retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The New York Times had a story over the weekend about the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they’ve created something called the Age Gain Now Empathy System - called “Agnes” for short - which is a kind of “age empathy” suit designed to “help product designers and marketers better understand older adults and create innovative products for them. Many industries have traditionally shied away from openly marketing to people 65 and older, viewing them as an unfashionable demographic group that might doom their product with young and hip spenders. But now that Americans are living longer and more actively, a number of companies are recognizing the staying power of the mature market.”

According to the story, Agnes “is calibrated to simulate the dexterity, mobility, strength and balance of a 74-year-old.” A user describes the experience of wearing it this way:

“A helmet, attached by cords to a pelvic harness, cramps my neck and spine. Yellow-paned goggles muddy my vision. Plastic bands, running from the harness to each arm, clip my wingspan. Compression knee bands discourage bending. Plastic shoes, with uneven Styrofoam pads for soles, throw off my center of gravity. Layers of surgical gloves make me all thumbs.”

Marketers don’t need Agnes, however, to show empathy for an important consumer market. The question that retailers and suppliers need to ask themselves is whether they are engaged in an ongoing - and culturally organic - effort to understand how their customers are changing, and what adjustments need to be made in order to adequately serve them.

There’s a good reason. As the Wall Street Journal notes in a separate story, “The 76 million boomers already account for an estimated half of total U.S. consumer spending. With longer life expectancy and lower savings rates than previous seniors, they are projected to spend an additional $50 billion over the next decade, according to market-research firm SymphonyIRI. Rather than passing on their wealth to future generations, they're expected to splurge mostly on themselves as they move households and pursue active lifestyles.”

There is however, something that marketers need to keep in mind as they engage in this process ... and it is something that is noted both in the Times story and a separate story in the Wall Street Journal:

• “Often, visitors learn hard truths at AgeLab: many older adults don’t like products, like big-button phones, that telegraph agedness. ‘The reality is such that you can’t build an old man’s product, because a young man won’t buy it and an old man won’t buy it,’ Professor Coughlin says.

“The idea is to help companies design and sell age-friendly products — with customizable font size, say, or sound speed — much the way they did with environmentally friendly products. That means offering enticing features and packaging to appeal to a certain demographic without alienating other consumer groups. Baked potato chips are just one example of products that appeal to everybody but skew toward older people. Toothpastes that promise whitening or gum health are another.” - New York Times

• “Baby boomers, famously demanding and rebellious, don't want anyone suggesting they're old. Surreptitiously, companies are making typefaces larger, lowering store shelves to make them more accessible and avoiding yellows and blues in packaging - two colors that don't appear as sharply distinct to older eyes.” - Wall Street Journal

In other words, cater to aging baby boomers ... but do it without being obvious.

And that’s our Monday Eye-Opener.
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