American Consumer Project

Welcome to the Marketing Wasteland: Clermont, Fla.

Despite More Spending Power Than Ever, Increased Vitality and a Budding Online Presence, Today's Boomers Still struggle for Marketers' Attention. What Gives?

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It's 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and the bowling alley in Clermont, Fla., is already filling up. The lanes are home to three PBA Hall of Famers and a group of seniors who bowl here each week. "It's not a league, just a bunch of geezers who get together," says octogenarian Wayne Shrecengost. Wayne and I are chatting at a table next to the racks of bowling balls. In front of him is a small notebook in which he tracks his scores. He has three of these pocket-size spiral notebooks with records of every game he's played since he moved to Clermont in 1998. Also in front of him is a mug emblazoned with photos of his late wife and his five kids. He says he likes to have his family with him when he bowls.

Wayne Shrecengost
Wayne Shrecengost

Every day for the next two decades, 10,000 boomers will join Wayne in the marketing wasteland of "seniors." If they don't already, many of them will wind up living in places like this: Lake County in central Florida, not far from Orlando, where they have been largely forgotten by Madison Avenue.

But Wayne isn't your grandfather's grandfather. He and the rest of the country's 65-and-up seniors are changing. They're living longer. They're more active. They're online. Not as often as their kids and grandkids, but often because of them. And they're unlikely to take the inattention from marketers sitting down.

"We [boomers] always changed the market to accommodate us, and we will continue to do so," says Patricia Lippe Davis, VP-marketing for AARP's media sales.

Since many seniors are retired, their income is only 60% of the median household income for the U.S. It's easy to look at that data point and try to dismiss older folks as a low marketing priority, but wealth is the key factor here: Households headed by seniors have 47 times the net worth of households headed by those 35 or younger. That disparity has grown significantly since 1984, when the ratio was more like 10 to 1, according to Pew Research Center. Because of mandated cost-of -living increases in many pension and retirement plans, seniors are the only age group whose real income grew since the recession in 2007.

Today there are just over 40 million seniors in the U.S. The population grew faster between 2000 and 2010 than the population as a whole -- 15% vs. 10%. The growth is very uneven, geographically. Between 2000 and 2010 the center of the country saw declining populations of 65 and over. The growth took place in expected places, such as parts of Florida, Arizona and other Sun Belt counties, but also in the Pacific Northwest, northern Michigan, Virginia and the Carolinas.

If you compare them to a demographic that gets a lot of marketer attention, that puts them just 10 million behind the fast-growing Hispanic population in terms of sheer numbers. They spend about $36 ,800 a year per household, or roughly $5,000 less than the typical Hispanic household, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And because their households tend to be much smaller empty nests, there are many more of them than Hispanic-led households. Therefore seniors spend nearly 50% more, in aggregate, than Hispanics, accounting for $905 billion in annual outlay.

Marketers and merchants are taking notice. Quietly.

Paco Underhill, the retail guru who authored the seminal "Why We Buy," wrote an article for American Demographics in 1996 that outlined many techniques for making stores more senior-friendly. We chatted about trends in targeting seniors, and the fundamentals haven't changed: bigger fonts on displays and price tags, better lighting, slower escalators, etc.

While visiting Lake County, I toured a Publix grocery store adjacent to Kings Ridge, one of the several large communities of 55-plus residents in the area. The complex is home to roughly 4,000 seniors, many of whom moved there when the community opened 15 years ago. That's pushed the median age of the community into the 70s, according to community manager Kim Emerson. The residents can drive their golf carts right up to the Publix via a special entrance and park in designated parking spots. For some residents, the golf cart is the only mode of transportation they have.

Publix has taken steps to accommodate the senior market.
Publix has taken steps to accommodate the senior market.
This particular Publix has twice as many powered shopping carts as a typical branch. Several are in use as I tour. Responding to customer comments, the store has increased its selection of gluten-free products, which are popular with seniors. Those all have large green labels on the shelf, and the manager keeps printouts of gluten-free recipes and product information in a kiosk at the entrance. The store aisles are wide (to accommodate those carts) and well-lit.

But a little seating area with free coffee is a big draw. The male seniors gather there in the late morning, socializing and playing scratch-off lottery tickets while their wives shop. The store manager likes to sit and visit with them as he's making his rounds. It's all meant to create a more inviting environment for the store's core demographic.

Publix creates an annual Thanksgiving-themed TV spot. The 2010 version featured a grandmother cooking for her family. It was shot in her home. The in-store environment didn't receive a mention, although the spot focused on values that are key to the senior demographic.

"One of the problems that scare marketers is , if you actively market to seniors, is that a turnoff to everybody else?" says Mr. Underhill. "Do you want to go to the supermarket that caters to geriatrics? I don't know if that 's a legitimate concern or not, but it is something that goes through the minds of both merchants and marketers."

For instance, Toyota created the Venza for a slightly younger demo. The car is easy to get in and out of , has rear seats that fold with little effort and its high-ride offers open sight lines. This isn't about marketing, it's about product research.

"For us it starts with the fact that it was designed with active boomers in mind. A lot of research was done by our engineering side to make a car that fits that lifestyle and that generation of buyer," says Russ Koble, Toyota advertising and planning manager. He noted that the model also does well with seniors -- and millennials. "We know that people are living longer and are staying much more active. The activities may change, but they still have active pursuits."

But you don't see seniors in the Saatchi, Los Angeles-created spots, which have been running since late 2010. They feature boomers and their millennial kids. (Though the sentiment, aimed at people in 50s, should also resonate with seniors. In the spots, a millennial frets over her parents having no online "friends" while in actuality her parents are out biking and exploring with real-life buddies.)

Southwest has many programs that are targeted toward or popular with seniors including reduced fares, the bags-fly-free program and "Honor Flights" that bring World War II vets to Washington to visit the memorial there. However, a spokesperson from Southwest says that the airline "doesn't specifically target seniors with paid media."

'Geriatric supermarket'

The country's 65-and-up seniors are living longer, they're more active and they're online.
The country's 65-and-up seniors are living longer, they're more active and they're online.
At 9:30 the next morning, I'm at another senior hotspot, McDonald's. A group of older men sit together, socializing over coffee and other McTreats. They don't come in together and they don't show much sign of leaving any time soon. It's a scene reminiscent of the McDonald's ad "Joe and Frank" that won a Bronze Lion for DDB, Chicago, in 2010. In the spot, two senior men compete for the attention of a woman at a nearby table. The commercial wasn't created because of a specific senior-targeted brief from the client, but rather grew out of a conversation between DDB and the marketing team. The group was discussing how in markets throughout the world you'll find seniors gathering as they do here in Clermont. It wasn't even created for the purposes of airing. It was developed for the franchisee convention, but the response was so positive that the client approved putting it into rotation.

Bill Cimino, exec creative director at DDB, Chicago, touches on a point raised by many marketers and agency execs about the key to targeting seniors. "The way this spot treated the guys, it did so with dignity."

AARP's magazine actually mandates that advertisers in its pages avoid the "I've fallen and I can't get up" stereotype of the helpless senior. Dignity and respect are concepts that come up often in conversation. So does segmenting creative. By advertising in senior-heavy publications like AARP or by using online-targeting tools, brands can generate creative for seniors that other demographics will be unlikely to see. AARP even segments the audience further with three discrete editions for subscribers in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. That can help alleviate the "geriatric supermarket" issue Mr. Underhill alluded to.

Where's the Zumba class?
To understand this demographic group better, Ad Age has been following a family in this representative county as part of its yearlong American Consumer Project. Basha and her husband, Al, fit the profile of the new senior well. They're active both physically and in their communities -- they even started the neighborhood temple when they moved to Lake County 15 years ago. They both still work and drive. Health care takes up an increasing part of their time and budget, but they're still very connected to their kids, grandkids and the internet. To learn more about her and the other families we've been tracking, see

Basha and Al live in the Kings Ridge complex, which I toured -- via golf cart, of course -- with manager Ms. Emerson. In the community center, we were shooed out of a very serious pool tournament against a rival 55+ community, but later welcomed back for a photo shoot once the competition had ended. In the lobby, Elvis music played quietly, until the King was drowned out by the blaring soundtrack from one of the fitness classes. This was the exchange I overheard:

"Do you know where the Zumba class is ?"

"All the girls over there are waiting for it."

"Oh, I thought that was line dancing."

Kings Ridge and other communities like them are self-selecting groups of aging adventurers. Al gives tennis lessons on the courts here to septuagenarian novices interested in learning a new sport. The swimming pools and golf courses get a lot of use.

Because they still work, Basha and Al are out and about more than many Kings Ridge residents whose activities are often managed through the complex, including weekly excursions to shopping and entertainment destinations. For the seniors who leave their communities, everything is close. Retailers are building, trying to keep up with demand caused during the boom times.

Clermont has a "historic" downtown, just a couple of blocks long. Most of the commercial action is along the two main stretches of highway. Much of this has been developed in the past 15 years. As we dined at the Olive Garden near her complex, Basha told me that when she moved to the area there was nothing between Highways 50 and 192 except orange groves. "We only had one restaurant. And it was terrible," she says.

Ray San Fratello, president of the South Lake Chamber of Commerce, says the area didn't even have a movie theater for the past 50 years. Now there's a multiscreen movieplex and the standard slate of chains like Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse. Along the highway sprawl you'll find a Walmart, strip malls, more senior housing and condo complexes and a handful of golf courses.

Back home, Basha and Al usher me into a living room with super cushy black-leather furniture surrounding a TV blasting ESPN. Basha and Al are sports nuts -- Al, a retired college athletic director, still works at a massive sports complex in Orlando.

They have all the premium sports packages and use their DVR to skip commercials. That makes Basha doubly hard to reach with TV ads. First, she often doesn't watch them, and second, she's often watching shows that aren't targeted to her.

Their house contains a museum-quality collection of memorabilia, including a coffee table with a life-size baseball player sliding into an imaginary base covered by a glass top. They like to vacation, they drive sporty cars and they like to collect things. They also have family to buy presents for. In short, their spending profile looks a lot like that of a couple much younger.

So, to an extent, does their online profile. Basha claims she wasn't very computer literate -- and her email address lent some credence to that claim -- but she pays her bills online and Skypes with her family.

"I pick up emails and play some games," she says. "I'm on Facebook, but I hardly ever go on it because it's a lot of trouble. But I do have some apps ... not "apps' but icons that I use." Basha doesn't like the Facebook messaging function, nor does she really understand the difference between wall posts and direct messages.

But she's taking part in many of the same online activities as other generations, just not to quite the same scale.

For marketers, this makes her a difficult nut to crack -- if they even care to. But as this age group continues to grow and spend while taking on a profile more like younger generations', it's increasingly one we should start to see in creative, not just in product-engineering meetings.

At the Clermont Bowling Center, the changing of the guard happens around 10:30 a.m., which is where Wayne's friend Dottie Blackwell notes a sad truth about their "group of geezers."

"This place used to be full. But people passed on," she says. "It's an old-person thing." 

But only a few minutes later, Kathy Lanciano pulls in with a van-load of bowlers from the latest senior community to be built in the area, Trilogy. "We want to be the next generation here," she says. "But I ain't coming that early."

Kings Vs. Knights: A Tale of Two Economies

Al and Basha with their sports-memorabilia collection at their home in Lake County, Fla.
Al and Basha with their sports-memorabilia collection at their home in Lake County, Fla.
If you want to know how today's seniors are living, Clermont in Lake County, Fla., is a great place to visit. It's at the nexus of several key demographic trends. In the past decade, it has a rising population of both seniors and Hispanics, and it was a serious victim of the real estate boom and bust. The 55-plus community where Basha and Al and 4,000 other seniors live, Kings Ridge, has very little turnover and a low vacancy rate, according to Diane Travis of Travis Realty Group. The real-estate market keeps afloat partially because seniors who retire to areas like this often end up missing their families and returning. So there is some churn, but just as quickly as some flee back north, others go south seeking the warmth of central Florida.

Just a few miles down Highway 50 toward neighboring Mascotte, the development of Knight 's Lake Estates tells a very different story. Streets named for figures in Greek mythology wind through a subdivision of sorts. Paved roads stretch beneath streetlights, but there are no driveways. Or houses. These are the remnants of a more promising time. Now it's hard to imagine anyone ever building them out.

But if you really want a great example of everything that went on, visit Bella Collina. The Tuscan-style development features a lush spa, a Nick Faldo golf course and an opulent clubhouse. Lots originally sold for around $200,000, according to Ms. Travis. As the economy boomed, the lots got flipped and reflipped, trading at a peak of nearly $1 million. The success drove up prices in nearby developments as well. Then they all crashed.

Now, she says, you can get a lot here for less than $10,000. But even at that price, they're not selling, because you would still need to build a home up to the standards of the community (think high six figures) and pay the membership and other homeowner fees, which add up quickly. So only a handful of houses sits among the thousands of acres of land set aside for the development.

Basha sees the impact every day. "All our homes here where we live, it's like, "Wow, what happened to our investments?'" She's made cuts in her budget and uses online-coupon sites such as Coupon Mom. While she likes the idea of Groupon, she hasn't seen many deals that appeal to her age group. — MATT CARMICHAEL

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