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Growing "mature market' gives businesses new opportunities

Hula Hoops are out. Books on menopause are in.

U.S. companies that recognize that demographic fact _ Americans are growing older _ will profit in the next 30 years. Those that don't risk failure, an expert on business and aging said last week.

"We've been a youth culture and youth-focused. But our nation is aging . . . giving way to a new and powerful mature market," said Thomas Akins, one of several key speakers at the two-week, 14th annual Providence Journal/Brown University Public Affairs Conference.

"Companies intent on surviving and thriving must recognize this reality."

One company that did is Fiskar. It created a pair of scissors with a padded, spring-loaded handle for arthritic users, Akins said. The tool was suggested by a woman at a trade show who had trouble sewing because of the age-related disease.

Said Akins: "If you know what the baby boom generation needs, you've got it made."

The founder of Age Speak, a Kansas City-based consulting firm, Akins spoke on business and older consumers at the annual conference. This year's theme is "Growing Old in America."

How big is the older market?

Huge, Akins said.

In 1960, the year John Kennedy became president, there were 16.7-million Americans 65 or older. In just 30 years, that number has increased by 87 percent, to 31.2-million, Akins said.

"That alone is reason for business to pay attention to aging," he said. "But the real demographic action in this decade" will occur among those who are 45 to 64 years old _ many born during the so-called baby boom, a record birth period from 1946 to 1964, he said.

By the year 2025, that age group will jump to 80.1-million, from 46.7-million in 1990, a 71 percent increase, Akins said.

In the 1990s alone, when President Clinton turns 50, the number of people 45 and older will increase by more than 18-million.

"The mature market, once on the fringe, is now a growing primary market, with truly explosive growth just over the horizon," Akins said.

That means U.S. workers may change careers in their mid-50s or even 60s, Akins said. And that will lead to new jobs and services.

"Can you imagine the baby-boom generation in midlife crisis? Can you imagine the businesses that will pop up to help them, counsel them and plan their new careers?"

As consumers, the aging boomers will have plenty of money, entering their peak earning years with few financial obligations.

But they'll also be one of the savviest groups of consumers in U.S. history _ well-educated and less likely to buy on impulse.

"They've had products that worked and products that didn't work. They've accumulated a lot so they don't want a lot," Akins said. "But when they do, they want to see a warranty and they want to see it in writing. And they want to know the company."

Some companies, such as manufacturers of bifocal lenses, have already targeted boomers who develop eye trouble around 40.

Other companies targeting older consumers include Tylenol. It introduced an easily opened medicine cap for arthritic users.

The department store chain JCPenney introduced a line of women's clothing that features Velcro buttons, front zippers and larger sleeves for arthritic women who want to stay fashionably dressed.

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