The Elderly Consumer: Past, Present, and Future

ABSTRACT - This paper reviews literature relating to research on the elderly consumer. Relevant empirical findings and propositions are examined to provide a base for future theoretical development. Specifically, the findings and propositions are discussed in a manner conducive for continuing research on this increasingly important population segment. Finally, future directions are indicated to guide consumer researchers in theory development.


H. Lee Meadow, Stephen C. Cosmas, and Andy Plotkin (1981) ,"The Elderly Consumer: Past, Present, and Future", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 742-747.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 742-747


H. Lee Meadow, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Stephen C. Cosmas, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Andy Plotkin, Bridgewater State College


This paper reviews literature relating to research on the elderly consumer. Relevant empirical findings and propositions are examined to provide a base for future theoretical development. Specifically, the findings and propositions are discussed in a manner conducive for continuing research on this increasingly important population segment. Finally, future directions are indicated to guide consumer researchers in theory development.


In the last twenty years, a number of primary and secondary research studies have attempted to describe the elderly consumer. However, it has only been of late, due to increasing size and buying power, that the elderly consumer segment has become critically important. Given this development, it would seem judicious that an examination should be undertaken of what is currently known about the elderly consumers to aid in future consumer research efforts.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the findings of past elderly consumer research in order to provide for an overview of the nature and scope of the elderly segment. Toward this end, relevant findings will be presented to the exclusion of detailed methodological and theoretical criticisms. These findings should establish a foundation for future marketing and consumer research effort.


The Elderly Consumer: The Call for Attention

In the 1960's, U.S. demographers began to chart a growing population trend. The upcoming decades would be characterized by a senior citizen market, defined as those 65+, which would begin to grow at a faster pace than ever before experienced. Because of increasing life spans due to preventive medicine, the aging of the baby boom cohorts, the control of some death causing illnesses, and the increased quality of environmental living conditions, the elderly were predicted to become a major force in terms of size in the U.S. marketplace (Business Week 1960).

This recognition of the growing elderly population led to a number of calls for research to estimate the size and character of the elderly segment. Concurrently, calls were made for marketer reaction to create products and services that would meet the "special" needs of whet was then perceived to be a unique $40 billion market segment (Gidlow 1961, Goeldner and Munn 1964, Morse 1964). However, all did not agree that the elderly segment was important and/or unique enough for generating research and development. Reinecke (1964) concluded from his investigation that there was no unique elderly market, elderly consumption patterns were not homogeneous, and the elderly could not be discerned from other population groupings.

For whatever reasons, a period of three years passed in which interest in the elderly consumer waned. In 1967, Samli provided some empirical evidence that the elderly were indeed a unique demographic market segment. In addition, Goldstein (1968) used Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from 1950 to 1960 to independently confirm the contention that the aged market indeed had unique consumption patterns in terms of goods purchased (a finding that he had earlier reported in the Journal of Gerontology, 1965).

Still, few if any attempts were made by researchers and practitioners either to indicate methods for marketing or attempting to market to the elderly (Forbes 1979, Nation's Business 1971). The lack of interest in this market appeared to be based on intuitive judgments of marketing practitioners that the aging (estimated now to be a $60-$200 billion market) did not possess unique wants or needs or even want to be reminded that they were growing old (Business Week 1971, Media Decisions 1973, U.S. Department of Commerce 1973). However, this position did not entirely eliminate the academic interest in the elderly consumer. Generally, two to four consumer behavior studies have appeared annually to the present time addressing the aged market.

To gain marketing reaction, Block (1974) and Waddell (1975) demonstrated that the elderly were deserving of special attention as a result of a higher level of victimization suffered relative to other population segments. Due to fixed income, inflation, lack of social interaction, and psychological insecurity among other factors, the elderly, it was asserted, are particularly susceptible to fraudulent practices. It was felt that a concerted marketing institution effort might ameliorate these factors and significantly benefit this disadvantaged group.

Louden (1976) also raised the issue of whether it was economically justifiable to ignore the aged market. Demographically, he argued, that not only did they constitute a major purchasing power, but that the elderly would increase this power in the future through rapid population growth (expected by the year 2000 to grow to 20% of population).

Most recently the banner has again been raised by business observers calling for a marshalling of effort to reach the elderly consumer (Business Week 1979). The findings indicate that reaching the "olderster" or "maturity" market (defined as 45+) could pay off (and has for a number of firms as illustrated by the examples reported). It was shown that: (1) the 45+ market accounts for 39.2 million households or 53.9% of all households, (2) the 45+ segment has an average income of $13,338 ($16,619 for the 45-64 year old and $8,063 for the 65+ person), (3) the 45+ segment has 52.4% of all spendable income available, and (4) the 45+ segment accounts for 59.9% of all discretionary income.

To conclude, marketers and consumer behaviorists have begun to show interest in the aged market. However, even with the many calls for research that have been generated throughout the past 200 years, and in spite of the subsequent research efforts focusing on this group, it would appear that not enough is known about this population segment in terms of description, prediction, and explanation of behavioral phenomenon to fully develop conceptualized decision-making frameworks.

A Review of General Behavioral and Decision-Making Findings

Samli and Palubinskas (1972) conducted exploratory research in a west coast SMSA senior citizen center to explore two aspects of consumer behavior: consumption patterns and buying behavior activity. The research generated a number of initial findings among which were: (1) food accounts for a substantial proportion of the elderly's incomes, (2) the elderly are generally limited to weekend shopping periods because of restricted transportation sources, and competing activities such as hobbies, civic functions, and community activities, and (3) the elderly are heavy users of mass communication sources for consumer information.

Mason and Smith (1974) conducted a survey in an elderly public housing complex of a major SMSA. This was done in order to develop: (1) a shopping behavior profile of the low income senior citizen, (2) to determine the basic sources the elderly utilized in obtaining consumer information, (3) and to outline the travelling behavior of the elderly in making major purchases. Their findings suggested that the senior citizen: (1) relies slightly on in-home shopping services, (2) utilizes both newspapers and previous experiences as prime sources of information, and (3) shops as part of a life style, not just for particular purchases.

Reinecke (1975)--the author of the 1964 study which purported that a distinct elderly segment did not exist--examined retailing outlets in order to see the compatibility between the institutions and the needs of the senior citizen. He found that the buying needs and location of the elderly made the current array of supermarkets and shopping centers non-usable in meeting elderly consumption needs and thus, were not part of their system of buying.

Concurrently, using the younger consumer as a comparative group, Bernhardt and Kinnear (1975) conducted a random sample survey of senior citizens in a southeastern SMSA in order to develop a consumer profile of the senior consumer. This profile included such consumer phenomena as shopping behavior, credit card usage, media habits, and leisure time activities. Their findings indicated that the senior citizens were: (1) less likely to use discount stores and more likely to use traditional department scores than their younger counterparts; (2) much less likely to have credit cards than the younger group; (3) more likely to read newspapers than those under 35 but less likely than the group 35-64 years old; (4) much less likely to listen to FM radio rather than AM than the younger group; (3) much more likely to watch more daytime TV than younger groups; and (6) less likely to engage in reading, attend sporting events, go to movies, go out to eat, or attend religious services than those younger.

During that same period, Tongren (1975) conducted a study of the income and credit usage of the elderly by analyzing census data and using a random sample of elderly from the middle Atlantic states. He concluded that income of the elderly has doubled in the previous decade and that this trend will continue in the future due to: (1) higher investment income and returns on working assets than those of previous elderly generations and (2) continued expansion of private pensions in terms of dollar size and people covered. The first finding that the elderly possess more purchasing power than past elderly due to increased returns on assets and investments was confirmed in a study of retirement associations in Houston, where the following analysis resulted:

To look at the 65-and-over group as low income shoppers can be misleading in two ways. First, it means over-looking the possibility that a senior citizen with a $500-per-month income may be ready for a round-the-world trip. Assuming that income breaks down to $180 for Social Security, $320 from investments, the $320 may be a 5 percent return on about $77,000 (Gelb 1978, p. 45).

Tongren (1975) also found that 80% of the elderly used some form of consumer credit for periods less than 30 days. This finding appears contrary to Bernhardt and Kinnear (1975), until one examines Tongren's data carefully and observes that it implies that as age increases, the use of credit diminishes.

Martin (1976) conducted research on a convenience sample from southwest Missouri in order to examine behavior differences exhibited in varying age groups of fashion buyers. Using life cycle as his grouping classification system, he concluded from his analysis that the following major differences exist among generations: (1) the elderly emphasize alternative choices less than other generational groups, (2) the elderly have less formed predispositions prior to the shopping than other generational groupings, and (3) the elderly rely more heavily on newspaper and salespersons for marketing information than other generational groupings.

Towle and Martin (1976) began to question, as did Reinecke (1964), the assumption that the elderly age segment was homogeneous. However, unlike Reinecke (1964), their own assumption was that the elderly could be categorized into various segments, each different than younger age groupings. Using psychographic and buying study data (and demographic data which did not work) from a national panel, a cluster analysis was performed. They concluded that not only were the elderly different from their younger counterparts, but the following sub-segments were found:

(1) Saver/Planner (buys unknown brands)

a. Psychographic description--frank, self-assured and confident

b. Possessed 25.1% of the elderly market

(2) Brand Loyalist (Does not buy for approval of friends)

a. Psychographic description--brave and not stubborn

b. Possessed 8.4% of the elderly market

(3) Information Seeker (persuasible)

a. Psychographic description--kind and sincere

b. Possessed 10.1% of the elderly market

(4) Economy Shopper (not brand loyal).

a. Psychographic description--not brave, not demanding, not egotistical, and bland personality

b. Possessed 10.6% of the elderly market

(5) Laggard (not persuasible)

a. Psychographic description--liberal, unreserved, and cold to others

b. Possessed 11.2% of the elderly market

(6) Conspicuous Consumer (change brands and see approval from friends)

a. Psychographic description--dominant, egotistical, and stubborn

b. Possessed 34.6% of the elderly market

Mason and Beardon (1978) conducted research on a random sample of elderly in a southeastern SMSA to develop a profile of shopping behavior of elderly consumers. Their findings suggested: (1) that like other age groups, the elderly shop for a variety of reasons other than buying, e.g., exercise, leisure, and recreation, and (2) that they tend to use friends, personal experience, price comparisons, and mass media as information sources in making marketing decisions.

Finally, Deshpande and Krishman (1979) using the coping skill conceptual frame of Botwinick (1973) examined how the elderly perceived their marketplace interactions. They investigated severed decision rule strategies, via factor analysis, of a national panel of elderly consumers and then ran a discriminant analysis between consumers who claimed to have good versus bad marketplace experiences. They found that the order of prediction factors of decision rule strategies associated with bad shopping experiences (from most to least) was: flexible shopping rules, conservative shopping rules, brand conscious rules, sales pressure avoidance rules, and information avoidance rules. As they state:

The flexible shopping rules have to do with ignoring budgeted limits, going beyond shopping list items, and disregarding detailed information on contracts. This may open up elderly buyers to make unwise or hazardous purchases that they later regret. Contrast this with the Brand Conscious or Sales Pressure Avoidant Decision rules which imply more methodical and painstaking prepurchase activity. These rule sets seem intuitively to lead to better buying as evidence by less post purchase dissatisfaction. (p. 586)

In summary, the behavioral and decision-making findings generally show the elderly to have the following overall characteristics: (1) they tend to be somewhat limited in mobility; (2) they use large quantities of marketer generated information; (3) they engage in shopping for more than just buying reasons; (4) they have a similar pattern of leisure to younger age groups, just lower in quantity; (5) they have more sources of incomes than ever before because of pre-retirement investments; (6) they use long-term credit less as age progresses; (7) they are not just one homogeneous segment but many smaller segments, each differing iron their younger counterparts; and (8) they depend on a wide array of shopping rules that result in varying among of coping skill levels in dealing with marketing institutions.

The Aged Market: A Review of Information Processing Findings

Consumer information processing research has been the basis for developing, several overall consumer buying models (e.g., Engel et al., 1978, Bettman 1979). The study of consumer information processing generally includes the following variables: nature of consumer's search activities, amount of information seeking by consumers, factors that influence the search process, type of information sought, sources of information, evaluating alternative factors influencing the amount of evaluation, and the results of the evaluation (Loudon and Della Bitta 1979, pp. 459-481).

Schiffman (1971; 1972; 1973) in studying the elderly consumers in a senior citizen community asked the following: (1) what was the impact that internal (research experiences) and external (marketing communications) sources of information had on new trial (product purchases) behavior, (2) what is the relationship between new trial and perceived risk, and (3) whet is the relationship between product-related social interaction variables and general social interaction variables? His findings indicated that: (1) both internal and external sources of information affect the elderly's consumer decision making, (2) the higher the perceived risk, the less likely the product trial, (3) there is a high significant relationship between new product related social interaction and general social interaction, and (4) socially active elderly are more innovative than social isolates.

Phillips and Sternthal (1977) provided the first major synthesis of related behavioral literature dealing with age differences in information processing with the accent on the elderly consumer. Their focus was twofold: (1) to examine the differential sensitivity to processing information between the young and the old and (2) to determine when, in terms of age, these differentials are likely to occur. To address these issues, research on patterns of information exposure, learning, and influencibility were reviewed.

First, with regard to information exposure, Phillips and Sternthal (1977) in reviewing Frederick (1973), Graney and Graney (1974), and Schramm (1969) were able to conclude that the elderly have greater exposure and reliance on mass media for information relative to younger age groupings. Further, contrary to popular opinion, the elderly show similar patterns to their younger counterparts in information exposure and reliance on the extended family.

Second, with regard to learning, Phillips and Sternthal (1977) in reviewing Arenberg (1967), Botwinick (1973), Rabbitt (1965), Bitten (197&), and Schonfield (1974) among others, concluded that age decrements can indeed exist in levels of learning, continuous attention, and information processing speed. These decrements tended to be especially apparent when the information presented is not self-paced and when distractions are present. When one goes outside the Phillips and Sternthal review and examines problem-solving contexts, there is confirmation of the existence of age related decrements especially with increases in problem-solving complexity (Young 1966, Arenberg 1968, Wethernick 1966).

Finally, with regard to influencibility, Phillips and Sternthal (1977) in reviewing Whittaker and Meade (1967) and Klein (1972) among others, concluded that the empirical evidence was inconsistent as to differences in influencibility relative to younger age groupings. In most cases, influencibility was at least situation specific and could be present due to such factors as social isolation or self-perception of incompetence.

As a conclusion to their review, Phillips and Sternthal state that age related factors significantly affect the way individuals conduct information processing activities. However, they caution their readers that:

These differences do not necessarily occur at age 65; rather, they are related to the social, psychological and physical changes that accompany aging (p. 453).

Phillips and Sternthal's (1977) work on information processing provides a paradigm for explaining the consumer behavior of the aged by systematically relating a variety of studies iron studies from various disciplines. Metatheoretically known as intersubjective certifiability (Popper 1968), Phillips and Sternthal's work is a crucial phase in developing a comprehensive consumer behavior theory for the elderly.

During the same year of the Phillips and Sternthal review, French and Creek (1977) conducted research on the relationship of persuasibility and media appeals using a random sample of elderly from a major SMSA. Using hypotheses developed from Phillips and Sternthal (1977) conceptualizations and Layton's (1975) documented findings of diminished sensory capabilities associated with age, French and Creek found the following results: (1) the elderly perceive no differences in source credibility of advertisements carried by different media, (2) advertising in general has a significant impact on senior citizen buying behavior, and (3) the young-old are more influenced by advertising than old-old--using the Neugarten (1974) elderly classification scheme.

Beardon and Mason (forthcoming) studied a random sample of elderly consumers from a southeastern SMSA and compared their findings to a national sample of grocery shoppers in order to examine "the familiarity with and use of grocery shopping aids and other consumer oriented information'' provided by marketers. Additionally, product unavailability and complaint experiences were also examined. Their research was based on the Krosk and Srivastava (1977) findings that indicated there was lessened sensitivity to unfairness and less tendency to be assertive about complaining among elderly in comparison to other groups. Beardon and Mason found that: (1) differences between elderly and a national sample of representative grocery shoppers existed, in that the elderly use and are less familiar with consumer information made available in the grocery outlet and (2) that dissatisfaction with food was higher for the national sample than the elderly sample due to decreased sensitivity of the older shoppers to negative shopping occurrences.

A similar study vas conducted by Lawther (1978) using national panel data, which examined social integration of the elderly and the relationship this variable had with unfairness awareness, complaint actions, and information usage. Previous research had shown that social integration affects brand preferences of consumers in general and that social integration affected the behavior of the elderly in particular (Stafford 1966, Larsen 1978). Utilizing the paradigm of social integration which is composed of social values, social roles and informed group membership, she explored the impact social integration had on elderly consumer behavior (Rosow 1974). Some of her findings indicated that: the greater the degree of social integration. The greater the awareness of unfair marketing practices (e.g., bait and switch tactics) and the greater the likelihood of complaining about a buying experience that was less than satisfying, the more likely is the use of marketer dominated sources of information, as opposed to consumer dominated sources.

In summary, the information processing research has been useful in developing an initial descriptive understanding of the elderly's consumer behavior. From the reviewed studies, the following relationships were found to be most significant: (1) social interaction/integration is highly correlated to consumer decision processes and the utilization of marketing related sources, (2) age differences do indeed exist between young and old in information processing abilities, and (3) age related insensitivity to marketing unfairness and less assertive behavior in the fact of such practices, appear to put the elderly at a comparative disadvantage relative to younger age groups.


Researchers in the past twenty years have made significant inroads toward an understanding of the elderly consumer. Information about behavioral patterns that heretofore went unrecognized have now begun to come together into an overall generally accepted picture of the aged segment. Advancement from this point on rests upon subjecting the empirically found relationships to causal analyses based on sound theoretical foundations. If the elderly are to completely be understood and behavioral explanations offered, researchers must pursue the root causes for the observed behavioral phenomenon. Once such research is conducted it will be legitimate to assert that not only are the elderly deserving of attention, but the foundation will have been laid for developing normative decision actions.

To provide specific direction for future research effort directed at the elderly consumer, the following issues must be addressed, One, the issue of definition is paramount for consistent and coordinated empirical work. The labels of elderly, aged, and senior citizen all imply constructs that need precise definition for continuous research in future years. In essence what is required is a precise set of bounds delimiting the character of this population segment.

Two, a priori cause and effect relationships need to be conceptualized for elderly consumer behavior. A sound theoretical basis for all researched relationships must be established for empirically verifying root causes. For example, an important arena for future research is the area of whether or not age is the driving force or just an intervening variable spuriously related to behavior that masks cohort and/or period effects. Answers to cause and effect issues such as the age related effects could begin to provide enough answers to correctly develop necessary decision actions by public and private sectors on behalf of the elderly in meeting their specific needs.

Three, research effort should be directed at providing inputs into policy decisions geared toward meeting the needs of the elderly consumer. In a time of contracting resources and financial restraint decision makers may be forced into 'either/or' decisions at the expense of the elderly consumer. It's an issue such as this that makes it imperative for consumer researchers to generate findings that will have policy impact.

Four, there is the question of elderly consumer quality of life. In recent years policy makers, who have tried to satisfy the needs and enhance the well-being of the elderly consumer, have encountered difficulty in measuring the outcomes of their decisions. In order to overcome this difficulty, a coherent conceptual framework needs to be developed that can describe, predict, and explain the system of variables, relationships, and processes that produce a given level of well-being, or quality of life. Such research could be extremely important in providing for the consumer needs of the elderly.

Finally, before research is begun, a caution should be noted. Though the preponderance of empirical evidence supports the contention that the elderly, though not totally homogenous, are significantly different from other population segments, the reader should be aware that this is not a universally held position. It has been suggested by some gerontologists that society is "moving in the direction of what might be called an age-irrelevant society; and it can be argued that age, like race or sex, is diminishing in importance as a regulator of behavior (Neugarten and Hagestad 1976, p. 52). Still, even in light of this cogent argument, it is these authors' conclusion that the differences indicated in the consumer research examined warrant the contention that the elderly comprise a recognizable if not totally homogeneous market segment. This is sufficient reason for continuing the effort by consumer researchers to seek an understanding of the behavioral phenomena surrounding this increasingly important population segment.


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H. Lee Meadow, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Stephen C. Cosmas, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Andy Plotkin, Bridgewater State College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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