Marketing to an Older Demographic

By Diane Petit

Conventional marketing wisdom has always stressed the importance of targeting young people who are in their formative years for establishing buying habits, and brand and retailer loyalty. Marketers have put much energy into adopting new technologies and embracing new media, designing packaging and advertising, and crafting messages that will appeal to this demographic.

Young families are an important customer base for farm marketers because they're looking for fun activities and wholesome foods for their kids, so farmers go to a lot of effort to make their operations and their products family-friendly.

However, as author Paco Underhill points out in "Why We Buy," his best-selling book about the science of shopping, with Baby Boomers aging, there a growing proportion of shoppers in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Not only are there more of them, they are also more active and expected to live longer than their parents. He says these new older consumers are much less conservative in their buying habits than their parents were at the same age.

Nonetheless, Underhill points out that older consumers cannot escape the physical challenges of aging altogether. For that reason, smart marketers should consider the needs of older customers when designing advertising and marketing materials and in merchandising, packaging and store layout.

For example, using small type in print advertising may mean that older customers might not be able to read your marketing messages and other important information like hours and directions. Even if they get help reading from glasses, a magnifier or someone with younger eyes, you risk annoying seniors and they'll go someplace else.

Considerations on the farm might include making sure walking surfaces are relatively smooth or providing handrails next to even small steps or slopes.

A while back, I heard about a Massachusetts orchard that had created a handicapped-accessible section of their pick-your-own apple orchard by planting dwarf trees and installing a hard-packed, flat gravel surface in the walkways between the rows. The section was also the closest part of the orchard to the parking lot and farmstand. Such accommodation is not only helpful to people who use wheelchairs, but would also benefit elderly patrons.

When creating product displays in the farmstand, consider seniors who may find it difficult to stoop for low items or reach for high items. If they can't pick it up or reach it, they may not buy it.

Shopping baskets are helpful to all customers, but hand baskets might be difficult for older hands to hold, especially when weighed down with heavy items, so offer pushcarts as well.

Speaking of heavy items, while economy-minded shoppers may prefer buying in bulk, older shoppers surely would appreciate smaller-sized bags and boxes that are easier to load in the car and carry into the house when they get home. Smaller quantities would also appeal to seniors who live alone and don't need large amounts of perishable products.

Older hands can also have trouble opening certain kinds of packaging, like some plastic containers or bottles with twist-off lids. If it's not possible to offer an easier alternative product or package, why not sell a tool to open the package right alongside it. If it's a product that the customer will consume on-site, offer to open it for them.

Another important aspect of marketing to older consumers is training staff to be helpful to customers who may need assistance transporting their purchases to their vehicle or to speak clearly and slightly louder if a customer appears to be hearing impaired. Such assistance, however, should be offered in a friendly, helpful way that doesn't insult the customer.

There's also the question of what products will appeal to the more seasoned members of your customer base. If you can believe Underhill, boomers are much more adventurous than previous generations, so don't assume that they'll only want to buy traditional varieties or conventionally grown products.

We all enjoy a certain amount of nostalgia for products from our younger years, but remember that boomers grew up in the '50s, '60s and even '70s, so "traditional" and "conventional" are not necessarily in their shopping lexicon.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.