The New Middle Ages

Three middle-aged women with dry skin, expanding waistlines, and the desire for comfortable, attractive exercise wear figured out six years ago what many catalog marketers are loathe to admit: Aging, while not always pretty, brings changes that need to be addressed.

Those three women started As We Change, a wellness-products catalog that caters to women ages 40-60. And it’s no coincidence that the catalog was launched as the baby boomers began hitting middle age.

“We recognize that it’s a growing market,” says Cathy Murphy, vice president of the San Diego-based catalog, which is now owned by Women First Healthcare. “I am right in the middle of that. We are the Me Generation. We’re still out there trying to beat the system.”

But researchers, consultants, and no doubt many aging baby boomers contend that catalogs such as As We Change are the exception, not the rule. Most catalogers, like most other marketers, appear to insist on chasing younger adults — even though as Reston, VA-based marketing consultant/author David B. Wolfe points out, the current adult median age is 43. What’s more, he adds, “people over 40 account for two-thirds of consumer spending.”

In pursuit of youth

You don’t need to have an advanced degree in sociology to realize that we live in a youth-oriented society. “We still have tremendous aging biases,” says Christopher L. Hayes, codirector of the Center for Aging Research and Education in Southampton, NY. “We glorify youth. The catalog industry and the marketing industry as a whole have yet to address the aging issue. Much more can be done to target specifically toward the baby-boom generation.”

The few players that do so “are brilliant,” adds John Migliaccio, president of Maturity Mark Services Co., a mature-market consultancy in White Plains, NY. “The value of the baby-boom consumer and even senior consumers is not well understood by catalog marketers — or any marketers.”

The youth bias stems partly from the belief that it’s better to hook consumers when they’re young and impressionable. “It’s the idea that brand loyalties are still in a formation stage when people are in their 20s and that older consumers are less likely to switch brands,” says Chuck Hurst, director of research for Age Wave Impact, an Emeryville, CA-based integrated marketing firm focusing on the mature market. But there’s little, if any, empirical evidence to back that up, Hurst says.

Others suggest that marketers just haven’t kept up with demographic trends and remain in the habit of focusing on 18-34 year olds. “They’re using the same old marketing models they’ve used in the past. It’s just cruising along at the same old speed,” says Migliaccio. In reality, those youth-oriented marketers are “looking at a shrinking marketplace,” he says. “You have to look at demographic numbers of people. The expanding marketplaces are in the middle-aged and aging arenas.”

“Most marketers are really missing the boat,” agrees Hayes. “More attention needs to be focused on the middle-aged consumer, because that’s where all the money is.”

Most demographers define baby boomers as the roughly 80 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. That means the oldest boomers are celebrating their 56th birthdays this year, and the youngest are turning 38. That cohort represents 30% of the total U.S. population. The 22- to 36-year-old cohort, on the other hand, which so many marketers are trying to reach, totals 53.2 million and represents 20.5% of the total population.

When you add the boomers to the 23.4 million adults who are 57-66 years old, you’re looking at nearly 40% of the population. Add the 32 million seniors to the total, and it’s safe to say that most consumers are over age 40. It’s a phenomenon that Wolfe calls “the new customer majority.”

Besides its size, the middle-aged market is significant because it is wealthy, notes Bruce Warr, senior consultant at market research firm FIND/SVP in New York. In 2000, boomers had the highest median household income of any age segment: $53,240 for those born in 1956 or later, and $58,218 for those boomers born before 1956.

The oldest boomers’ median income was more than $13,000 greater than the average $44,992 in household income for those born between 1936 and 1945 and nearly $14,000 greater than the $44,473 in median income for the 20- and 30-somethings born between 1965 and 1975, placing them right after the boomers, Warr says. Moreover, in 2000 about 8.7 million boomer households had incomes of more than $100,000, Warr says.

“These are basically the people who started two-income households,” says Bruce Weyne, catalog manager at Hot Cotton, Los Angeles-based manufacturer/marketer of comfortable clothing for women ages 40 and older. “They are people who find that time is precious and scarce. Mail order is a terrific benefit to them.”

In fact, research from New York-based DoubleClick’s spring @plan report indicates that the baby boomer is the catalog shopper. DoubleClick’s spring 2002 analysis of 42 million households that purchased from a catalog during a 12-month period shows that fully half are headed by baby boomers.

The median catalog shopper is 46-55 years old with a household income of $50,000-$75,000. “Best buyers,” those who made seven or more catalog purchases during the year, are baby boomers with slightly higher incomes. They tend to be professionals and are more likely to have computers and luxury cars. About 20% of DoubleClick’s overall group of catalog shoppers have children at home.

Not getting older, getting better

So there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that catalogers would be wise to target middle-age consumers. Yet a number of mass-market marketers, such as L.L. Bean and Talbots, prefer to target to lifestyle cohorts, not age groups.

“We see ourselves as offering clothing for a classic lifestyle,” says Margery Myers, spokesperson for Hingham, MA-based cataloger/retailer Talbots. The Talbots customer, she says, “can be 18 or 80.”

While Myers acknowledges that Talbots’ core customers are baby boomers, she says the catalog has not changed to appeal to them as they age, nor does it plan to shift its focus as its core customers get older. It tends to choose models, for example, “with an ageless quality so that you can’t quite tell how old they are.”

At Nashua, NH-based cataloger/retailer Brookstone, the largest segment of customers are in their late 40s. Yet spokesperson Gus Pena says, “They don’t think of themselves as getting older. They don’t think of themselves as needing special care because of their aging process.” The catalog has shifted focus since its start in 1965 as a provider of hard-to-find tools to become a marketer of items that “will make our customers lives easier, better, more fun, or more comfortable,” Pena says. “The age of our customer is not a primary consideration. We are a large-scale marketer that’s out to get a wide swath of the shopping public.”

But others counter that by trying to appeal to all ages, companies can end up neglecting their older and best customers. “It’s astonishing to me,” says Connie Hallquist, founder/CEO of Charlottesville, VA-based Gold Violin, a cataloger of stylish gifts for older adults. “The demographics are so overwhelmingly in favor of [the baby boomers and older buyers]. From a business standpoint, marketing to older people is where it’s going to be.”

Hallquist, herself a boomer, came up the idea for her catalog nine years ago when she couldn’t find a suitable gift for her 83-year-old grandmother. She eventually bought a plain wooden cane and spruced it up by painting a colorful design on it. Her grandmother loved it, and Hallquist figured other older adults would too. Boomers buying for their parents or grandparents make up about 40% of Gold Violin’s customers, with seniors accounting for the rest.

Gold Violin’s mission, of course, is based on serving older customers. But a growing number of seemingly unlikely niche catalogers are zeroing in on middle-age consumers. Playboy, a company that many would associate with youth, is one such marketer. The catalog division of the men’s publishing company has realized that middle-aged men are among its best customers.

“With the spring 2002 catalog, we did make a conscious effort to target our magazine subscribers, who tend to be in the baby-boomer and aging baby-boomer crowd,” says Randy Nicolau, senior vice president of marketing and commerce at New York-based The change came after analysis showed that the company’s catalog customers differed from its online shoppers.

Playboy had changed its catalog format in 1999 to make it more compatible with its site, which attracts younger customers, 40% of whom are female. The redesign of the print catalog, however, did not attract younger or female customers. So the company hopes by to pick up more magazine customers by aiming at an older, more male audience.

The company redesigned the catalog to look less like a J. Crew catalog and more like Playboy magazine, Nicolau says. It has cut the number of pages devoted to clothing, which is more popular with younger customers than with older ones, while boosting space devoted to intimate apparel and collectibles. also plans to increase catalog circulation from about 4 million to 5.5 million.

Like, outdoor gear cataloger/retailer Cabela’s has modified its merchandise mix to cater to middle-age consumers. “The baby boomers grew up with us,” says spokesperson Joe Arterburn, noting that as boomers have become more knowledgeable about sports over the years, they’ve grown interested in more-sophisticated gear, plus books and educational videos “so that they can get more out of the trips they go on.”

Sidney, NE-based Cabela’s has expanded its line of home furnishings for cabins and vacation homes and added more comfortable clothing, including Polartec garments and larger sizes. “We’ve expanded our size range to include more Xs and double-Xs,” Arterburn says. He also notes that the catalog’s models “have aged out of the 20s, reflecting the market and reflecting reality.”

It’s not just men who appreciate larger sizing as they get older. Hot Cotton also emphasizes more-generous sizing for its 40-plus audience. “Two things happen as people get older,” says catalog manager Weyne. “They tend to get a little heavier, and they tend to look for comfort rather than being an eye idol.”

Besides selling comfy clothes, the Hot Cotton catalog is easy to look peruse, with slightly larger type and no more than four items on a spread. “We try not to crowd up the pages,” Weyne says.

In addition, its models are slightly more mature than the typical cover girl. “I tend to use models who are almost at the end of their modeling careers,” Weyne notes. “They are mature models, though you wouldn’t say they look old. They look like 35-year-old mothers, not 25-year-olds. I think more people can identify with them.”

Like Hot Cotton, catalog giant Spiegel in Downers Grove, IL, recognizes that baby boomers want comfort as well as styling. Last fall, the company introduced 4U, a private brand of “relaxed dressing” for middle-aged women. “It’s all about comfort and versatility. It suits this target market beautifully,” says vice president of merchandise Karen Boros. “We know that women are getting larger over time as we all age. The kinds of silhouettes we’re offering help with those figure issues.”

But the line is also stylish, with up-to-date prints and textures. “We don’t want anything plain or boring. The baby boomer definitely wants fashion,” Boros says. “She doesn’t view herself as old.” And that, too, is a need catalogers must address.

Ann Meyer is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, IL.

Reaching the Boomer Market

With a firm grounding in target marketing, most catalogers may think they already have what it takes to reach the baby-boom market. But the proof is in the execution, experts say. Marketers often get 95% of the task right but ruin the whole thing with the fatal 5% that they miss, says John Migliaccio, president of Maturity Mark Services, a market consulting firm in White Plains, NY. “The difference in marketers who just get by and marketers who are successful are those who go the extra step and those who don’t. It’s not an easy process. You have to really understand the demographic and understand the differences within it.” To that end, we’ve culled the experts’ advice and come up with a list of dos and don’ts aimed at preventing you from making a fatal error.

Do recognize differences within the boomer market

The baby-boom generation spans 18 years, from 1946 to 1964. A boomer born a year after World War II ended will differ in attitudes from one born the year The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The so-called leading-edge boomers, those born between 1946 and 1950, are now in their 50s. Migliaccio says they may be much closer in orientation to a 58-year-old who isn’t a boomer than to a 38-year-old boomer. “That World War II G.I. generation is much more accepting of their aging,” says Christopher L. Hayes, codirector of the Center for Aging Research and Education in Southampton, NY. They are therefore less likely to be put off by older models or references to health issues.

Middle boomers, those in their mid- and late-40s, are considered the core of the boomer segment. They grew up with television and have embraced materialism with gusto. At their peak earning power, these boomers are strong candidates for furnishings for second homes.

Trailing-edge boomers, those in their late 30s and early 40s, faced a tough economic environment when they entered the work force in the first half of the ’80s and aren’t as wealthy as their older counterparts. “Various recessions have had an impact” on this segment, Migliaccio says, but they are “now in a consumption stage because they have kids.”

Trying to pigeonhole roughly 80 million consumers is bound to backfire. “As people get older, they get more and more different from each other,” because their life experiences have diverged so often, Migliaccio says. “You get a more fragmented audience, so you need to use more niche targeting.”

Don’t assume that what works for older adults works for boomers

Take everything you know about aging with a grain of salt. “Boomers have changed the rules for every single generation they’ve stepped into. Their needs are not their parents’ needs,” says Kurt Medina, president of Wallingford, PA-based Medina Associates, a direct response marketing consultancy specializing in the 50-plus market.

Just because boomers are getting older doesn’t mean they will look like or act like the 50-year-olds of a generation or two earlier. Boomers are trendsetters. They made jogging and fitness a phenomenon of the ’80s, and they created the concept of “soccer moms” in the ’90s. You can bet they have their own ideas about how to age actively and gracefully.

The generation gap between boomers and those older than them is particularly marked when it comes to convenience and technology, Migliaccio adds. For instance, baby boomers are much more likely to use the Internet for shopping than older adults are.

Do take life stages and transitions into account

The stage of life that customers are in can be more meaningful to marketers than their age. A 60-year-old with young children at home may have shopping habits more similar to the typical 45-year-old, while a 50-year-old who has taken early retirement may share interests with a 65-year-old, Migliaccio says.

Then there are life transitions, among them elder care and the empty-nest syndrome, that can have a huge impact on baby boomers’ needs and buying habits. During a change in life stage, consumers tend to be open to products and services they didn’t consider before. “They may be more receptive to a product at age 50 than at age 20 or 30, when their life focus was much more narrow,” says Chuck Hurst, director of research at Age Wave Impact, a marketing firm in Emeryville, CA.

Don’t label customers with words such as ‘aging’ or ‘retired.’

“Any product that uses the word ‘retirement’ to describe it is not going to be very well received by boomers,” Hayes says. The word conjures up images of rocking chairs — and no self-respecting boomer sees himself in one of those.

Even specialty catalog Gold Violin, which sells gifts for adults 65 and older, is careful with its terminology. “We choose not to use labels like ‘mature,’ ‘elderly,’ and ‘old,’” says CEO Connie Hallquist, who notes that 40% of the company’s customers are boomers buying for their parents or grandparents. “We try not to say ‘you.’ We try to keep it at a different level because eventually you want [the boomers] to be your customers one day.”

Do make your catalog appealing — and readable — to older eyes

Aging eyes need larger type, more contrast between type and pictures, and a clean layout. “And don’t put copy over illustrations,” Medina says. “Two-thirds of the time you can’t read it.” He recommends a clear font such as Helvetica or Arial and type that’s no smaller than 10 or 11 points. “If there’s even the slightest question about readability,” he insists, “make it larger.”

Do use appropriate models

“One thing catalogers should do and must do is have models represent who their customers are currently, not who they were 20 years ago,” Hurst says.

Conventional wisdom holds that people feel 10-15 years younger than they are and therefore identify with models who are 15 years younger than they are. But most 60-year-olds do not identify with a 45-year-old model, Migliaccio says. Rather, “people like to see themselves being able to do the things they did 15 years ago. So use an older model doing those things,” he suggests.

While older models have cropped up on catalog pages from Eddie Bauer, The Sharper Image, Banana Republic, Anthropologie, and Lifestyle Fascination, among others, it’s not a given even among catalog marketers that actively target middle-aged consumers. Spiegel, for example, tries to use models that don’t look any particular age. “It’s hard to pinpoint how old they are actually,” says vice president Karen Boros. “We use models who appeal to a broad range of people. They’re not very young and not very mature.”

Even As We Change, which sells wellness products for women ages 40-60 and is as up front as any marketer about aging issues, uses models who are at least 10 years younger than most of its customers. “We tend to pick models that are in their mid-30s,” says vice president Cathy Murphy. “We all want to look younger.”

Showing several generations together in a photo can be effective, but be careful not to portray an older man with a younger woman, Migliaccio says. For a cataloger trying to reach the aging boomer with an appropriate product, the older man/younger woman mistake is a perfect example of what he calls “the fatal 5%.”

The Sharper Images Comes of Age

On the face of it, The Sharper Image catalog may exude a youthful, trendy image. But underlying the company’s success is the aging of the prosperous baby-boom market. Consider that the company was founded by baby boomer Richard Thalheimer, who started with a single product, a runner’s watch that appealed to the boomer’s jogging craze of the late 1970s. He was 29 then. This year he turns 54, and today the catalog’s best-selling item is the Ionic Breeze Silent Air Purifier.

A lot has changed during the past 25 years. The baby boomers have aged, and catalogs such as The Sharper Image have blossomed far beyond many people’s expectations. The two trends are related. “Baby boomers have always been our core audience,” says Sharper Image president/chief operating officer Tracy Wan. “They are our best buying group.”

With a penchant for materialism, convenience, and style, the baby-boom segment has largely driven the growth of The Sharper Image and of the catalog industry as a whole. Sharper Image’s annual catalog sales rose 5% in 2001, to $101.3 million. In addition, Internet sales contributed $49.8 million to the marketer’s $392 million in total revenue. The company mailed 70 million catalogs last year.

As the boomers have started one fad after another, Sharper Image has been there to spot the trends and cater to boomers’ wants and needs. “We are relentless in finding products for them. We want them to look through our catalog and say, ‘Wow, I could really use this,’ or ‘Wow, this will be fun,’” Wan says.

Today, Sharper Image has less “hardcore guy gadget stuff” than it used to, Wan says. Instead it sells a wider range of products at all price points. The company’s customer file, which numbers 12 million, has many more women than it used to, and to cater to them the marketer offers more health- and spa-related products, such as a hair-removal system, conditioning hair dryers, and various massagers. The company has also been emphasizing the more profitable proprietary products, which now account for 70% of Sharper Image’s revenue base, Wan says.

Not surprisingly, most of the company’s new products appeal to some facet of the boomers’ lifestyle. For example, Wan, at 42 a baby boomer herself, knows that eyesight often changes with age: “I’m both nearsighted and farsighted. I want big digits. Many of our customers say they want big digits.” So the company now sells a large-digit alarm clock. It also offers folding mini reading glasses and an eyeglass cleaning-and-repair kit. “That’s what it means to follow demographics as they get older. These are things that change with their lives,” Wan says. Vitamin/pill organizers, blood-pressure monitors, and body-fat analyzers grace the pages of the catalog as well.

The company also recognizes that many of its customers now have children. So it offers products such as a one-second ear thermometer. Even the Razor scooters that brought in more than $70 million for Sharper Image in fiscal 2000 were sold primarily to boomers, Wan says. “Moms were dishing out their credit cards and buying them for their kids.”

As the company has broadened its merchandise mix and expanded to the Internet and television, it has picked up younger customers along the way, says Wan, noting that many products that appeal to boomers also appeal to other age groups. Perhaps most notable was a $99 CD player in the shape of a VW Beetle. The company sold out of them a week before Christmas. While the Beetle design was nostalgic for boomers, the design was fun enough to appeal to anyone. “That’s a gift you could give to a 10-year-old, a teenager, or a professional,” Wan says.

Will the company stick with baby boomers as they continue to grow older? “Our priority would be to continue to serve that group,” Wan says. After all, “they have all the money.”
— AM

Gearing Up for Grandparents

Because many boomers delayed childbirth into their 30s, they still have kids at home. The households of younger boomers had an average of 1.3 children under 18 at home in 2000, according to Census data, while older boomers had 0.6 children under 18 living at home.

At the same time, many boomers are already grandparents, says Amy Goyer, coordinator of AARP’s Grandparent Information Center. A 2002 survey by the association indicates that the average age of a first-time grandparent is 48.

The nation’s 70 million grandparents spend an average of $500 a year on their grandchildren, Goyer says, primarily buying gifts for birthdays and holidays. Specifically, 87% of grandparents surveyed had purchased clothing for their grandchildren, 80% books, 76% toys, 48% music, 45% videos/DVDs, 37% jewelry, 32% magazines, 31% video games, 28% electronics, and 28% software and computers.

“Grandparents are largely an untapped market. Marketers are just starting to wake up to the fact that grandparents have more education and disposable income and are really caring for their grandchildren,” says Goyer, who notes that 4.5 million children are living in homes headed by their grandparents.

Regardless of how active a role they take in raising their grandchildren, boomers who are grandparents are more than happy to be labeled as such, says Kurt Medina, president of consultancy Medina Associates. “Grandparenting is the one senior activity that is totally acceptable and can be called by name. People love being called grandparents,” he says. This should open a window for a spectrum of marketers, because grandparents buy 28% of all toys and 26% of all clothing for children under the age of 6, Medina says.