Late Boomers

The buying power of aging Americans presents enormous opportunity. Here’s how to go about attracting that Baby Boomer buck.

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At 76 million strong, Baby Boomers have shaped this country’s culture for decades. Born between 1946 and 1964, they have reinvented and redefined each stage of life they’ve passed through, from young adulthood to careers to parenting to retirement. This year the youngest of the Boomers turn 50, while many of the oldest have already left the workforce. But whether they’re working or retired, wealthy or on a fixed income, living alone or with other seniors, they have taken it upon themselves to stay active and young looking—and they spend plenty of money doing it.

According to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, boomers outspend other generations by roughly $400 billion a year, forking out for such recreational and lifestyle pursuits as traveling, gyms, spas and salons. “Men and women in their 50s and 60s see that there’s a healthier way to live, so they want to look better, they’re exercising, they’re more fit,” says Perry Miroballi, co-owner of Chicago’s Miroballi Shoes.

Not only do Boomers want to look young, they want to dress the part, says Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributers and Retailers of America. “These are active people; they don’t view themselves as old or out of step,” he says. Miroballi seconds this: “They see these images out there of actresses and actors they grew up with that are dressing really fashionable and looking really good, and they want to identify with that.”

Yet many boomers find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place—desperate to not look like their parents and reluctant to dress like their children. On the shoe side of things, their challenge is to find footwear that is age-appropriate, fashionable and comfortable. “They feel very young and they want their footwear to reflect that, but they also need comfort for their changing feet,” says Jillian Avey, marketing manager for Propét, whose new Rejuve line of biomechanically engineered sandals targets the 40-plus market. “That older consumer is very features and benefits driven. The shoe has to be comfortable, but it doesn’t have to look like a comfort shoe,” echoes David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock USA.

Despite the proven market size and the copious amount of research that shows boomers don’t shop, spend and dress like their predecessors, the segment is still largely ignored. Many marketers continue to focus attention on younger demographics, believing that’s where the growth lies. In fact, 95 percent of marketers’ ad budgets are spent on consumers under age 50, according to the senior marketing firm, Coming of Age. It seems that many businesses have yet to shed the outdated view that the mature market is made up of old fuddy-duddies set in their ways.

But let’s think about that for a minute: Why target a group that is drowning in student loan debt, having difficulty starting their careers in a tight job market or are working at entry-level positions and earning entry-level salaries? Why not, instead, go after a demographic that is looking to indulge themselves as opposed to having to raise a family? A demographic that refuses to grow old and has shown to be quite open to new products, brands and technologies. “They’ve moved on from putting their kids through college, from mortgage payments and all the other expenses that go through life before retirement,” Priest says. “And, just like anyone else, they want to buy shoes.”

Try these statistics on for size: In three years nearly half of the country’s adult population will be 50 and older and they will control a full 70 percent of disposable income, according to research firm Nielsen. The median age of an American head of household is now over 50, and households headed by seniors have more than 20 times the net worth of those headed by consumers aged 35 and younger. They are also the only age group in which inflation-adjusted income has increased since the 2008 recession began.

There are a few brands waking up to the Boomer market’s potential. Cole Haan, for example, marked its 85th anniversary with a series of campaign shots of people also born in 1928, including poet and author Dr. Maya Angelou and Apollo 13 astronaut Captain Jim Lovell. Elsewhere, a weathered looking Willie Nelson, 80, was the Fall/Winter 2013 face of John Varvatos’s ad campaign, while L’Oreal has recruited 53-year-old Julianne Moore to promote its hair care products. And Toyota, which designed its Venza model specifically for older Americans, featured Boomers with their Millennial-aged kids in its marketing campaign.

Boomers, it should be noted, want to be catered to at the age and mentality they see themselves, not what they actually are. That’s why it’s better to leave “age” out of it. “We don’t market specifically by age group. Our brand essence is feeling free, starting with your feet,” explains Evert Rotteveel, senior marketing manager at Ecco USA. “It’s about being comfortable and feeling good about yourself in the footwear you have on.” This approach is also being used by Clarks. Recently the brand switched up its designs and marketing to target consumers ages 30 to 44. But that’s okay as Senior Marketing Manager Carly Danforth reveals that focus groups show that its 55- to 64-year-old customer base is responding to the younger marketing vibe. “They realize they don’t need to be wearing a clog to have the comfort we deliver,” she adds.

Sperry Top-Sider has found that staying true to its heritage has been the most important strategy in appealing to the over-50 crowd. “Macro trends support the fact that consumers are finding comfort and connection in products and brands that evoke nostalgia,” says Karen Pitts, vice president of marketing, adding that the 50-and-over segment is drawn to the brand’s classic styles, like the Authentic Original boat shoe. Birkenstock is also staying true to its roots, despite its recent renaissance on the runway. “We don’t push this whole youth thing. It’s nice that the more trendy people are now picking up on Birkenstock but we’re never going to do anything that will alienate our core customer,” Kahan assures. “They’ve been around long enough to not accept anything less than a comfortable shoe on their foot.”

Indeed, products and services adapted to older customers often benefit everybody, and retailers are cottoning on, too. “We try to be current for that 29 to 54 age group, which really makes our store acceptable for anybody aged 18 to 80,” says Gary Weiner, president and CEO of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, VA, adding that heels are not as powerful as they were 20 years ago. “The world is gravitating towards the comfort market, whether it’s a flat or a comfort pump. That really plays right into the mature market, which demands comfort.” He cites Clarks, Ecco, Pikolinos, Munro, Stuart Weitzman, Mephisto and Beautifeel as Saxon’s bestselling brands, and notes that it sells as many of Dansko’s comfort clogs to 20-year-old nurses as it does to the 50-and-over age group. Another demographic attribute of Boomers that should be attractive to the footwear industry is it’s a generation raised on technology as a solution to their problems. The latest innovations—be it smartphones, tablets, flat screen TVs, wearable technologies—all send a similar message: upgrade to enhance your overall well-being. “Boomers are the generation that created product development in all areas of their life. They really demand innovation in all their products and they want style in everything,” Avey says. “They’re looking for footwear that’s flexible for a lot of different wearing occasions—styles that can take them from work to play.” Miroballi agrees: “They don’t want to look older, they want to look fashionable, but they don’t want to give up comfort. That is essential.”

While Boomers may have more disposable income, expectations run high when they invest their money. “The good news is for those who deliver, the over-50 segment is extremely loyal to both brands and individual products that consistently meet their needs,” Pitts says.

Along those lines, Boomers expect to be treated with respect. And doing so increases their loyalty, especially since many brands and retailers ignore them. “The over-50 consumer needs comfort, they understand quality and they like and appreciate good service when making purchases at retail,” Kahan says. “But they need to be treated with respect, because many are now very tech savvy and many are very fashion aware.”

Weiner says the in-store experience is really what makes the difference for customers over 50. “If you take good care of them and have the shoes in stock, they tend to stay with you because they’re happy when they find things they like,” he says. Avey says that having a knowledgeable sales staff is vital. “Boomers often have already done their homework online before they come into the store so they want to know the difference between the style they’re looking at and other shoes,” she says. “They rely on staff to inform them on their purchases.” Rotteveel echoes this sentiment: “The whole notion of comfort in its widest explanation within a store is important, as is exceeding the consumer’s expectations.” Weiner adds that if you can build a personal relationship with your customers, you can recognize their situation and connect them to a shoe that works for them. “Carry the brands that you’re able to do that with,” he advises. “And send them thank you notes afterwards—they love that.” Indeed, how you communicate with Boomers is key. And don’t underestimate their social media skills. Boomers represent one-third of all social media users, while another third of them shop online, spending almost $7 billion annually. They influence and are influenced by what their social network is saying about a specific brand or product as much as any Millennial. In fact, the over-55s are the fastest growing demographic on Twitter—active usage has grown 79 percent since 2012. So tweet that! “People love to share, particularly in their own age group, and now that those over 50 are just as much on social media as the younger generation, they have more of an ability to share,” stresses Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the retail tracking firm, NPD Group. “You need to multi-tier your marketing.” Sperry Top-Sider, for instance, communicates to all ages using multiple marketing platforms—from print, digital and social media to experiential and in-store events—because, as Pitts notes, “It is less about age and more about the lifestyle that we are celebrating.”

Brands and retailers need to convert sales and the simple fact is Boomers represent huge potential. “The 50-plus demographic is one of the most consistent growth markets in footwear, has been and will continue to be,” Cohen claims. “Ignoring them is giving away a big part of your business and a chunk of market share.” If you adopt the right approach they will open their minds and, more importantly, their wallets.

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