The boomer woman shopper: She can make your career

By Stephen Reily, info@vibrantnation.com

You have almost certainly read or heard a dozen news stories this year that begin something like this: “The first Baby Boomer is turning 65 in 2011 . . .” 

If you are a chain store executive, here is the most important point about that fact: You should forget it.

What kind of marketing approach to an entire generation of consumers ever focused on only its few oldest members? The youngest of Boomers is just turning 47 (18 years away from Medicare), and the average Boomer woman is only 54. That is the Boomer you should be thinking about.

If you are a retailer over the age of 30, the most important fact about Boomers is this: They can still make your career.

A big opportunity
Old stereotypes assumed that women over 50 begin winding down, shopping less, and caring less about fashion and new products. But today’s Boomer woman is not her grandmother.

Research shows that she is generating more shopping trips each year than younger households, and spending almost as many dollars on each trip.  The amount of dollars spent on shopping ultimately depends more on household income than age, and there are more Boomer households with higher income than any other.  Because there are almost 40 million Boomer women, there are more of them spending more money at retail than any other age-based demographic.

Challenges to overcome
That’s the reason most women over 50 are so frustrated with retailers.  They know they are good customers and don’t understand why sales associates treat them so badly. In a survey we conducted of Boomer women last year, only 15% of Boomer women defined salespeople as well-trained and helpful, and one out of three agreed with the statement that “sales associates don’t really understand why they should pay attention to anyone older than they are.”

In clothing, women are also frustrated because retailers show little effort to address their needs.  Women over 50 have a hard time finding clothes that fit, feel good, and reflect the styles they seek.  There are many exceptions, but a common, shared lament among Boomer women (whether they are tall and thin, petite, or plus-sized) is that no one seems to want to make clothes for them. 

Chain stores face a particular challenge with Boomer women.  Anecdotally, more of their stories of bad treatment relate to big chain stores than others – maybe because this sector faces the biggest challenges in building and retaining a well-trained sales force.

Department stores: An uphill challenge
In a cosmetics survey we conducted, Boomer women told us that more of them now buy beauty products online than in department stores.  And distaste for the retail experience has led women over 50 to abandon department stores and start buying clothes online as well – especially in categories like lingerie and swimsuits, where retail stores have not made her comfortable.  She is also buying sportswear and travel clothes online.  Ebay has built a successful business as a fashion outlet, and Zappo’s may be her favorite shoe department.

But it’s not too late to keep her shopping in bricks and mortar, too.  Some department stores have modeled how to keep the Boomer woman’s loyalty.  At the high end, Saks has always been a favorite among women 50+ and continues to offer the personalized service they seek.  Nordstrom has invested in this demographic well, in service as well as buying – its relationship with Not Your Daughter’s Jeans has signaled its affection for the midlife shopper.  At the mid-level, Penney’s and Kohl’s are meeting her needs too, with lines like Liz Claiborne and Gloria Vanderbilt (interestingly, both of whom were aspirational icons for the Boomer woman).

Specialty chains: She may feel abandoned
Over the last 20 years, specialty chains have often been the Boomer woman’s fallback: Chico’s and Eileen Fisher showed their affection for her, and in more recent years Talbots has understood her desire for tailored clothing.  But these and other chains have sent the Boomer woman mixed signals in recent years. 

Apparently scared that they will lose the upcoming generation of women shoppers, each of these chains – and others – has shifted its marketing message or fashion direction (or both) away from the Boomer woman and her needs.  These chains have begun featuring almost entirely younger women in their ads, and their clothes offerings have sometimes left older women in the cold.

For most women, turning 50 corresponds with her first experience of feeling invisible or ignored in the marketplace.  This is especially painful for the generation of women that created so many new professional and commercial opportunities for others.  And it has left them suspicious of whether retails really value them and their business.  In the case of specialty chains, this means that just because you’ve won her business, you can’t take her for granted.  Like any woman, she needs you to keep earning her business.

You can win her business
The good news is that you can win the Boomer woman’s business.  Here are some first steps to take:

In your communications and advertising, do something to recognize her and her value as a customer.  

Train your sales associates to appreciate the value and serve the needs of shoppers over 50.  This involves recognition, empathy, and support.

Build online and multi-channel offerings for her.  (Not surprisingly, the three department store chains mentioned above – Saks, Nordstrom and Penney – derive the highest percentage of their sales online).

And, finally, build an organization that recognizes the genuine opportunity to profit for at least another 15 years by serving this woman’s needs. 

Stephen Reily, founder and CEO VibrantNation.com. Contact Stephen at info@vibrantnation.com.

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