DEMOGRAPHICS: Setting their sites on seniors

Catalogers find that older shoppers do buy online

If online-usage surveys are to be believed, catalogers that target older consumers need not bother investing in their Websites. But several marketers with a sizable percentage of senior buyers have found that their customers are indeed embracing online shopping.

According to research firm Media Metrix, about one-fifth of all Internet users are between 45 and 64 years old. But a recent study by the AARP found that of those Internet users over age 45, only 39% are actually buying goods online.

In fact, a number of catalogers targeting older consumers agree that a sizable share of their customers are low-tech. Among the older customers of the catalogers contacted by Catalog Age, about 20% still mail in catalog orders rather than placing them by phone, let alone via the Web. At the same time, however, these catalogers note that another significant portion of their customers are open to shopping online.

For instance, Oshkosh, WI-based gifts cataloger Miles Kimball, which targets consumers over the age of 40, launched its Website in May. Chairman/president/CEO Mike Muoio says the cataloger’s internal surveys reveal that 50% of its customers have access to the Internet.

In fact, the cataloger would have been online sooner; Muoio cites financial restrictions as one reason for holding off on creating the site. But new options and lower prices in Web software prompted the $180 million company to take the plunge.

Miles Kimball is aggressively marketing the site by registering with the better-known search engines, mailing to proven Internet buyers, and promoting the Website within its print catalog. Muoio expects only 1% of sales to come from the site the first year, but he anticipates that by 2006, 25% of sales will come from the Web.

Beverly, MA-based women’s apparel cataloger Appleseed’s, which targets women over the age of 45, plans to offer online ordering by fall, says vice president of marketing Greg Harper. The cataloger already has a Website, but visitors currently find only an order form that can be printed out and faxed, and some rudimentary information about the company.

According to Harper, Appleseed’s customers, who have an average age of 60, are more comfortable with the Web than some of the seniors reflected in Internet surveys. As older women, “our customers are stereotyped as not being as Web savvy as the younger consumers, but when I get customer feedback, it is usually via e-mail.”

Old hands on the Web

Other catalogers targeting older consumers already have a strong – and growing – Internet presence. In less than two years online, San Diego-based cataloger As We Change reports that 10% of sales are now coming from the Web.

The $10 million cataloger of personal-care products for menopausal and post-menopausal women was founded in 1996, at a time when its target buyers – women ages 40-60 – did not have a strong presence online. Cofounder/former co-CEO Julie Martin says that the company launched its site in November 1998 so that it would be completely functional once women started shopping online in earnest.

Martin recognizes a few key factors that have contributed to the company’s success online: First, the cataloger has built a solid relationship with existing customers, which has made buyers more at ease regarding security on the site. Also, many customers prefer to shop for age-sensitive products in the privacy of their home, and they like the option to serve themselves online. And the average buyer is active, young at heart, and therefore more inclined to adapt to the Internet than typical buyers in the older age range do.

According to Cathy Murphy, As We Change’s vice president of catalog operations, “Our business has doubled on the Net over last year.” Several customers who have called the catalog to order have expressed uneasiness about shopping over the Web. The cataloger tries to convince them to go online, either when they’re on the phone or via e-mail, and soon “the hesitation is gone,” she says.

Lillian Vernon, online since 1995, is using its Website to attract younger buyers – consumers in their 30s, compared to the 44-year-old average buyer from its core print books. Right now, the $241.8 million gifts cataloger offers 20% of its products on its site, primarily seasonal items and merchandise geared to younger shoppers, such as baby products and home office supplies for young entrepreneurs. But vice president of public affairs David Hochberg says the company plans to eventually have its entire product assortment online.

Hochberg says that Rye, NY-based Vernon’s customers over age 45 are browsing online and phoning in their orders offline. This could indicate that the older demographic will trend toward online buying as their comfort level improves.

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