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Eligible ages for senior discounts are all over the map

Genevieve Ripley, who is “old enough to get the discount,” shops at a Beall’s Outlet store in Largo on a recent Monday. Senior shoppers get 15 percent off on Mondays.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Genevieve Ripley, who is “old enough to get the discount,” shops at a Beall’s Outlet store in Largo on a recent Monday. Senior shoppers get 15 percent off on Mondays.

At Kohl's, you must be 60 to qualify for the weekly senior discount every Wednesday. At Belk and Stein Mart, it's 55 and one day a month. At Beall's Outlets, it's 50 and every Monday. • Why are eligible ages for senior discounts all over the map? • "We lowered our eligibility age to get more customers," explained Conrad Szymanski, president of the 500-store Bradenton-based Beall's Outlets chain. "It turned Mondays from the lightest day of the week into one of the busiest." • Among hotels it's 50 at Wyndham (through AARP), 55 at Best Western, 60 at Choice and 62 at Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott subject to season, location and room availability at that price. • What's so special about 62? • "We evaluate what other brands are offering and consider the average retirement age in local markets around the world," said Dave Horton, global head of Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

For years, merchants and the travel, entertainment and restaurant industries have ladled out a cornucopia of across-the-board 10 to 20 percent discounts to win the loyalty of mature customers. But the rules are getting less and less uniform.

Pressure to lower eligibility age came from AARP, which offers a plethora of discounts to members as young as 50. And as baby boomers begin aging into retirement, marketers and the AARP are rethinking the whole business. Meantime, many discounts issued by airlines, restaurants and retailers are being eased out in favor of deals available to customers of all ages.

"Every time a store lowers the eligibility age they dial down profitability," said Ed Carroll, a former department store chain marketing director. "So many companies are trying to get seniors to turn to other ways of loyalty program discounting that does not cost as much and tells the retailer exactly what offer works and what does not."

Instead of a standard 10 to 15 percent off everything, the currency of loyalty programs is reward points, deeper discounts for a limited time and special offers dealt to most favored customers. In return, the store is getting permission to track everything you buy for one-to-one market pitches or spam.

Senior discounts are no longer permanent.

Applebee's is one of the few $10-and-up big chains left with senior discounts in selected restaurants, although some chains allow a store operator to offer them for competitive reasons. And free coffee is basically a perk of the past. Burger King and McDonald's now charge 85 cents to $1 for senior coffee, depending on the location.

Floridians may be riled to learn that Publix Super Markets offers a 5 percent senior discount on total grocery tabs every Wednesday in four states except retiree-rich Florida. It's to counter three big rivals' senior discounts there.

American and Southwest are the only two major airlines that still offer senior fares to travelers 65 and older, though both airlines sell better deals to the lion's share of all customers through non-refundable fares.

"With planes flying essentially full, the airlines think their prices are already low enough that they don't need another discount," said Rick Seaney, co-founder of farecompare.com, a website for frequent fliers.

It's risky business, because older Americans vote often with their feet and will not be easily weaned off discounts. After all, this age group still controls most of the nation's personal wealth and remains a bulwark of discretionary spending and year-round leisure travel. Retailers who use one-size-fits-all mass market tactics today use senior discounts to bolster weak corners of their business and get repeat shopping trips from the people with the most free time.

Often it's to perk up slow times. Department stores are least crowded weekdays, so senior Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are most common. To fill seats that otherwise might sit empty for matinees and weeknights, the big three movie theaters give senior discounts. (Regal locally even doubles up its $3 to $5 admission discounts, which vary by day of the week, by offering a half-price popcorn and soda deal to AARP members.) Many older people prefer to eat earlier in the evening, so restaurants can woo this crowd to bolster off-peak hours.

"Senior discounts haven't gone away, but they are not as prevalent," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a chain restaurant research firm. "It's awkward for a server to challenge someone to prove their age."

Hence, the preference for early bird specials or discount cards like AARP, which are held by 15 percent of all Floridians over 50.

Market forces helped reshape senior discounts. Back in the 1980s they were standard among drugstores eager to seal up the source of most prescription traffic. By the mid 1990s, health insurance companies were choosing the drugstores for 85 percent of seniors. And more recently, Medicare has been. Today neither CVS nor Walgreens, the two dominant chains, has its own senior discount program.

"People don't like asking for them, so we called them Golden Discounts," recalled Ken Banks, a former chief marketing officer for Eckerd Corp., a senior discount pioneer that dropped them in the early 1990s. "But our research found it was just as important to win seniors by making them feel comfortable in our stores. We added automatic door openers, bigger print on shelf labels and put merchandise where you don't have to reach high or bend down to grab them."

AARP, a nonprofit advocacy group that lowered its age minimum a decade ago from 55 to 50 to attract more potential retiree members, has no intention of steering away from its established senior discount programs.

The organization gets about 10 percent of its income from endorsement deal royalties. Most of that comes from life, health, credit card and auto insurance companies, with a minimal amount from senior discount partners. Yet officials are mindful that senior discounts remain solidly in the top three reasons AARP members join.

Nonetheless, with the rise of baby boomers the organization now tailors offers to eight lifestyle groups, four of which are under 62. A third of all 37 million AARP members, that age group is split into singles, empty-nesters, members living with children and those living with grandchildren when developing new offers.

Mass discounts are giving way to new ones that appeal to different lifestyle segments.

"Boomers are less likely to consider themselves retired," said Lynn Mento, senior vice president for membership. "To them it's more about what's next, an adventure or experience. So we create tools to help them navigate."

Thus, AARP is elevating its online capability. Look for more services like deals with Rosetta Stone to learn another language. Or private shopping events where customers are assured deals and special personal attention.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Eligible ages for senior discounts are all over the map 11/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 5:22pm]

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