Seniors in Cyberspace

ABSTRACT - The Internet, a world-wide network of computer networks, continues to diffuse rapidly throughout society. Undoubtedly, communications and buying behaviour through traditional channels are undergoing very significant changes, but the long-term consequences of these shifts remain somewhat unclear. However, one trend has begun to emerge. Different age groups look upon the Internet through very different eyes. This study considers the perceived barriers that Seniors encounter in adopting the Internet as an innovation. Its purpose is to better understand the future buying behaviour and consumption patterns of seniors.


Margo Poole and Thomas Muller (2001) ,"Seniors in Cyberspace", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 193-198.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 193-198


Margo Poole, Griffith University, Australia

Thomas Muller, Griffith University, Australia


The Internet, a world-wide network of computer networks, continues to diffuse rapidly throughout society. Undoubtedly, communications and buying behaviour through traditional channels are undergoing very significant changes, but the long-term consequences of these shifts remain somewhat unclear. However, one trend has begun to emerge. Different age groups look upon the Internet through very different eyes. This study considers the perceived barriers that Seniors encounter in adopting the Internet as an innovation. Its purpose is to better understand the future buying behaviour and consumption patterns of seniors.


How does the senior consumer view the Internet as a medium of communication and as a tool for shopping, pre-purchase search, and buying consumer goods? This study considers the perceived barriers to adoption of the Internet by seniorsCthose aged 60 and over. Its purpose is to better understand how seniors view this medium and to suggest ways in which senior consumers might be encouraged to use the Internet for obtaining product information and purchasing products.

The Internet, a world-wide network of computer networks, continues to diffuse rapidly throughout society. In Australia, the world’s third highest per-capita Internet user (after the United States and Finland), there are 1.8 million regular Internet users and current projections are expecting usage to rise to 5.7 million, by 2003. Undoubtedly, communication and buying behaviour through traditional channels are undergoing very significant changes, but the long-term consequences of these shifts remain somewhat unclear. However, one dynamic is becoming more apparent; different age groups look upon the Internet through very different eyes. While members of the so-called Generation X (those born in Australia between 1964 and 1976) are considered to be the first consumer group to embrace the Internet, en masse, recent studies indicate that older age segments are adopting this new medium at an increasing rate.

Considered to be an insignificant Internet adopter category until recently, seniors throughout the world are forming into self-help groups to become proficient Internet users. Apparently, members of this group have the ability to work together to overcome the fear of the new technology. For seniors who are already Internet users, this communication channel allows them to travel the world without leaving the living room. Through the Internet, new virtual communities are being formed, consisting of people from all parts of the world brought together through some common interest. At SeniorNet (, a site dedicated to seniors, many hundreds of discussion groups have been formed around topics as varied as financial planning, Buddhism and bird watching.

Still, the Internet must be treated as an innovation and a key question is whether seniors will adopt it as a new form of communication and, more importantly, as a new way of purchasing the goods and services they require. The convenience of purchasing from home is of particular value to this group since its members become more dependent on public transport (or become housebound because of disabilities), but it is far from clear whether the Internet as a shopping medium will be adopted wholeheartedly by the senior population. Much will depend on how this innovation is perceived by the potential senior user and how marketers pitch the Internet as a shopping vehicle to the senior consumer.


Despite the proliferation of survey data, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on Internet usage. Estimates in August, 1999 put the number of users, worldwide, who had accessed the Internet at least once over the past three months, at 195 million (NUA, 1999). The Graphics, Visualisation and Usability Center’s (GVU) 10th World Wide Web User Survey, based at the Georgia Institute of Technology, indicated that 48.2 percent of users were 35 years or younger, and only 4.8 percent were aged 60+ (Kehoe, Pitkow, Sutton, Aggarwal, & Rogers, 1999). Other research (Speigel, 1999) suggests that, in the United States, of the 17 percent of the population over the age of 65 years, only 7 percent have adopted the Internet. Figure 1 clearly shows that the age distribution of Internet users is skewed toward the younger age brackets.


The Internet is a medium for entertainment, information, communications and commercial transactions. While certain characteristics of the Internet are completely new, others are shared with existing technologies such as television and the telephone. By any measure, the Internet offers many benefits bundled into one technology. These characteristics are described by Peterson et al. (1997) as

$An inexpensive store for vast amounts of information at many different locations that can be accessed rapidly;

$A powerful and inexpensive means of organising, searching, and disseminating information;

$An interactive medium of communications;

$A transaction medium;

$A distribution medium for certain goods (e.g. software); and

$An inexpensive shop-front for sellers.

However, access to the Internet comes at a price. Not only does the potential user need to own or have access to a computer, the computer itself needs to have access to the network. Thus, certain social groups, particularly those in the lower socio-economic category, will not have the opportunity to access the Internet (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999).


The Internet, which is perceived by consumers as being a new medium of communication, is an innovation. Actually, two innovations are involved hereCthe Internet, itself, as a communication innovation, and the change in behaviour required for shopping on the Internet. Attitudes are formed from beliefs (perceptions) and, once formed, lead to the consumer’s behavioral intentions and purchase (adoption) decision. Everett Rogers and others have shown that the perceived attributes of an innovation are critical factors in the rate of its adoption (Eastlick, 1993; Eastlick 1996; Moore & Benbasat, 1995; Ostlund, 1974 ). Rogers (1995) concluded that the perceived attributes relative advantage, complexity, observability, trialability, and compatibility account for anywhere between 49 and 87 percent of the rate of adoption of an innovation.

Perceived risk also affects the acceptance rate of an innovation, and thus its diffusion in society (Eastlick, 1993; Gatignon & Robertson, 1985; Labay & Kinnear, 1981; Ostlund, 1974). Moreover, perceived risk and complexity are negatively related to the adoption rate, while relative advantage, observability, trialability, and compatibility are positively related to the diffusion of an innovation. Moore and Benbasat (1995) found that relative advantage and compatibility (in this case, ease of use) have the most significant effect on the acceptance and use of information technology by end-users. Each of the above variables is explicated and then considered within the context of the diffusion of the Internet.



Relative Advantage

Relative advantage, the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than the product or concept it supersedes (Rogers, 1995), was expanded by Ostlund (1974) to encompass relative advantage regarding (a) time-savings, (b) effort-savings and (c) monetary value. Hence, both monetary and non-monetary values may come into play. Research by Katz and Aspden (1997) on the motivations fr and barriers to Internet usage found that, of the 597 respondents who were current users, the main reason for adoption (28 percent) was to gain information. The second most important aspect was to communicate with other people. Of those surveyed, both users and non-users (N=1,296), again perceived that communications and finding information were the main reasons for adopting the Internet.


Compatibility is the degree to which potential adopters perceive the innovation to be consistent with their personal values and beliefs (Rogers, 1995). An individual’s beliefs and values evolve over time and are strongly influenced by certain events and circumstances such as family upbringing, schooling, peer groups and ethnic culture. Members of a demographic group, strongly influenced in their childhood, during a time when the world was at war, may have very different beliefs and values to those who grew up with computer games, the space shuttle and AIDS during a period of relative peace and prosperity (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). Thus, the notion that an innovation is superior to whatever may presently be available does not guarantee its diffusion if it is perceived to be incompatible with existing values and beliefs. The Internet would be perceived as more compatible by some consumer segments, but not by others. For instance, consumers who are money-rich but time-poor (Berry, 1979) are often willing to pay a premium for goods and services that save them time.

A case in point is Peapod (, which offers busy consumers the opportunity to purchase supermarket goods over the Internet at any time on any day. Items can be selected by sixteen attributes such as price, size, specials, most popular brand, dietary fibre, and even kosher. To save even more time, a personalised shopping list can be created. Orders can be sent at any time and the selected goods are delivered whenever it is most suitable to the customer.


If an innovation is perceived as complex, its rate of adoption will be slower. Complexity is "the degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and use" (Rogers, 1995, p. 242). Complexity may also be the degree of difficulty a potential adopter has when considering and choosing between several conflicting benefits (Kindra, Laroche, & Muller, 1994). The Internet could easily be perceived as highly complex. The hardware components, alone, that are necessary to obtain an Internet connection could be considered as relatively complex to the novice user. This is further compounded by the need for software and the physical connection to the network. The Internet is a collection of many components and consumers may feel confused by its overall complexity. A further facet is the language that has evolved around computers and the Internet. Everyday technical terms such as byte, bit, boot and backup could be foreign and intimidating to a potential user.

While studying the differences between adopters and non-adopters of an early style of electronic shopping known as Videotex, Shim and Mahoney (1991) found that those who viewed the service as simple to use were more likely to adopt this method than those who sensed it was not so simple. Katz and Aspden (1997) found that 75 percent of user and non-user respondents in their survey (N=1,290) believed that there was some degree of complexity when first starting to use the Internet. Further, 48 percent believed that a significant barrier to adoption was that non-users simply had no idea of how to use the Internet. According to 43 percent of respondents, another barrier to adoption was perceived difficulty of access.


Some innovations offer the potential adopter the chance to try the innovation, on a limited basis, without having to make a commitment to continued use r adoption. Thus, trialability is the degree to which a potential user perceives that he or she has the opportunity to try out an innovation, prior to making the decision to adopt (Assael, 1992). Internet cafes, Internet kiosks in shopping centres and other public places, and local library access have made the Internet very amenable to trialCperhaps more so than many previous innovations. However, despite this availability of public access, trying it out remains a problem for many potential adopters, especially those in lower socio-economic groups. This is creating a widening gap between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor (US Department of Commerce, 1999).


Observability is the degree to which the perceived value and outcomes of an innovation are visible and can be communicated to others. Innovations, in particular, technological innovations, can be considered to have a "hardware" aspect (the physical, tangible object) and a "software" aspect (the intangible information conveyed). When the software aspects are more dominant than the hardware ones, the innovation’s observability is lessened and its diffusion becomes a slower and more difficult process (Rogers, 1995). The pervasiveness of the Internet has increased its observability. Advertised invitations to visit some web site on the Internet ( are very common and appear in periodicals, on billboards, on TV and radio, and on product packaging and point-of-sale material.

Perceived Risk

Perceived risk is the uncertainty a potential adopter may have about the outcome of an adoption. There are two components of perceived risk, uncertainty about the outcome of adopting the innovation, and uncertainty about the consequences of adoption. This risk may be real or imaginary. To reduce perceived risk, many potential adopters will seek further information and attempt product trial, or rely on a brand that is trusted or that offers a performance warranty or guarantee. Another consumer strategy is to seek the advice of a person considered to be trustworthy or to have an expertise in that product class. As an example, Microsoft offers detailed, searchable information about new products on their Internet site ( along with the opportunity to trial, at no cost, new versions of software. Potential adopters have the opportunity to seek information and try new software before deciding to adopt.


While cost is the main reason potential adopters of the Internet are not going online (Katz & Aspden, 1997), those who already have Internet access also cite security and concerns about privacy as the main reasons for not undertaking commercial transactions on the Internet (Gupta & Chatterjee, 1997). Research by Sheth and Sisodia (1997) has found that consumers’ concern for privacy has increased over recent years. Indeed, consumers may have cause for concern with privacy when it comes to accessing information or purchasing goods on the Internet. However, Van den Poel and Leunis (1999) believe that the availability of extensive information on the Internet lowers a consumer’s perceived risk. Their research reveals that the Internet may become a successful competitor for both traditional store and non-store retail outlets when price reductions, a money-back guarantee, and well-known brands are made available. Whether these findings translate into more shoppers on the Internet is yet to be seen, particularly in light of Van den Poel and Leunis’ (1999) finding that Internet users would prefer to purchase goods online over purchasing from a catalogue.

Whereas Peterson et al. (1997) conclude that only specific goods and services will be purchased over the Internet, Deighton (1997) believes that this will be the case nly in the short term. As consumers become more adept at buying over the Internet, they will expand their horizons and become confident consumers of a wide range of goods and services. For this to happen, consumers must perceive significant advantages over conventional shopping channels. Perhaps, consumers will again be swayed by the attributes of convenience and economy, the drivers of past change in buyer behaviour (Alba et al., 1997; Burke, 1998).

Generational Differences

Despite some uncertainty about the specific long-term future of shopping on the Internet, evidence suggests that one factor which will affect the diffusion of this concept is generational membership. Because they were raised during different eras in the evolution of information technology, various generations look upon the Internet through very different eyes (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). These birth cohorts are Generation Y, born between 1977 and 1994; Generation X, the group born between 1965 and 1976; the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, in the United States, (1945 and 1963, in Australia); and seniors (also called Matures) who are made up of the Swing generation, born between1933 and 1945 and the World War II generation, born before 1933 (Mitchell, 1998; Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). Of interest, in this paper, is how senior consumers see the Internet as a channel for obtaining their lifestyle needs.


The focus on youth in marketing has resulted in very little research being undertaken to better understand the senior segment as consumers. This preoccupation with youth has also led to misconceptions and unrealistic images of older people (Wolfe, 1997). They are stereotyped as an unattractive segment in psychological and physical decline, with little spending power (Leventhal, 1997; Tynan & Drayton, 1988). Yet, the steadily rising proportion of seniors in the population should see this group becoming a highly valued consumer segment.

Between 1901 and 1998, the proportion of the population aged 65+ has trebled, increasing from 4% to 12%. Nations throughout the developed world including the United States, Canada and New Zealand are following a similar pattern, while European countries such as Sweden, Italy, the United Kingdom and Greece are collectively ageing even more rapidly (ABS, 1999).

A Generational Profile

Leventhal (1997) believes that seniors continue to value their individuality and seek to remain in control of their external environment. They also continue to value personal growth and seek opportunities to actively participate with others in this pursuit. Remaining in touch with younger generations and having the opportunity to meet new people, as well as old friends, is important. However, seniors worry about their personal security (Dychtwald & Flower, 1988) and are often influenced to purchase products that may ensure a more secure environment. Although seniors are often treated as members of two separate generations, research shows that, because of shared experiences over time, they have developed similar basic values (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). An example of the segmentation of this cohort is the World War II generation (born before 1933) and the Swing Generation (born between 1933 and 1945; Mitchell, 1998).

History and Lifecycle. Seniors in both Australia and the United States were influenced by the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and the assassination of a President of the United States. Economic hardship, self sacrifice, discipline and teamwork established their beliefs and values. They came together to defeat a cmmon enemy. To achieve this, they turned to developing industrial technologies. It was this generation that perfected the atomic bomb (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). Many grew up as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Their family was the traditional two parents and siblings (Strauss & Howe, 1991) and their ideals were to own their own home and buy an automobile (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). Through a strong belief in the value of tertiary achievement, they changed the face of education. It is this group that ignited the senior citizen’s movement (Strauss & Howe, 1991). Seniors strongly believe that they are older, not old. But the aging process is taking its toll. Their children having left home, these are the empty-nesters in our society.

Personal Values. Compared to the three younger generations (Mowen, 1993; Strauss & Howe, 1991; Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997), seniors

$grew up with the radio and newspaper

$relate to hard work, teamwork and self sacrifice

$are hard-striving and selfless

$are the most conformist group

$have confidence in the government

$are less likely to try new products

$believe that there is glory in going to war and war heroes

$believe more strongly in sameness than personal differences

$seek conformity and fitting-in

$have a strong social ethic and sense of neighbourhood

$are the happiest.

Buyer Behaviour. Seniors have greater amounts of spare time but less disposable income. They have been found to shop more frequently than other groups but they spend less money during each shopping trip (Burke, Denning & Metcalfe, 1997). Decreased motor skills impact the ability of some to walk, talk and drive a car (Mowen, 1993). Vision and hearing problems are common (Mitchell, 1998). They are cautious consumers who are less likely to try new products (Mitchell, 1998). When shopping, they need more time to process information before making a purchase decision (Mowen, 1993). When choosing a venue to shop, they often seek the opportunity to socialise and meet friends (Hare, Kirk, & Lang, 1999). They also tend to seek venues that they consider will offer an entertaining atmosphere (Burke et al., 1997). Compared to other groups, seniors make very few big ticket purchases (Morrisette, 1998).

Certain seniors find shopping and, in particular, the retail environment to be problematic. Some of the problems cited by Johnson-Hillery & Kang (1997) and Mason & Bearden (1979) are

$Dissatisfaction with store layout and accessibility

$Merchandise being difficult to find

$Aisles being difficult to traverse

$Difficulty reading labels

$Difficulty using trolleys

$Difficulty using buses

$Feeling too cold in supermarkets.

Other problems for seniors, when supermarket shopping, have been identified by Hare, Kirk and Lang (1999). Broadly, these are

$Quantity of food sizes being too large

$Being rushed

$Having to wait in long queues

$Becoming disoriented because stock had been moved around

$Limited range of stock to choose from

$Poor standards of hygiene and other consumers touching food

$Poor customer service/assistance

$Lack of seating

$Poor signage

$Unsatisfactory public transportation

$Difficulty comparing prices

Compared to younger segments, seniors process information differently (Kennett, Moschis, & Bellenger, 1995). While younger consumers see the world as being black-and-white, the older mind interprets information in shades-of-gray (Wolfe, 1997). For this reason, older consumers are less influenced by the opinion of others and often prefer information that gives them the opportunity to make up their own minds. Seniors also process information at a slower rate. Also, ageing makes the processing of large amounts of information more difficult; if an older consumer is forced to make a decision under duress, he or she is more likely to become emotionally distressed (Gruca & Schewe, 1992).

Within society, there is a somewhat negative attitude towards the elderly. This translates into further problems within the traditional retail environment. Research by Johnson-Hillery & Kang (1997) found that seniors prefer to deal with an older salesperson when making a retail purchase. This preference comes about because they believe they will receive product information that is more appropriate to their circumstances and that they will be treated with greater respect.

With so many potential problems in the traditional retail environment, an alternative that eliminates many of these issues may well be the answer that senior shoppers are looking for.


Seniors find technology to be somewhat intimidating and they are concerned about online security and the true value of what is on offer. They believe that online shopping demands an entirely new learned behaviour (Walker Smith & Clurman, 1997). Less that 5 percent of respondents in the GVU 10th Internet Survey (Kehoe et al., 1999) were seniors.

Although traditional shopping can be a demanding task to seniors, they will require special assistance on the Internet. Failing eyesight and arthritic hands can make the Internet an intimidating experience (Cleaver, 1999). Microsoft Corporation has recognised both the increasing numbers of users from this group as well as their special needs. For this reason they have developed a web site, Seniors and Technology ( exclusively for the senior. Microsoft has also produced a white paper on effective web design for older adults which is freely available on the seniors’ website.

The Internet does not discriminate against those who take a little more time to make a purchase decision or find difficulty in reading a price tag. It can also offer information from many alternative sources. Comparing prices is relatively easy and buyers do not have to contend with either long queues or unsympathetic sales staff. Further, seniors would have increased autonomy and control.

Thus, the major challenge for marketers of the Internet is to convince seniors that they stand to gain a great deal from this medium’s convenience and its potential for achieving savings and providing a pleasurable shopping experience. However, certain barriers (perceptual and real) will need to be lowered, first.

A recent study by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. (1999) reveals that, of fifteen online activities investigated, making purchases had the most dramatic increase, from 31 percent of respondents in 1998 to 42 percent in July 1999 stating that they regularly or occasionally made purchases online. However, this increase is not reflected within the 50-plus age segment. Within this group, the increase from 33 percent to 36 percent is very small. Perhaps the greatest brriers to adoption are those relating to perceived risk, complexity and compatibility. Of these three, compatibility may, in the long term, be the attribute of greatest concern.

Perceived Risk

Concerns with loss of privacy combined with perceived uncertainty of a satisfactory purchase outcome may initially act as barriers to adoption.


There is little doubt that seniors would find the entire process from Internet set-up to finally undertaking a financial transaction as quite intimidating. However, many seniors are now banding together to overcome this barrier.


Seniors endure the difficulties of traditional shopping in pursuit of some form of social engagement. To them, the relative advantages that the Internet may bring may not outweigh their need to interact with others. The seniors cohort, with its overarching ideals of conformity and belief in teamwork, are prone to banding together in groups to overcome the fear of new technology and the inevitable change it will bring. The challenge that marketers now face is developing an online environment that is conducive to the values of a generation, yet meets the needs of its diverse sub-segments. Even with technology that is presently available, it is possible that this medium could offer both the opportunity for socialisation and a shopping environment that is tailor-made for each sub-segment of seniors. Although relatively small Internet shopping sites have been developed for seniors, it would appear that they lack the one ingredient that this group seeksCinteraction.

One way to enhance the compatibility of the InternetCas a shopping toolCwith seniors’ values, is to design appropriate portals. A portal acts as a starting point for users when they access the Internet. It could be thought of as an anchor, from which the user can then explore the web. Services offered by portal sites include news, weather, email, a directory of Web sites, and, at times, a community forum. What seniors will need is a major portal site, carrying well known brands, that offers a money-back guarantee and allows visitors to interact with both the merchants and other visitors.

Such a site should offer

$print in large font that could be enlarged even further under the user’s control

$enlargeable graphics

$layout that is uncluttered and straightforward

$extensive information about goods offered

$a detailed help menu to assist even the most novice of users

$the ability to interact with both merchants and other visitors

$feedback on purchase experiences posted by seniors

$a gift-giving service that reminds users of important gift dates and then offers suggestions that can be ordered, wrapped and delivered

$the ability to select food products by criteria such as package size and dietary requirements

$a memory vault where treasured photographs and other memorabilia could be deposited and kept in a digital form.

Above all, the portal should portray a community atmosphere where seniors could seek expert advice from both merchants and other seniors. In the future, the portal could offer downloadable talking books and voice recognition. In particular, voice recognition may be a key to eliminating any long term barriers that this segment presently perceives.


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Margo Poole, Griffith University, Australia
Thomas Muller, Griffith University, Australia


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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