February 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Generation Buy

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In fact, consumers age 56-64 find ratings and reviews more appealing than any other age group, says the Pew Internet and American Life Project. 40% of consumers in this age group say they rate a product, service or person online; the average for all adults is 32%.

"Boomers really feel like they've seen it all and done it all and are on the cynical side, so you have to win their trust," says Carol Orsborn, CEO of BoomerCommunication.com and author of "Vibrant Nation: What Boomer Women 50+ Know, Think, Do and Buy." "They would prefer to read something that looks like it's from an objective third party who had a great experience than hear the site talking about it."

Alibris.com also introduced a social community on its site in September, taking advantage of the growing familiarity of older consumers with social networks. The number of Facebook users age 55 and up grew 58.9% from January 2010 to January 2011 and that age group now comprises about 10.6% of Facebook users, according to iStrategyLabs, a social media marketing firm.

Older consumers are the target market for ElderLuxe.com, which sells premium products aimed at senior citizens, such as exercise equipment, mobility products and home safety items. Most shoppers are 50 or older, and are shopping for their parents or themselves, says ElderLuxe.com founder Patrick Conboy.

Conboy says about 20% of shoppers call with questions, in part because it may be the first time they need to buy a particular type of assistance product but also because they want more interaction. The customer service reps—ElderLuxe calls them its concierge staff—are older consumers themselves. Speaking of his customers, Conboy says, "They have many, many questions, but that gives us the chance to create deeper relationships with them."

ElderLuxe.com also follows up with a survey a few weeks after a purchase, either by phone or e-mail.

Changing tone

Orsborn, the baby boomer expert, says online retailers are taking share from bricks-and-mortar retailers in part because physical stores are doing a poor job of serving older shoppers. A survey she conducted found that 84% of women 50 and older find salespeople in bricks-and-mortar stores to be indifferent toward them and 65% say they are shopping online as a result.

Older consumers are often turned off by the way retailers promote products in store and in advertising, such as rarely using older models in ads, Orsborn says. Consumers see less overt ageism with online retailers, where the focus tends to be on the product, not the lifestyle. Still, Orsborn says online retailers will reap more sales from older consumers if they incorporate images of older adults on their sites. "It's not so much that you should only show boomers in the photos, but that you shouldn't exclude boomers from the photographs. Intergenerational photographs work great," she says.

One e-retailer that has adopted that strategy is PalmBeachJewelry.com, which purposefully uses mature models in its marketing. Daniel DeYoung, director of marketing, says the site's core audience is women ages 45-55. "We try to get a demographic in the model that is going to appeal to our customers. If you see a 20-something model, it's not going to resonate," he says.

PalmBeachJewelry.com also plays down discounts in its marketing to older consumers, figuring they have more disposable income and are thus more willing to pay full price than younger shoppers, DeYoung says. "An e-mail that says 'get 20% off everything' doesn't resonate as well as when I show a collection," he says. "It's about appealing to their style first and then they click through and find it is a price they can afford."

Luthi says Newegg also is taking a new approach to messaging that places less emphasis on price and more on brand attributes and available merchandise. "We recognize the business opportunity older shoppers represent from an expendable income standpoint. We have to send the right message to them," he says. That includes using more easily understood terms and building consumer confidence in its paid search copy, for instance. "Instead of saying 'Two terabyte external hard drive for $299,' we're saying 'External hard drive, shop with confidence at Newegg,'" he says. "We're pushing a brand message harder than simply looking at product price."

In an era when so many financially strapped consumers are shopping on price, e-retailers will be happy to find a consumer segment that's less price-sensitive. In this respect, old is even more beautiful.


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