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How catering to older consumers can help save the high street

2019 was the “worst year on record” for retail according to figures released by the BRC last week, with commentators quick to blame the rise of internet shopping or the impact of Brexit, but the reality can be seen to be much more complex. Across the UK, high streets are struggling and footfall is dropping. 

Recent statistics produced by PWC found that in the first half of 2019, 1,234 more stores closed than were opened. Simply put the high street as we know it looks as if it is being left behind, however one group that can help provide a boost to the high street is one that, ironically, retail itself has left behind – the ever increasing older generation.  

“Parts of the retail sector have historically undervalued the commercial opportunity of older people…there is a lack of shared spaces for all ages on the high street, resulting in underused and financially unsustainable services,” those are the words stated in an open letter from a consortium led by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) calling for retail to start embracing the ageing population. 

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It goes on to argue that the night-time economy, recognised as a growth opportunity and a potential saviour to the high street by government and local councils, will only be maximised if retail becomes responsive to the changing demography and adapts its offer accordingly.

Over the next couple of decades the ILC predicts that we will see “huge growth” in consumption by older people –  by 2040, the number of people in the UK aged 50 and over is expected to increase by 21% – from 25 million to 30 million. Its research also suggests spending by older consumers will rise from 54% (£319bn) of total consumer spending in 2018 to 63% by 2040 (£550bn), meaning that 63p of every pound spent in the economy will be spent by older households.

The barriers 

“We have done a lot of work historically on older consumers highlighting that there is a group of the population who have got some cash and have historically not been well-served by the retail sector, whether that be by products or services that don’t meet their needs and aspirations,” says the director of the ILC David Sinclair. 

“We have a context of more and more older people who have some spending power but actually are starting to spend less than they have previously on average. This means we have a consumption puzzle where they are starting to spend less money than they actually have.”

Sinclair explains that some of the ancillary services around the high street have struggled over the last few years with ‘last mile’ transport often failing, the closure of public toilets and store layouts leaving older people “disproportionately disadvantaged”. 

“Our sense is that there is money out there but the retail sector has not adapted well to aging and is almost denying it, either because it outwardly does not want to serve that group or retailers are fairly fearful of being stuck as an ‘older person’s brand’ and don’t want to alienate themselves from younger consumers,” he adds.

When asked why he believes the older generation are sometimes left by the wayside by retailers, Sinclair thinks part of the problem is that a lot of retailers “do not really know what to do” and they struggle with what they can do for an older customer.  He says retailers may think “well we have not got enough space for toilets so what can we do” and then get caught up in the “day-to-day” of running a business and don’t find the time to “go out their way” and properly think and plan about solutions to the problem.

He details that the reason behind the consortium’s work is that it wants to see the government and individual retailers “wake up” and realise there are a lot more older people and think about taking action to tackle the challenges of isolation, loneliness and mobility – not just because it benefits the individuals but as it also offers a “good economic return”.   

What can retailers do?

The main point that the ILC would like to instil to retailers is that of ‘age neutrality’ when designing its stores, products and services. The idea behind this is that a store designed to be fit for older people is unlikely to inhibit that of younger consumers and is more than likely to cater to additional consumers as well.  

Sinclair believes that some retailers have already done some good work in this area, but sometimes do not want to take credit for it. Over a decade ago, Tesco started trialling a store that included wider aisles, bigger signs that were easier to read and shelves that were not too high or too low. 

Coverage of the stores from the Daily Mail insisted that Tesco was creating stores specifically designed for elderley people, which wasn’t the case. “What they did realise was that having wider aisles is also good for mums with pushchairs or people in wheelchairs.The value of having inclusive design is that it caters for most people as well,” adds Sinclair. 

Similarly the ILC has found that the fast food chain McDonalds is pretty popular amongst older couples that go for a coffee and a snack  because everything is easily accessible. Sinclair notes: “That may not be by design but as a consequence of them making their spaces more accessible for everyone and creates an extra mid-morning market for them.”

Away from store design, one “very successful” initiative that retailers of any size could replicate is Boots’ ‘Over 60s Loyalty Card’ which he says works “particularly well” at attracting older customers. One of the biggest perks of the retailer’s scheme is that older consumers collect 10 points for every £1 spent on Boots-branded items in store.

This compares to Boots’ regular advantage scheme loyalty card holders, who earn just four points for every £1 spent. Another perk for members of the over-60s club includes 150 points when members have their first free hearing health check at Boots Hearingcare.

Sinclair said he is “not convinced” that small businesses have adopted these practices but notes that there are some good community led initiatives that they can join. This includes ‘Innovating For Aging’ which supports start-ups targeting this space.

One of the initiatives to come from Innovating For Aging is the ‘Chatty Cafe’. It started after one woman, Alex Hoskyn went into a supermarket cafe and saw an elderley lady on her looking isolated. As a result she set up a scheme catering for people to sit down have a coffee and talk to people. The scheme has been so successful it was adopted by Costa coffee in over 300 of its stores.

The Future 

Unless the retail sector really gets to grips with ageing consumers and really tries to understand what sort of service products they might need, Sinclair worries that the high street will “continue to struggle”. 

He hopes that alongside a shift in attitudes, increasing amounts of innovation will help to create services that suit young and old together. 

“This is where technology needs to become involved and where government and local councils come in to find ways supporting older people in travelling around high streets, while many towns have brilliant public transport and mobility services the future is going to see more and more people requiring them which could cause a strain. 

“People may also need help with that ‘last mile’ journey from the car park or bus station into town which may still be a barrier.”   

A potential answer to this conundrum could see more housing above retail units – “There seems to be an increasing amount of cases where there is space and there is a strong case for housing for all ages, older and younger, directly where they can just pop downstairs and be basically on the high street already.”

Thankfully, recent years have seen a number of government initiatives designed to support older people’s consumption and to encourage businesses to respond to the growing older market. These range from supporting moves toward inclusive store designs, to the recent pledge to invest £98m to support innovation in goods and services as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge on healthy ageing.

Most recently the government has established a ‘Longevity Council’ to advise on how best to use innovations in technology, products and services to improve the lives of our ageing population.

In order for the high street to return to riches it is going to have to adapt to more older customers and play a role in tackling loneliness, as well as helping the UK economy succeed. As the ILC has said “our high streets needn’t just survive – they can thrive”.

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