Never Mind, ‘OK Boomer.’ Older Adults Have Become An Economic Force Of Epic Proportion

One of the perks of an empty-nest status is more time for shopping. Of course, we have more time for just about everything, but shopping stands out for me because, for example, I no longer speed-walk while plucking items from grocery aisles. I practically luxuriate in the ability to comparison-shop. Perhaps most exciting, I can put myself back at the top of my shopping list.

That’s especially exciting these days, as retailers gear up to change the shopping experience – both in physical stores and online – as never before. New technologies and the changing expectations of consumers will lead to tremendous improvements in the coming years, which is perfect timing for those of us in the middle-age-and-up group.

Our bodies are changing, like it or not, and that means we are probably getting to know a whole new world of retail health, where we seek out products and services that can help us stay active.

For example, as I type this I am sitting on an exercise ball rather than an office chair. I am wearing a spandex T-shirt with bias-cut mesh panels that help keep my shoulders back, and in a couple of hours I will use the ball, an exercise band and a roller to do a series of stretches. Why? Because posture and flexibility are important when it comes to managing the lower back pain that commonly begins at middle age (called degenerative disc disease, though that makes it sound worse than it is). Over the years, I’ve found that these items (and the occasional anti-inflammatory) help keep the aches and pains at bay.

I freely admit I represent the “low-tech” consumer. When you add all the “smart” devices that are coming and already here (such as wristbands that track activity, heart rate, sleep quality, etc.), the selection of possible items seems limitless. Here are three key things to know about what’s coming, drawing on insights from several retail experts.

We have the power

Post-war baby boomers (currently aged from about 50 to the early 70s) have consistently influenced all sectors of society not just because of their numbers, but also their attitudes. “This is the generation that breaks paradigms, and we fully expect it to completely redefine the aging segment,” says Vince Guzzi, managing partner at the retail consulting firm of Watt International.

Boomers are generally well educated, assertive and astute. “Their approach to life can be described by the motto carpe diem, or ‘seize the day.’ When it comes to health they are very actively involved, and less reliant on medical practitioners than the previous generation,” says Guzzi.

While younger age groups may share these traits, the point is that boomers lead the way. And this particular stage of life, with its empty nests and retirement plans, is special, adds Guzzi. “They will enter this stage with the same vigour and force as always, but over time real physical limitations come into play. This is a transitional stage, marked by a lot of self-reflection.”

“Boomers really desire to make this next chapter of their life as rewarding as previous stages, even renewing, rather than seeing it as the last chapter of their life,” concludes Guzzi.

Boomers are reshaping eCommerce with a demand for products and services that will help them age dynamically.

Technology and the personal touch

Side by side with the unique demographic of baby boomers, technology will also transform our shopping experiences in the next five to 10 years. First, online shopping will catch on: currently only about seven percent of total retail sales in Canada are online. Retailers here have been relatively slow to invest in eCommerce, but competition from south of the border, namely from Amazon, is helping spur them on.

“We will definitely see better offerings in eCommerce. Online shopping will be more user-friendly, quicker and with easier returns,” predicts Catherine Saul, an independent retail strategy consultant.

Second, data capture will be more sophisticated and put to new uses, drawing information from smartphones, online activity, social media and smart devices (such as fridges that keep track of what’s inside). That means retailers will do a better job recommending items based on your history and stated needs—with customized, discounted pricing when you’re browsing online or in a physical store. Those recommendations could include services or expert advice, possibly in physical settings, where you can sample items or receive personal assessments and action plans based on your needs.

Finally, especially when it comes to retail health, you’ll see more integration and blurring of the lines between types of retailers. “The merger of Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart is an example of that, and you may see both sides offer more products and services that make the connection between nutrition and health and wellness,” says Saul.

Shoppers Drug Mart also recently launched Wellwise, a new retail experience targeting baby boomers who are looking for active living products or need medical devices. Registered dieticians, sleep therapy consultants and other experts are on hand to give personal advice. Shoppers can also join community-based programs such as a Nordic walking club. Its slogan says it all: “Age powerfully.” Scott Wilks, vice-president of Shoppers Home Health Care and Wellwise by Shoppers Drug Mart, explains: “Consumers are telling us they no longer just want to age ‘comfortably.’ They want to age powerfully and with more control.”

More neat stuff

Big-box electronic stores present a different example of the blurring of lines. Their digital health items – such as smart scales and blood-pressure monitors – are increasingly in demand thanks in part to the aging population. Could this be setting the stage for creative new partnerships with other retailers or service providers down the road?

“We will see these more as lifestyle products that are brought into the mainstream, whether it’s products for diet and fitness, adult incontinence or cosmetics for cancer survivors,” says David Saffer, independent retail consultant.

The mainstreaming of such items brings us back to the powerful influence of baby boomers as a consumer group. Conditions such as incontinence, varicose veins and arthritic knees will no longer be considered taboo topics of conversation. They may be signs of increasing age, but none are signs of weakness. And the sooner we learn how to live with them, the better we can get on with life.