When Brian Gordon and his partners started ebeanstalk.com, which sells children’s learning toys online, they expected most of business to come from younger consumers starting families. But a recent customer survey found that up to 40 percent were actually older, mainly grandparents.
“If you’d asked me if 4 out of 10 people would be grandparents, I’d have said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen,’ ” Mr. Gordon said.
Also surprising, Mr. Gordon says, is that despite the economy, sales are up about 65 percent so far this year compared with a year earlier. He attributed that largely to older consumers, who “are our most demanding customers” but are more willing than their younger counterparts are to pay full price.
The experience of ebeanstalk.com illustrates a growing trend as the recession grinds on: an increasing interest in marketing goods and services to consumers age 50 and older. Among those aiming more at the older demographic are giants like Chrysler, Kraft Foods, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Target.
The interest has also been a boon to media outlets that appeal to older viewers. CBS, home of “60 minutes” and the “CSI” franchise, is first in the network ratings, and while all magazines have had their advertising pages hammered, some titles for more mature readers, including AARP magazine and Family Circle, have suffered smaller downturns.
For decades, older consumers were largely shunned by marketers because they were deemed less wealthy, less likely to try new products and less willing to change brands. Campaigns directed at them were described dismissively as made for the “Geritol generation.” As much as older consumers were to be shunned, young consumers — ages 18 to 34, or 18 to 49 — were desired for what were deemed their free-spending ways, eagerness to sample new products and brand-switching proclivities. The idea that they were starting in life with a proverbial blank slate of marketing wants and needs was catnip to product peddlers.
“When you’re a 27-year-old media supervisor or a 32-year-old brand manager, what do you think the world looks like?” Jerry Shereshewsky, chief executive at Grandparents.com. “You think it looks like you.”
Those attitudes have been changing, for a couple of reasons. One is the recession, which makes older consumers who may have paid off mortgages seem a safer bet than younger ones who may get laid off in last-hired, first-fired downsizings.
“Especially in this economy, with marketers’ budgets under so much stress, they would prefer to spend dollars on today’s sales instead of thinking about establishing brand loyalty,” said Howard Shimmel, senior vice president for media product leadership at the Nielsen Company.
The other reason for the change is demographic. The estimated 78 million people born from 1946 to 1964 — who have long set the agenda for Madison Avenue because of their numbers — are aging. The first boomers are turning 63 this year, and the youngest are turning 45.
“It is a demographic that advertisers should be, and are, paying more attention to,” said Andy Donchin, director for media investments at Carat in New York, an agency of the Aegis Group that buys ad space and time for marketers like Adidas, Alberto-Culver and Pfizer.
Although “18 to 49 is going to remain the predominant buying demographic,” Mr. Donchin said, “this country is aging, and the boomers are an attractive demographic.”
That appeal is because of the size of the boomer market and because, as Mr. Donchin put it, “50 isn’t what it used to be.”
Older consumers today “are not as resistant to change” as older consumers previously may have been, Mr. Donchin said, summarizing their attitude as “Show me something better, and I’ll try it.”
And the boomers are even “comfortable with digital media,” he added.
All this has implications for media, digital or otherwise.
According to a study conducted by Mr. Shimmel of Nielsen and Jess D. Aguirre Jr., senior vice president for research at the Hallmark Channels unit of Hallmark Cards, boomer households account for unexpectedly high percentages of sales of products considered mainstays of younger consumers. That includes beer, 59.7 percent; carbonated beverages, 58.9 percent; and candy, 54.2 percent.
The boomers offer advertisers “an audience — and here’s your quotable quote — that has assets, not allowances,” said Henry Schleiff, president and chief executive at Hallmark Channels, composed of the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel cable TV networks.
“The recession has most conspicuously made advertisers far more focused on the return on their investment and more selective,” Mr. Schleiff said. “For those of us focused on the baby boomer, it’s a good time for us.”
Grandparents.com is planning to release on Monday the results of a study, “The Grandparent Economy,” which predicts that by next year, the highest median income will be among families led by men or women ages 55 to 64. By 2015, the study forecasts, 59 percent of American grandparents will be boomers.
“Someone once told me, ‘You can’t go broke chasing the boom,’ ” said Mr. Shereshewsky of Grandparents.com.
For instance, “grandparents spend about $400 million a year on diapers they inventory at home,” he added. “Not for themselves, for grandchildren who visit them.”
The “mythologies” about older consumers “are certainly out there,” Mr. Shereshewsky acknowledged, and “it’s very hard” to counter them.
“A young lady at a West Coast automotive marketer told me, ‘We never target the 50-year-old market because they don’t have many purchase cycles left to them,’ ” Mr. Shereshewsky said, laughing. “I said to her, ‘Excuse me, I’m not dead yet.’ ”Still, as boomers fill the ranks of older consumers, it may become unnecessary to refute the conventional wisdom. If they continue behaving as they did when they were the Pepsi Generation, beliefs about the upper age brackets may be rendered moot.
“I’m old enough to have experienced TV without remote controls, cable and commercial clutter,” said Mr. Donchin of Carat, “but my mindset and consumption patterns are very different from my parents’ at the same age.”
The changing of the guard among older consumers is even becoming part of the popular culture, he added, citing television shows about “cougars,” older woman who pursue younger men.
Indeed, the TV Land cable channel, which once specialized in vintage sitcoms like “I Love Lucy,” introduced a reality series last week called “The Cougar.”
Would anyone watch if it were called “The Boomer”?
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. April 19, 2009
Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.