The population may be living longer than ever before, but retailers are not doing enough to capture the spending power, or the interests, of their older customers.

older people

On the surface it was a typical catwalk show. The audience was waiting in anticipation, the press were gathered, and the models were preparing to take the stage.

But this was not to be the usual unveiling – this was a collection designed and modelled by a group of older women, exclusively for older women.

Meet the ‘Emotional Fit’ collection, a concept born at Nottingham Trent University’s (NTU) renowned School of Art & Design, launched in April.

It exists for all the women who feel left behind by modern fashion.

Retailers need to wake up

The industry is failing to meet the “physiological requirements and emotional needs” of older women, one of the organisers of the project, Katherine Townsend, told a gathering of retailers and academics. Emotional Fit is all about redressing the balance.

Townsend was speaking at the second annual symposium of the National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre (NRRKEC), based at the Nottingham Business School, and the topic of the day was ‘engaging with the ageing’.

“Older women believe choice has been eroded in recent years. They strongly believe that retailers don’t understand them and are not listening to them. Some feel that retailers don’t care”

Allison Waite

A steadily ageing population means there are more people over the age of 65 than ever before, and plenty still want to shop as they enjoy the fruits of their retirement.

But there’s a problem. One which Kim Cassidy, academic director of the NRRKEC, thinks retailers need to “wake up to”.

She told the symposium: “Older people want to feel engaged, but at the moment they don’t. This is a massive trend.”

Why have retailers been slow to cater to older customers? And what can they do to engage them, and encourage them to shop, in an era apparently weighted towards younger consumers?

“After 40 nobody is young,” Coco Chanel once said, “but one can be irresistible at any age.”

Through the swinging 60s, the sexual revolution and the social media revolution, Chanel’s personal mystique has endured. But have her powerful words about ageing?

“Older people are not a homogenous group”

Professor Patricia Schofield, Angela Ruskin University

Not according to Allison Waite, researcher in the fashion, knitwear and textile design group, part of the School of Art & Design at NTU.

Addressing the symposium, Waite said: “Older women believe choice has been eroded in recent years. They strongly believe that retailers don’t understand them and are not listening to them. Some feel that retailers don’t care.”

It is an indictment of an industry that prides itself on being in tune with trends.

But as Professor Patricia Schofield, head of the Centre for Future Ageing Research at Anglia Ruskin University, explained, there is a tendency by society as a whole to “make assumptions” about people over the age of 65.

However, she maintained: “Older people are not a homogenous group.”

The percentage of the population over the age of 65 rose from 14.1% in 1975 to 17.8% in 2015, and is projected to increase by 40% in the next 17 years.

Whether looked at it as a point of principle, or a smart business decision, retailers will need to get with the times or miss out on a burgeoning market.

Fast fashion and a lack of choice

Speaking at the event, industry veteran and NRRKEC retail director Bill Grimsey said: “The message is that retailers are going to have to take into account that the population over 75 is projected to double in the next 30 years.

“Different people age differently. Not all women will be affected in the same way. And fit isn’t only physical – mature women use clothing in a strategic way”

Allison Waite

“It’s a really important point. This is a very important group of people with the wealth, and for retailers it’s an opportunity.”

One of the key ways in which retailers are missing the opportunity, the event revealed, was through lack of choice when it comes to size.

Fast fashion and the industrialisation of manufacturing, Waite observed, have not favoured older women.

She said: “When we talk about high-street clothing, what we’re really talking about is mass-production and standardisation. Different people age differently. Not all women will be affected in the same way. And fit isn’t only physical – mature women use clothing in a strategic way.”

With lead times in fast fashion design as short as they’ve ever been, it is easy to see how such nuances can be missed.

Especially when, as Waite said, “so many people who design clothes are in their mid-20s and 30s”. Perhaps retailers could take a leaf out of the Emotional Fit book and involve older people in the design process – something that was high on the list of recommendations from the event (see box).

But it is a fine art and it is possible to go too far the other way. Some of the ideas that retailers have come up with – magnifying glasses to help shoppers read packaging, for example – have actually backfired.

An engaged social audience

Robert Zniva, researcher and lecturer at Salzburg University of Applied Sciences and the Vienna University of Economics and Business, said retailers must pay close attention to the “process of ageing” carefully.

“For most of us it’s just a number,” he said. “But we have to understand how ageing affects cognitive abilities, and how you see yourself as a person. Retailers and marketers have to adapt to these older customers.”

“The older generations follow less, so when you deliver something quality and targeted, they respond well”

Polly Barnfield, Maybe*

One of the areas where retailers must adapt, said Polly Barnfield, founder and chief executive of social shopping app Maybe*, is social media.

Contrary to popular belief, Barnfield said, older shoppers are engaged with social media and are increasingly “looking forward rather than backwards”.

But there are subtle distinctions here too, according to Barnfield: “The younger generations have so much more they follow online, so much more noise, that they are less responsive. The older generations follow less, so when you deliver something quality and targeted, they respond well.”

To Coco Chanel the shopping apps and social media platforms of the modern era might be baffling.

But she would recognise what the Emotional Fit programme is all about, and the key message of last week’s event. In the fast-fashion age, it may help to be young, but one can be irresistible at any age.

Action points

Attendees of the symposium were asked to make recommendations for retailers when it comes to ‘engaging the ageing’. Some of the key points were:

  • Understand the individual, not the category. Retailers must learn to see older shoppers as a varied and diverse collection of individuals, rather than a homogeneous group.
  • Involve older people. The lack of older people in retail, particularly in fashion design, is making mature shoppers feel disengaged. Retailers should hire staff from a more diverse range of ages, and pay older employees better.
  • Be aware of subtle cues and turn-offs. Retailers should think about tactics such as the age of staff working on make-up counters, for instance, to make shoppers of all ages feel comfortable.
  • Retail can lead the way. Rather than being reactive to the ageing population, retailers could set the tone and change their business models to be leaders rather than followers.
  • Understand that size does matter. Whether it is women’s clothing design or groceries, where older people tend to prefer smaller portions, retailers need to be more flexible and adapt to their shoppers’ varying needs when it comes to size.