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Christine Carlton, CEO and Founder of the online shoe store "The September" poses for a picture in her office in Toronto, Wednesday November 4, 2015. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
Christine Carlton, CEO and Founder of the online shoe store "The September" poses for a picture in her office in Toronto, Wednesday November 4, 2015. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

The Boomer Shift

Retailers try to appeal to boomers without treating them as ‘old’ Add to ...

This is part of the Globe and Mail’s week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada’s economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

For more, visit tgam.ca/boomershift and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers

Christine Carlton launched her upscale e-commerce shoe business a couple of years ago with mainly younger, digitally friendly shoppers in mind. What happened next surprised her.

Consumers in their 50s and 60s quickly became among her best customers and biggest spenders. These baby boomers often shell out twice as much as or more than their younger cohorts, she found. It prompted her to tweak her offerings by adding more comfortable styles with platform heels or flats. But she’s careful not to trumpet them as “comfy” because she also finds boomers tend to associate the word with dowdy and reject them.

“Everybody says it’s millennials who shop online but that doesn’t mean the baby boomers aren’t shopping online – they are,” says Ms. Carlton, co-founder of TheSeptember.com and a former executive at luxury fashion chain Holt Renfrew & Co. “But you don’t want to market to someone as a baby boomer. They don’t want to be in that category.”

Welcome to retailers’ delicate balancing act of trying to reach baby boomers with age-appropriate products while recognizing they don’t think of themselves as aging. A rash of major fashion retailers including U.S. giant Gap Inc. and Reitmans (Canada) Ltd. failed in their launch of separate boomer chains about a decade ago, victims of a demographic that doesn’t want to be reminded of its age.

Now some merchants ranging from drug stores to fashion and home-renovation specialists are betting they can win over the potentially lucrative boomer market with up-to-date products, but a more subtle pitch, while not overlooking millennials.

“It does represent a challenge,” says Clint Mahlman, chief operating officer at London Drugs Ltd. of Richmond, B.C., which counts boomers as almost half of the chain’s customers. “But they’re a critical customer to us. That group will remain critical for another decade or two.”

Retailers neglect boomers at their peril. Boomer households (aged 50 to 69) spend 66 per cent more on goods and services (excluding such things as pension contributions and taxes but including housing) than millennial households (15 to 34): an annual $79,668 per household compared with $47,903, according to market researcher Environics Analytics. Boomer households represent 38 per cent of households in Canada, compared with millennials, many of whom live with parents or roommates and make up just 19 per cent of households, Environics found.

Dyane Legge, 63, a retired businesswoman, is one of those boomers. An avid traveller and runner, she downsized her family to a semi-detached midtown Toronto house from a sprawling uptown abode (including pool), buying much of the new furniture online. She purchases an increasingly wider array of products – even prepared meals – digitally. At TheSeptember.com alone, she estimates she spent about $4,000 on footwear over the past two years. “It’s so much easier to shop online – you shop 10 stores in an hour.”

In a bid to respond to Ms. Legge and her cohort, retailers are discovering a growing selection of items to entice them, including anti-aging creams, stylish reading glasses and extra-stretchy plus-sized jeans. TheSeptember.com makes a point of pitching goods with real people rather than celebrities; London Drugs has started to mount larger, more readable price signs on store shelves; merchants are trying to offer practical, and sometimes technological, solutions for everything from home improvements to plus-size wardrobe challenges.

Home Depot tries to satisfy a burgeoning appetite for “do-it-for-me” services among boomers, whose purchases make up about 40 per cent of overall home improvement sales, says Kerry Munro, vice-president of marketing and e-commerce at Home Depot Canada. A growing number of boomers are renovating their basements for grown children moving back home, he says. Boomers also are increasingly embracing the smart home, which allows them to control remotely such things as appliances, lights, locks, thermostats and doorbells with video cameras, he says.

Many boomers told Reitmans they didn’t want to have to compromise on style in their plus-size clothing. The retailer’s Penningtons and Addition Elle chains are responding with such fashions as a line of “extra stretch” chic jeans called d/c (“denim without compromise”), says Reitmans president Walter Lamothe. It recently featured plus-size supermodel and designer Ashley Graham strutting her Addition Elle lingerie on the New York Fashion Week runway; the initiatives are helping boost Reitmans’ oversize sales, he says.

Even incontinence products are getting sexier. Makers of merchandise such as Depend are battling for boomers’ business by creating sleeker disposable panties, using younger models in their ads and trying to remove the stigma of bladder leakage. London Drugs, for one, is enjoying double-digit annual sales gains in incontinence goods, about the same pickup pace it is seeing in baby diaper sales, Mr. Mahlman says.

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Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

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