rest breaks
Red buttons at the end of aisles to summon help