Selling to Seniors

Nov 01, 2005 10:30 PM  By

About 12.4% of the U.S. population — or some 35 million people — are now age 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2020, that population is projected to swell to 16.5%, or 53.7 million people. Two types of companies stand to benefit from the surging senior population: those selling products directly to older consumers, and those targeting caretakers and institutions that serve seniors.

Grenada, MS-based The Wright Stuff sells to both market segments. Physical therapist Amy Wright started the company, whose mission is “to be the leading provider of unique health care products for people with varying physical needs,” as a Website in 1999, largely to provide problem-solving products for seniors who were independent enough to live at home. Wright Stuff, which launched a catalog in 2000, sells products such as long-handled shoehorns, cleats to makes canes safer to use on icy sidewalks, and positioning pillows and wedges to make sitting more comfortable. About 75% of Wright Stuff’s orders come from consumers; the rest are from hospitals, veterans organizations, and senior facilities. Although Wright Stuff sales were just $235,000 in 2004, they are on track to increase 80% this year, Wright says.

Independence days

Enabling seniors to maintain active, independent lives is the subtext of many catalogs that target senior consumers. Medfield, MA-based medical footwear and living aids cataloger Support Plus is a case in point. The $10 million merchant, whose sales have grown 18% a year for the past three years, sells medical support hose, incontinence products, reading glasses, and an array of “daily living aids,” which include pads to make gripping doorknobs easier and stools for use in the shower. “Most of our customers are focused on staying mobile and staying independent,” says owner Ed Janis.

With that in mind, the market message needs to accentuate the positive. “Older people don’t need to be reminded that they’re old,” says Connie Halquist, CEO of Charlottesville, VA-based Gold Violin, whose tagline is “Helpful Products for Independent Living.” “Instead we try to encourage them to stay active and independent.”

Gold Violin does that in part via its merchandising. To downplay the medical supply orientation of many of its products — and competitors — Gold Violin emphasizes the esthetics as much as the benefits. Its Ultralight Designer Style Travel Chair, has a seat “made of nylon in designer colors”; its selection of walking sticks includes those with floral patterns, animal prints, rhinestones, and features handles shaped like ducks, horses, and elephants. The copy includes “selling points that encourage customers to go out and see the town,” Halquist says.

Visits to nursing homes help Julie Buck, a co-owner of Seattle-based Buck & Buck, ensure that her merchandise selection is on target. Buck & Buck specializes in apparel for seniors whose physical ailments make dressing difficult as well as for caretakeers who have to dress infirm clients. Although Buck & Buck caters to seniors age 80 and older and those who help care for them, Julie Buck says that the focus of her business, too, is to keep customers as independent as possible for as long as possible. The business has consistently grown 5%-7% each year.

Clothing and mobility aids aren’t the only products that seniors buy, of course — especially younger retirees. “You’ll find that a lot of younger seniors have more disposable income these days,” says Alan Beychok, president of Norcross, GA-based Benchmark Brands, a $75 million manufacturer/marketer that owns foot care cataloger FootSmart.

Buying trends are usually dictated by that need to maintain an active lifestyle, Beychok says. “From our standpoint, baby boomers and young seniors have more buying power and represent the greatest overall opportunity in the market.” Younger seniors, especially those who are retired, have a lot of free time on their hands, he says, and therefore tend to buy craft, gardening, and travel products.

Seeking seniors

There’s no question that aging consumers make a viable audience, but finding them can be challenging. Support Plus rents lists and works with cooperative databases NextAction, I-Behavior, and Abacus. The cataloger also rents out its 850,000 house file names.

FootSmart, which has a 1.6 million-name house file, works with Hackensack, NJ-based list services firm Mokrynskidirect. “We also use comparative databases for the larger co-ops, such as I-Behavior, NextAction, Abacus, and Prefer Network,” says Beychok. “And we purchase advertising space in both magazines and newspapers and take part in various package insert programs.”

But Wright Stuff and Buck & Buck place a premium on customer privacy and as a result do not rent or trade lists. Instead, both catalogers prospect via catalog requests and word of mouth. Wright Stuff does a small amount of advertising in healthcare magazines, and the company’s products have also been featured on local television stations and Good Housekeeping magazine.

About 75% of Gold Violin’s revenue comes from home-shopping cable-TV network QVC. Halquist estimates that The Gold Violin Hour has aired at least 30 times a year during the past three years. Halquist usually presents about a half-dozen items to the QVC host and discusses the features and benefits of each. Although she won’t release sales or cost figures associated with doing the show, Halquist says, “This is a great way to reach the market because QVC tends to attract an older, affluent clientele.”

Getting creative

Once you find the merchandise seniors want — and have found the seniors you want to market to — you may have to tweak your creative approach to better appeal to older customers. Consultant Herschel Gordon Lewis, principal of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Lewis Enterprises (and Multichannel Merchant columnist) stresses clarity of headlines, benefits, and readability.

“Shoppers at that age are looking for benefits — stuff that they feel they’ve earned from having been around for a while,” says Lewis. That’s one of the reasons that many seniors love bargains, he adds: They consider them an entitlement.

Because people tend to develop vision deficiencies as they age, providing readable type in catalogs targeted toward seniors is essential. Lewis recommends using type no smaller than 11 point.

Wright Stuff’s copy text is no smaller than 10-point, and its display type is appreciably larger. The catalog designers also try to leave a good bit of white space for contrast. Agold violin also ries to make its catalogs easy to read. “Your writers and designers need to be sensitive to color choices, font style, font sizes, and longer copy,” Halquist says.

Seniors also have fairly high service standards, says Lewis, so marketers would be wise to concentrate on customer-friendly service polices. Janis of Support Plus agrees: “One of our themes is ‘real people, real answers.’ We train sales agents in our call center not to rush incoming calls. Our staff of about 50 people understands that seniors appreciate the personal touch.”

The focus on service should extend to product packaging. “When we started the company, my thought was that these products are great but once they get the product, someone with arthritis will still have problems opening the package,” Wright says. Now she makes sure products are packaged so that her customers can open them. For example, nail clippers for those with arthritis are packaged with a pull-tab in the center of clamshell package, which is easier for customers who have trouble with small motor skills.

Seniors surf the Web too

People in older age brackets were not early adopters of the Web. But seniors are making up for lost time. At Medfield, MA-based medical footwear and living aids cataloger Support Plus, “our online orders have grown significantly in the last three years,” says owner Ed Janis. “Web sales have been growing at a rate of 18% per year.” The cataloger’s telephone orders account for 64% of sales, mail orders about 12%, and online orders 24% of overall business, he says.

Seattle-based Buck & Buck, which sells products for seniors and their caretakers, takes only 7%-10% of its sales via the Web, says co-owner Julie Buck, though she adds that the percentage continues to grow. The rest of the cataloger’s orders come in over the phone, through the mail, and via fax.

  • Rick Young

    I am intersted in marketing products to this sector. How do I find wholesalers?