By Andrea Lillo
“The forgotten tribe”—what one retailer calls senior citizens underserved by the retail and merchandising industries—is starting to be remembered.
Seeing the desire for fashion along with function doesn’t decrease with age, a number of retail operations have joined the market to sell housewares and home products specifically targeted at senior citizens.
In contrast to medical supply shops and other existing stores for this market, these newer retailers look to present their wares in an inviting environment to serve this burgeoning market.
“They are a forgotten tribe,” said Patrick Conboy, a former J.C. Penney executive who founded Elderluxe in 2005. This country has major retailers for everything, even bass fishermen, Conboy added, “but nothing for the greatest generation out there.”
Conboy founded Elderluxe to meet the needs of senior citizens who wanted stylish products to match their stylish home decors.
Medical supply stores, he said, with their dusty shelves and products, “are as far from a retail concept as you can get.” Products “are treated like commodities.”
Conboy wanted his site to be different. On Elderluxe.com’s Home Accessories section, for example, a Five*Star Kitchen tab leads to such product categories as Ergonomic Tools & Cutlery, Oxo Luxury Shoppe and Smart Kitchen Aids.
Elderluxe even has a 2,500-square-foot-space Conboy called a “design gallery” for products in Chicago. “I wanted to provide an alternative for all incomes,” he said.
Another online retailer going after the senior customer is SeniorS SuperStoreS. When it was founded in 1999 (the Web site was launched a year later) Paul Smith said he “could count his competitors on one hand.”
Smith said that a national retailer once came to him to discuss incorporating a senior section into its stores, but that went nowhere. “Seniors are the fastest growing part of the population,” he said.
In general these retailers say their audiences fall into two groups: 75 years of age and over, and Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomers may search these retailers’ sites and catalogs to buy items for their parents, “but then they find things for themselves, too,” said Kara Carter, director of merchandising for Gold Violin, another retailer that targets senior citizens.
Seniors 65 years and older use the Internet to research product information, but like to call to make the transaction, Conboy said. “They like speaking to a voice.”
The kitchen is a strong opportunity for product development, as seniors “want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible” and participate in typical at-home activities such as cooking, Carter said.
Gold Violin was founded by Connie Hallquist nine years ago after she couldn’t find a fashionable cane for her grandmother and saw the need to target this market, a similar story echoed by the other retailers as well.
Besides its Web site, where it does a fifth of its business, Carter said, Gold Violin mails out 14 catalogs a year to a circulation of 11 million. Ninety percent of the kitchen products for this market target people with arthritis, Carter said. “Their hands are not as strong anymore,” she said.
And because this group is looking for things to make cooking easier, microwave products has been one area that has taken off in the past year, she said, adding that kitchen products hitting price points under $20 do very well in this category.
Kitchen products are one of the strongest performers for SeniorS SuperStoreS as well, Smith said, because they “help [seniors] live more independently.” Two of his best sellers include a finger protector to wear when using a knife and a Rocking T knife.
The kitchen category for Elderluxe includes an exclusive cookware line from the United Kingdom called Arc42, which features 42-degree handles to reduce wrist and arm strain and allow for safer pouring of hot liquids. And small electrics from Viking, while “not made for seniors per se,” are ideal because of their automatic shut off and one-dial control, Conboy said. For people retrofitting their kitchens to incorporate aging-in-place features, these are issues to think about.
Across the housewares category overall, “large visual anything is good,” such as clocks and phones with big numbers, Conboy said—“as long as it’s not condescending.” Grownup night-lights and pathway markers are another hit, as they help prevent falling at night, he said, as are air purifiers and UV sanitizers.
Understanding health issues also helps provide seniors with the right products. Smith said that it’s been found that people with Alzheimer’s won’t eat as much food if they are eating off of a white plate, so his Web site offers red ones. “Bright colors help them eat,” he said. And if Oxo salad spinners seem out of place among his support hosiery items—his biggest category—that’s intentional, as they speed the drying process for hosiery, he said.
Packaging is another issue that needs to be addressed when marketing to this group. Both Conboy and Smith mentioned how seniors find opening plastic clamshells difficult.
Retailers had wish lists of what they would love to find in products as well. For Conboy, it’s a fashionable, not institutional looking, step stool.
On the hunt for new products, these retailers mentioned attending the International Home & Housewares Show, gift shows and MedTrade, the trade show for home medical equipment that will be in Atlanta next month. In addition, Conboy said he also goes to the Las Vegas and High Point markets, for both product and trends. Carter plans to attend REHACARE International in Düsseldorf, Germany, next month, too.
But overall, the majority of manufacturers are not addressing this market, and still do such things as putting tiny numbers on measuring cups, said Carter. “We need more universal designs,” she said. “I think to myself, when is someone really going to get it?”