The first group of so-called baby boomers, Americans born after World War II, turns 65 this year. Within the next 10 years, the number of Americans over 65 is expected to jump almost 30 percent.
That has U.S. retailers pondering how to accommodate the millions of older shoppers who’ll be flooding through their doors in the coming decades.
What appeals to many shoppers - fully-stocked shelves with enticing displays, numerous aisles and gleaming floors - can have a different impact as we age. Take the floors, for example.
“Retailers love shiny floors," says retail anthropologist Georganne Bender. "But shiny floors are scary to somebody who’s not sure if it’s going to be, you know, slick footing for them.”
Then there’s getting down those long aisles to the products, which may be on shelves that are too high or too low. Half the population over 65 has some kind of arthritis. A lot of younger people have it too. Reaching and bending get harder.
The National Retail Federation says its members are working to make shopping easier. Bender notes changes at one drugstore chain.
“They’re re-setting their counters, not putting things too high or too low, they’re putting carpeting in the store.”
There also are magnifiers hanging from shelves so shoppers can read the fine print on packaging. But so far, Bender says, there’s more talk than action from most retailers.
New Yorkers Robert and Ronnie Rubin are retired teachers in their late sixties who run into problems while shopping, starting with the lack of automatic doors at many stores.
“You need to be, uh, Hercules to open the door,” says Robert Rubin.
Ronnie Rubin adds, "Robert and I have more than once gone over to assist someone in opening the door because they just couldn’t get it open. We’re fortunate we’re still healthy enough to be able to do these things.”
But there may come a time when the Rubins will benefit from a store designed with their needs in mind. Rosemary Bakker of Weill Cornell Medical College is an interior designer and gerontologist. She assesses a grocery store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that the New York City council has called age-friendly.
Bakker notices something age-unfriendly as soon as she walks in: the upbeat music blaring from the store’s public address system.
“This music is geared for a much younger audience, and I find it with this very low beat, very distracting," she says. "So I want to come in here and shop but there’s this drum beat going on and I feel like I’m in the wrong environment.”
Anyone with cognitive difficulties would find the visual stimuli of the displays, combined with the music, too much to handle, according to Bakker. A 79-year-old woman across the street confirms she avoids the market for that very reason.
But on other fronts, this store does well. It has wide aisles, good lighting and helpful staff. The signs are easy to read. Bakker turns to the utensils at the salad bar.
“They have nice size handles here for me to pick up, so I’m looking to make sure that I can easily grasp things if I might have a little arthritis in my hand.”
Her wish list includes carts with built-in seats so weary shoppers can take a rest. Some supermarkets in Europe already use those.
Retail anthropologist Georganne Bender says whatever help stores offer, they need to be subtle. Never make a customer feel old. That’s a mistake one supermarket made recently, when it started a loyalty program for shoppers over 55.
“And they called it a senior discount," says Bender. "Well, I’m 55 years old and there’s no way that I’m a senior and I’m the kind of person that, I don’t even want your discount if I have to have the senior citizen card.”
But if they think of another name, she might consider it.