A quiet generation of grocery shoppers that's still spending

To understand how tomorrow's older boomers will shop for food, just look at today's Silent Generation

The silent generation, born between 1925 and 1945, is appropriately named. As a consumer force, they hardly make a peep. But they’re worth watching.

The silent generation makes up more than 10 per cent of Canada’s total population. And it’s growing too. The number of Canadians aged 70 and up rose three per cent last year.

Only two age brackets grew at a faster clip: 65 to 69 year olds (7.2 per cent growth)–which includes both silent gen’ers and boomers–and the boomer 55 to 59 year olds (3.2 per cent).

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There’s another, more important, reason to pay attention to the silent generation: a tidal wave of greying baby boomers will soon be as old as silent gen’ers are today.

Within the next decade, seniors will comprise 20 per cent of the population, up from 15 per cent today. “That simple number makes this an important target market,” says economist David Foot, author of the seminal demo- graphic book, Boom, Bust & Echo.

Some experts argue that baby boomers, who grew up smoking pot and listening to Bob Dylan, will be radically different shoppers in old age than today’s seniors, who came of age quaffing Coke to Perry Como. That may be true for some categories like travel. But for food, age will be a great equalizer.

Old boomers will face the same medical, mobility and fixed-income issues as silent gen’ers. If we want to understand how the boomer bulge will buy groceries in their 70s and 80s, all we need to do is look at how today’s aged do it.

As might be expected, health is a preoccupation for silent gen’ers. A recent survey of this group by Symphony IRI found 37 per cent are on a low-sodium diet, compared with 23 per cent of younger boomers and 31 per cent of older boomers.

They’re also more likely than boomers to follow low-fat, low-sugar and high-fibre diets, with 33 per cent, 30 per cent and 29 per cent sticking to these diets respectively.

According to Symphony IRI’s Susan Viamari, grocers can “broaden the definition of health and wellness,” with senior customers. While boomers tend to follow news about the health-boosting effects of certain foods, today’s seniors might be less aware of such trends.

Whether it be today’s or tomorrow’s, seniors are a natural fit for the traditional grocery store. They don’t require the big quantities that necessitate a trip to big-box stores. They also eat out less.

Canadians 65 and older account for only 11 per cent of restaurant and delivery traffic, compared to 16 per cent for those between ages 25 to 34 and 17 per cent for ages 35 to 44, says Joel Gregoire, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group. “When you stop working, you tend to skip further meals...you eat more of your meals at home as well.”

Looking ahead, says Foot, “salt is the big thing coming up . Canadian food- stuffs are way over-salted.” Grocers can help by establishing low-salt sections or putting labels for low-sodium products throughout the floor.

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Keep in mind, however, that seniors view “health” differently than most people. Younger generations want to be “healthy” in general. Seniors are more worried about Specific medical conditions. chiefly, those are high cholesterol, heart problems, diabetes and digestive health.

By making explicit the link, say, between omega-3s and lower cholesterol, or marking low-sugar goods as “good for diabetics,” you’re speaking the language of senior customers, Viamari says.

Many ways to reach seniors are common sense. “Products should be easy to reach, not on the higher shelves, signs should not be in the ceilings,” says Jeewani Fernando, a consumer market analyst in Agriculture and Rural Development with the Government of Alberta. “Think about their eyesight when labelling.”

Smaller portion sizes are also key. Gregoire notes that seniors eat foods that aren’t as involved. Many are cooking for one, after all. That’s why seniors like frozen foods, adds Viamari. They can dole out a half a cup of peas at a time, for example.

All in all, seniors aren’t asking for much, and, unlike the fickle “millennial” generation we’ve been hearing so much about lately, if you treat them well, they’ll remember you.

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