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Products geared for seniors, like compression socks, are seen in the new Wellwise store in Toronto on September 19, 2017.


Shopping for a cane or for adult diapers has never been anyone's idea of a fun day out.

In fact, the retail environment offering more specialized products for those who are aging or who have medical conditions usually feels clinical at best and, at worst, downright bleak.

Loblaw Cos Ltd. is experimenting with changing that. This Saturday, its Shoppers Drug Mart division will launch a pilot store in Toronto under a new retail brand called Wellwise, which will also launch an e-commerce site next month.

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"Customers want to age more powerfully, not just comfortably," said Shoppers senior vice-president Theresa Firestone, standing in the brightly-lit Wellwise store as workers finished construction. "They want to focus on wellness, not illness."

While the baby boomer generation is often held up as a new kind of older consumer, the fact is that no one has ever liked aging, or the joyless necessities that come along with it. The real difference is that the expanding population of seniors gives them more collective clout than ever before, as consumers. Canada's 2016 census numbers showed that for the first time, the population of those aged 65 or older has surpassed the number of Canadians under 15. Businesses increasingly must grapple with the demands of that aging population.

Shoppers owns 49 Home Health Care stores in Canada, which sell specialty products most consumers would rather not think about needing. The existing stores don't do much to brighten up the experience. In one Toronto store, under pallid fluorescent lights, rows of utilitarian metal shelving were differentiated only by blue signs with forthright labels such as "incontinence," "wound care" and "bathroom safety."

By contrast, the Wellwise store is colourful and divided into broader categories, with a large yellow sign for "active living," a green "mobility" section and orange for "tools and gadgets," among others. The purple "personal care" section has more sensitive products tucked into a section in the back, allowing for more privacy than the typical shelf in the middle of a store with a blaring "incontinence" sign.

It is also broadening the types of products offered: aromatherapy kits, lightweight padded dumbbells and travel accessories such as collapsible backpacks and sun hats are displayed alongside the more typical Home Health Care fare. These are targeted to seniors who want to lead more active lives, as well as the caregivers shopping for them who may browse longer and spend more if they can also pick up something for themselves.

The company has been looking for new vendors to expand its product offering and has been in discussions with current suppliers about making products more appealing. A bamboo shower seat is on order for those who want something more stylish than a blocky plastic version. Compression socks come in a wider range of patterns and colours. A kicky mobility scooter on display has a stitched leather seat, shiny black and silver fenders and motorcycle-like handles.

"Everything doesn't have to be beige," Ms. Firestone said.

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Home Health Care is a relatively small business compared with the 1,300 stores under the flagship Shoppers brand, but it caters to a growing consumer segment as Canada's population continues to age. With 40 of its 49 stores located in Ontario, there is room to expand: By mid-October, the pilot will expand to include a new e-commerce site selling typical Home Health Care products under the Wellwise brand. Pharmacists could direct customers who can't find what they need at a typical Shoppers store to the website, which will be available across Canada except in Quebec. There are plans to launch a French-language site in future.

In addition to one-off purchases, the site will offer a subscription service to automatically ship frequently used items at regular intervals – a bid to encourage brand loyalty. All shipments will arrive in plain brown Wellwise boxes, so that sensitive purchases are not visible to neighbours or postal workers.

Ads promoting the new brand will feature older people in vibrant, active settings, such as a grey-haired hiker on a hilltop.

The pilot project comes out of research Shoppers did last year, in which Shoppers spoke to roughly 5,000 people who had been to a Home Health Care store or who are in the target demographic (which includes both those with conditions or who are aging, and an estimated six million people in Canada who are caregivers). It found that people were looking for a less "clinical," and over all more positive, shopping experience.

"There's a change in the conversation around aging," said Scott Wilks, vice-president of Shoppers Home Health Care.

Ms. Firestone would not say when the new Wellwise design might expand to other Home Health Care locations, but said that the company would be monitoring the response to the pilot store.

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"We saw that there was an unmet need for a lot of our customers," Ms. Firestone said. "… Shopping is usually fun. This should be fun, too."

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