Is 50% of your marketing spend to the over-50s wasted? Older consumers and retail

Last week, I was asked to take part in a discussion on ‘You and Yours’ – the excellent BBC Radio Four consumer programme. The subject, raised by a listener, was this: do retailers ignore older consumers? In this article, I explore some of the issues around this subject.

The listener – Sue Flint – felt that as a 63 year old woman, she was ignored by sales staff in the cosmetics departments of Debenhams and other stores. She felt invisible, she said, and believed that sales staff believed that their products and brands were only for younger women.

Certainly, Sue’s experience is shared by many others. For example, the Older Women in Beauty 2015 Report, produced by IM Associates, found that a third of respondents aged 45+ agree that young sales assistants don’t understand their needs and a third believe there aren’t enough sales assistants their age. In fact, fewer than half of women over 45 say they enjoy going to the shops to buy beauty products, and when they do, they prefer to browse on their own {64%} rather than interact with a sales assistant {30%}, says the report. There is more research that tells us much the same thing.

Why this obsession with youth?
The response from Debenhams to the BBC was that they probably needed to look at their staff training. After all, women over 50 account for around 50% of cosmetics sales and many cosmetic products are formulated and produced with their needs in mind. So why ignore them?

However, while it is easy to blame frontline sales staff, the problem may run deeper. For example, the Chairman of Debenhams was recently quoted (22nd June, The Motley Fool) as saying that they would now be targeting customers ‘much younger than the Marks & Spencer customer’. This suggests that strategy from the top downwards is to focus on the young: after all, they spend money and are the future, right?

Right? Well, only up to a point. Population ageing means that the older part of the population will continue to grow. The over-50s already account for 35% of the population, more than 40% of consumer expenditure and 75% of the wealth. And over the next 20 years, the number of people aged over 65 will almost double – to become 30% of the total. So the future is more older people, many of whom are active and experienced consumers. It is they who will drive growth in Europe, according to a recent McKinsey report – not the over-hyped millennial generation.

So there seems to be a strategy failure, from the top down – either the strategy is incorrect or execution is poor. The demise of BHS over the past few years was blamed in part on the retailer’s failure to address the needs of the increasingly fashionable older consumer. Much more pleasant to hang out with supermodels.

What does this mean for older consumers?
There are two main implications of this strategy failure. First, the psychological reaction of the ‘younger old’ (say, aged 50-74) who feel that marketing just doesn’t understand them. Being over 50 now is not a big deal, yet marketing continues to exclude this group, with incorrect assumptions and stereotypes, or an excessive focus on youth with its concomitant exclusion strategies. You know you’re not wanted when a retailer has an in-house radio station playing non-stop low quality pop music (the sort that less intelligent teenagers, or Simon Cowell, might listen to) at high volume, for example. Like Debenhams, say.

The second implication is the inevitability of physical ageing for the ‘older old’. Age is culturally unattractive in the UK and most older people know this – why would a brand or young salesperson want to be associated with us? More importantly perhaps, the whole shopping experience is more difficult – access and stairs, loud music (see above), lack of seating and toilets. Research tells us that there is much more that retailers could do to improve the experience for the ‘older old’.

50% of my advertising to the over-50s is wasted. Possibly
Let’s remind ourselves that this piece started with the cosmetics and beauty market – an industry notoriously obsessed with youth and beauty as being synonymous. But even this industry has been making efforts of late, albeit rather obvious ones using glamorous celebrities in their advertising. ‘Washed out? Sometimes. Washed-up? Never’ says Helen Mirren in recent L’Oreal commercials.

Perhaps if a more structured approach to this issue were to be taken, beyond the broad brush demographic of ‘all women aged over 50’ and looking at different markets, the findings might be more helpful. Respondents to Age UK research have typically found that the majority of older consumers feel that businesses have little interest in them. However, our own research amongst wealthy 50-64 year olds found that just 20% felt that business did not understand them, while 66% believed that business treated them as they wished to be treated. Attitudes towards business, and indeed the attitudes and behaviour of business, are as likely to be influenced by social class, wealth and other factors, as by age. And of course, none of this data means much unless it is compared with consumers of all ages.

Certainly, it seems as though without greater insight, advertising and marketing spend will continue to be wasted. To mangle an old saying, perhaps it is the case that ‘50% of my advertising to the over-50s is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.’

Mark Beasley

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