Silver pound from the grey market

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“Day after day we are seeing stories about how the high street is struggling.  In light of this, it is astonishing that the market hasn’t yet woken up to or connected with the opportunity of an ageing society. We have an ageing population which is increasingly diverse in its wants and needs.  Yet, our research has revealed that half of the population think that business and retailers have little interest in older consumers,” said David Sinclair, policy manager for Help the Aged, at the conference organised by the ‘engage’ membership network which associate such companies as BT, B&Q or M&S.
Unique customers
People over 50 have a unique economic standing in the society. They are a cash-rich generation which benefited from affordable housing of the 1960s, and whose properties significantly appreciated over the past decades. They have defined-benefit pensions, family legacies and financial resources accumulated as a result of prudent spending, with little reliance on credit. They represent a significant business opportunity; for example half of new car purchases are made by over 50s. They currently spend £175 billion a year, which accounts for 45% of total consumer spending.
The national policy context, which includes Disability Discrimination Act, Opportunity Age (2005) and moves towards a Single Equality Act, is facilitating greater and longer involvement of the older people in the employment market and strengthens their social and political standing.
Special needs
This large and economically powerful customer group have special requirements relating to their age – dexterity and mobility – which have been ignored by many industry sectors in Britain. Providing for their needs should start at the design stage of products and services, and BT was very proud to present its inclusive design kit (which can be accessed at www.inclusivedesingtoolkit.com) which helps to improve the design of all products, and also caters for the needs of older generations.
Zoë Arden, BT director of communications, presented a number of BT products designed with older customers in mind, but perhaps most interesting was the concept of BT Balance – a laptop activated by tilting the screen, with easy to use navigation buttons, aimed at people who don’t have sufficient dexterity to use an ordinary laptop.
A different angle on the subject was given by Elaine Ross, talent and diversity manager at B&Q, who described how the largest home improvement retailer in the UK not only removed all barriers to employment in relation to age but also actively selects products which are easy to use. B&Q, who has 25% of staff over 50 years old, plans to launch in February 2008 the ‘Can do’ product range, which includes the AEG oven/microwave with side-opening doors and ingeniously simple electrical plugs with handles.
The speakers at the conference also discussed examples of age discrimination on the sales floor and in the business environment. This is ultimate proof that there is still a real gap in understanding the market and its potential, since retailers can take simple measures to address it. This would include improvements in shop mobility, ie clear aisles, close parking, help with carrying and delivery, and training staff to show interest in older customers’ requirements and needs. Many of these measures would also benefit other customer groups (eg singles need smaller products), but would greatly enhance a company’s reputation as a socially responsible operator.

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