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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Bright Old Things and the Silver Spend

Older consumers control a huge percentage of global spend. Can fashion retailers tap the opportunity?
Nick Wooster | Source: Pitti Immagine
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — Since 2011, British department store group Selfridges has kicked off each retail year with its 'Bright Young Things' initiative, celebrating fresh young talent in its flagship London store. This year, however, in the place of youth, the department store will celebrate the start of the year with an initiative dubbed Bright Old Things, which will highlight the likes of Molly Parkin, 82, one time fashion editor of The Sunday Times; actor turned painter William Forbes Hamilton, 82; and retailer-turned-designer Nick Wooster, 55.

The focus on older people is timely. According to statistics compiled by consulting firm AT Kearney, consumers aged 60 and older spent more than $8 trillion worldwide in 2010. What's more, by the end of this decade that figure will have jumped to $15 trillion, making it essential for retailers to successfully engage older consumers and tap the opportunity presented by the 'grey pound' — or 'gray dollar' or 'gray euro' — as the case may be.

For the Selfridges initiative, each of the fourteen “Bright Old Things” has designed a window display for the store’s Oxford Street frontage. “We didn’t think of it as a commercial project from the beginning, but it became really apparent that because of the ageing population we have, of course it must be the case,” said Linda Hewson, creative director of Selfridges. “Obviously it will open up our brand to people that have not connected with it before. Our offer has to represent everybody — male, female, young, old.”

Globally, people over 60 comprise one of the world's fastest-growing consumer demographics. According to the United Nations’ World Population Prospects report, the share of people who are over 60 is increasing at a rate of 2.6 percent per year, more than double overall global population growth. By 2030, 36 percent of Germans, 30 percent of the French, 30 percent of Chinese and 22 percent of Americans will be older than 60.

What’s more, older people are often the richest. In the US, people over the age of 50 own 80 percent of the country’s financial assets and are responsible for half of the country’s discretionary spending, according to AT Kearney. In the United Kingdom, a study conducted by Abbey, the building society and mortgage lender, found that 34 percent of the over-50s population accounts for nearly 75 percent of the country's total wealth.

So, how can fashion retailers tap the opportunity?

On a basic level, retailers must make shopping environments and selling processes more accessible to ageing consumers. AT Kearney conducted interviews with 3,000 over-60s consumers from seven countries, including the United States, United Kingdom and France, finding that on average 59 percent of those surveyed said they could not read labels properly due to print size, even while wearing glasses or contact lenses. Likewise, lighting levels must be high enough to ensure legibility, aisles must be wide enough to accommodate those less able and products must be placed at the right height to be conveniently reached.

Professor Stephen Golant, an academic at the University of Florida whose specialises in senior citizens, believes that "the majority of older persons are not poor or frail — they are motivated consumers waiting to be convinced. Companies must make it easier and more enjoyable for older consumers to use their products.”

“Japan is trying these 'silver malls' that are specially designed for those over 65, so they have additional seating, the aisles are wider, the parking is convenient; they are moderately successful,” said Mike Moriarty, a partner at AT Kearney and co-author of the report, "Understanding the Needs and Consequences of the Ageing Consumer." However, Moriarty believes the moderate success of silver malls is unique to Japan, which has the oldest population on earth.

But beyond practical measures, there is substantial opportunity for retailers to emotionally engage with older consumers in a way that is better reflective of their real lives, rather than outdated ideas of age.

“The biggest misconception is that they are different from young people in a major way. Research actually shows that they are quite similar in many ways to younger people — it is important not to patronise,” said Patrick Fagan, an associate lecturer in consumer behaviour at Goldsmiths University. “It is important that fashions are not presented as just for young people and that it is recognised that [ageing consumers] can dress how they want, buy what they want and like what they want."

The crux of the challenge facing retailers is to appeal to the older consumer without engaging with them explicitly through their age. “Today, when you are 60 you often dress like you were 40 a generation ago. Today, a 60-year-old woman dresses more like her daughter than her grandmother when she was the same age. Yes, we are all getting older, but our fashion tastes are continuing to get younger every year,” said Moriarty.

Although ageing consumers are not a homogenous group, in terms of what they choose to buy and wear, there are discernable preferences in the group as a whole. “The older consumer values brands and quality somewhat more than younger consumers. As consumers get older, they actually like to shop more, and shop more frequently, but they tend to buy less, particularly if you are talking about clothing. The flipside of that is when they do buy clothing, they buy higher quality clothing because they realise that it doesn’t make sense to buy something cheap, they have the money,” said Moriarty.

Furthermore, although older people purchase fewer clothes, they spend more in other categories. “One of the broad brushes that people use is that older people spend less on fashion. In some categories they actually spend more — like cosmetics, or things that they can manage, like jewellery,” continued Moriarty.

Employing staff that older consumers can relate to can be an effective strategy in earning their loyalty. “There is something to be said in hiring someone who is older to serve customers. When the ageing consumer goes shopping they want to interact, they want to be respected by the shopkeepers. When was the last time you visited a retailer where the manager was 75 years old? Never. When was the last time you saw an assistant brand manager who was 60? Our career pathing is skewed towards the young,” added Moriarty.

Currently, companies’ efforts to engage ageing consumers through advertising often miss the mark. A study completed by Age UK found that 67 percent of mature British consumers felt that advertising portrayed them negatively and 75 percent did not relate to advertising at all. However, some companies, primarily centred in the beauty industry, have made significant strides to address this.

L'Oreal and Nars have all cast noticeably older women as their campaign stars in recent years. Nars has cast Charlotte Rampling, 68, and Tilda Swinton, 53, as the faces of its "Audacious" range, while L'Oreal has appointed Diane Keaton, 68, Helen Mirren, 69, and Jane Fonda, 76, as brand ambassadors.

“L’Oreal get it. They realised a decade ago that if all they are trying to do is make every woman look like she was 23, that is not going to work. So it slowly moved from 30 to 40 to 50 and I now its at 60 and 70,” said Moriarty.

Another brand that was ahead of the curve in representing older consumers in advertising campaigns was Karen Walker, which, in 2013, tapped Ari Seth Cohen — founder of the 'Advanced Style' blog, which features snappily dressed older women — to lens its 'Forever' eyewear advertising campaign.

Media forms such as online videos, often mistakenly believed to be channels applicable solely to youth, also offer brands opportunites to engage with ageing consumers. “We did a film with Catherine Ferguson, about age not being an issue, and it got such a huge number of views. We were really surprised about how people engaged with it. One would assume that it is more a younger population that engage with things online and engage with short films, but it just isn’t the case, as we are fast discovering!” said Selfridges' Hewson.

Indeed, another of the greatest misconceptions about ageing consumers is their discomfort in digital channels and unwillingness to engage online. “We recently did a connected consumer survey and the analysis that we did says that up until about age 75, people are comfortable in using the Internet. There are some cultures where the ageing consumer really doesn’t like the Internet that much, such as Japan and Germany, where use of the Internet really tapers off. But in developing markets like Nigeria and Brazil and generally across the board Internet usage is pretty much even up until 75,” said Moriarty.

Indeed, e-commerce is a critical opportunity for retailers targeting aging consumers, who may suffer from mobility issues and prefer to have goods delivered to them.

“There remains a strong divide between those who have entered the Internet and mobile era and those who will never get connected,” said Moriarty. “The age threshold appears to be about 72 years of age, and it goes up one year each year. Once people get connected, they stay connected.”

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