Why retailers are bracing for the 'Silver Tsunami' and embracing senior shoppers

Some hindrances to shopping for elderly, according to Phil and Karin Damiani, include item placement, either being too high for seniors to reach, or too low to the ground,.

With the “Silver Tsunami” coming, retailers are preparing for the tidal wave of  78 million baby boomers turning 65 and beyond over the next 12 years.

With their purchasing power, senior shoppers present an opportunity and challenge for retailers. Big names such as Kohl’s, Best Buy and Boscov’s already count the 60-and–over crowd as a key customer base, and are doing even more to accommodate those shoppers.

“This demographic should be important to retailers, as there is a gap between the scale of the senior consumer population’s purchasing power and the current offerings in the retail sector that are more geared toward younger shoppers,” said Deborah L. Weinswig, managing director at Fung Global Retail & Technology in New York.

She said seniors were 14.8 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly 48 million people, in 2015, and are projected to grow to 20.7 percent by 2020. Likewise, spending by seniors continues to grow faster than total consumer spending.

Among her recommendations for retailers:

  • Lower shelves to make reaching items easier.
  • Better product placement, like not having some items too high or too low on racks.
  • Buttons to push if a senior needs help.
  • Wider aisles for those with a cane or wheelchair.
  • Bigger store signage.
Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN
Karin Damiani, 64, often shops at Boscov’s and noted how recent renovations in Promenade at Granite Run Mall included larger signage.

Kohl’s offers a 15 percent discount every Wednesday in stores only for customers 60 and over.

Best Buy recently launched a pilot program, called “Assured Living” in Denver and Minneapolis, as a sensor-based notification service connecting caregivers with loved ones through smart home technology. Based on input, Best Buy customizes a system and its Geek Squad installs the technology in the parent’s home and offers training to use it. It can cost $389 plus a $29.99-a-month fee.

“Best Buy is constantly looking for new products and services that address [seniors’] desire to maintain an independent lifestyle, stay connected with friends and family, or feel safe at home or online,” company spokesman Kevin Flanagan said.

Senior households spent $1.43 billion last year – up 6.7 percent from $1.34 billion in 2015, according to National Consumer Expenditure Surveys. The mean family wealth and before-tax real income of households headed by most people under 64 fell between 2001 and 2013, while households headed by seniors saw a rise.

Households of those aged 65 to 74 spend more on retail than the typical household, but households with those 75 and older spend less than average on retail.

Fung researcher Swarooprani Muralidhar said seniors bought twice as many household supplies, cleaning products, books and periodicals than clothing (142 percent vs. 62 percent of  their average household  total spending in 2016).

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN
Phil and Karin Damiani enjoy the renovations to the Granite Run Boscov’s upper floor, including wider aisles and larger signs.

Seniors Phil and Karin Damiani of Media are loyal Boscov’s customers. While Phil, 67, likes perusing the Boscov’s at the renamed Promenade at Granite Run Mall, Karin, 64, does nearly all her shopping online at Boscovs.com.

The couple made a rare excursion together at the Boscov’s store last week so Karin could check out new frames for glasses. They also looked at furniture and appliances.

Store manager Robin Holman showed the couple the price-check scanners under shelves when Karin was unsure how much a quilt cost.

Phil, a retired Delaware County Court executive director, or “restricted free agent,” as he jokingly described retirement, said he appreciates attentive service above all else.

“If I’m not sure where something else, it’s much more helpful if a person is able to take me by the hand and show me,” he said. “Anything [retailers] can do to be customer-friendly and help people determine if what they’re looking for is really what they want, is key to me.”

A part-time registered nurse, Karin said she likes being able to return online items to the closest Boscov’s. But the other reasons she’s gravitated toward online shopping have more to do with her stature and health.

Damiani said she used to be 5-foot-6, but was now 5-foot-4½ inches because of osteoporosis, which causes bones to become weak and brittle. She also injured her back in 2014 after a fall, forcing her to wear a back brace at night.

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN
Karin Damiani explores recliner chairs at Boscov’s that boost a person into a standing position when needed and have massage and heating features.

About half of Boscov’s clients are 60 and over, said CEO Jim Boscov.

“Over the years, our stores are accommodating to seniors – such as signage that’s legible, making sure that things are not too high on shelves, and we introduced carts for them,” he said. “If our associates see a customer carrying a heavy package, they’re trained to ask to help them, and to encourage them to take their package to customer pickup so they can  just drive around and we load it in their car for them.”

Six weeks ago, the retailer began rolling out a hearing aid division in six stores, including the store where the Damianis shop.