Buying and Consuming Behavior of the Elderly Findings From Behavioral Research

ABSTRACT - The elderly represent a growing market segment that researchers have rather neglected. This paper explores the findings of published research on the elderly's buying and consumption behavior. Some directions for future research are recognized.


Charles D. Schewe (1984) ,"Buying and Consuming Behavior of the Elderly Findings From Behavioral Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 558-562.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 558-562


Charles D. Schewe, University of Massachusetts


The elderly represent a growing market segment that researchers have rather neglected. This paper explores the findings of published research on the elderly's buying and consumption behavior. Some directions for future research are recognized.


The usefulness of "minorities" as a means of segmenting markets has been a fertile area for market researchers for many recent years. Marketers have delved into the buying behavior of blacks, hispanics, Jews, teenagers, and others, but have largely neglected the elderly--those consumers over the age of 65. Marketers have failed to fully explore or understand the dimensions, character, and potential of this market. Furthermore, marketing activities directed specifically at this "older" market seem to be a missed opportunity of sizeable importance. Yet societal pressures to mold an improved image of aged Americans combined with the realization of the economic rewards of successfully targeting this segment is increasing the attention paid to this 65+ market segment. This paper reports the recent empirical research on the elderly marketplace and explores some directions for future research that can assist marketers in better meeting their unique wants and needs.

From a sales and profit potential, the elderly market is well worth the research effort necessary to secure accurate information about how to satisfy them. The elderly constitute a significant and growing market segment in the American population. Those 65+ include 11 percent of today's U.S. population (over 25 million people in almost 18 million households) and that number are expected to grow to 13 percent by the year 2000. Women outnumber men 3 to 2 and only 5 percent of these seniors live inside institutions. Only 10 percent of them live with children. Household size logically is reduced as is full-time employment. While health is generally poorer, only about 15 percent require special health or social services.

The elderly are not poor. Per capita income in households headed by 65+ persons is but 7 percent lower than the general population average; and it has been estimated that the elderly need only about 60 to 80 percent of former income to maintain their standard of living. Only about 6 percent of the elderly can be considered officially "poor old families." Seniors have the greatest accumulation of assets, having fewer dependents, and are given to "dis-save" rather than to hold on to those assets.

In terms of their general behavior, seniors tend toward seasonal migration to warm climates and to earlier bedtimes. They do not engage in as much physical activity as in earlier years. They do exhibit greater leisure time activities; the travel and entertainment industries in particular have begun to notice their impact. Two distinct subsegments seem to exist--the "young old," aged to 74, and the "old-old," those 75 and above. The young-old are active, vibrant, and healthy. The old-old are less healthy, more sedentary, and less sharp in their mental and physical abilities. There are twice as many young-olds as there are old-olds. The elderly increasingly exhibit a trend toward "gray pride"--a positive identification with their age and away from the negative stereo-type--poor, depressed, physically deteriorated, and inactive. Perhaps the most impressive difference between oldsters and younger age groups is the combination of discretionary time and money. The purchasing power of this segment has been estimated at between $60 and $200 billion.

This special session focuses on theoretical foundations for understanding the elderly consumer and on some empirical research within the context of these theoretical underpinnings. This paper catalogues the results of previous research that give some indication of how marketers should perform their marketing mix activities--product, place, promotion, and price. Because of sampling problems, the principles presented must be used cautiously. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this paper offers some guidelines for managerial action and, with its references and suggestions, provides an information source for directions for future research on the elderly.


Generally, this area of research has been rather neglected, giving increased importance to the work being conducted by the Center on Aging at the University of Maryland and reported in a subsequent paper. Gelb (1978) found the physical and life style changes of the elderly to produce an emphasis on services over goods. This study of Houston seniors suggested the need for such services as home security, car maintenance and repair, and lawn care and also found high interest in "no-frills" products and services A Progressive Grocer study of Baltimore elderly (Zbytniewski 1979) found 71 percent to rate generic items as good as other brands and 70 percent to rate them as a "better value" than other brands. Apparently generic products present an opportunity for marketers to the elderly.

Bernhardt and Kinnear (1976) studied the leisure time activities of over 300 Atlanta seniors. They found attending church (58 percent), going out to eat (51 percent), and reading books (43 percent) to be more often pursued than fishing (15 percent), attending baseball games (15 percent), and doing crossword puzzles (10 percent). Seniors were heavy users of long distance telephone (65 percent), mass transit (43 percent) and even taxi cabs (32 percent).

In the area of branding, the evidence is not clear. A study of seniors by Media Decisions (1977) concluded that oldsters rely more on manufacturers' brands while a Progressive Grocer study (Zbytniewski 1979) found increased acceptance of private and generic brands. With respect to brand loyalty, Towle and Martin (1976) studied 209 seniors and found six life-style segments. The two largest segments, the "conspicuous consumers" and the "saver/planners," accounted for 60 percent of the elderly studied and only 8.4 percent were found brand loyal.

Apparently the elderly are not terribly concerned about package size or label print size. Lambert (1979) studied over 500 Florida seniors and found only 8.2 percent wanting smaller packages of perishable food items and only 4.3 percent complaining of small print on product labels. However, conflicting results came from a qualitative study of elderly food shoppers (Food Marketing Institute 1980). Eight focus group sessions with seniors in four geographically distinct markets produced a high incidence of complaints about foods being Packed in quantities that are too large for their households. They also complained that the print used in labels is often hart to read because it is too small or difficult to understand.

Senior women appear fashion conscious with Martin (1976) finding two-thirds of 75 Missouri women perceiving themselves as fashion conscious. Elderly women were found to plan their purchases and keep up to date with fashion trends. Yet another study (Richards 1981) studied 83 female members of Senior Citizens organizations in Western Texas and concluded that they were little influenced by contemporary fashion trends.

The findings on elderly innovativeness are not conclusive. Schiffman (1972) found oldsters', in one building in Queens New York, new product trial of a new salt substitute to be inversely related to the amount of perceived risk. Howard (1967) found those 65+ more likely than those below 65 to say they buy products "for the fun of it" or "just to try them once." Yet such new product experimenting was not found to be self-initiated but rather to come from the recommendations of others.

Three studies (Koeske and Srivastava 1977; Bearden and Mason 1979; and Bernhardt 1981) found the elderly to have a lessened sensitivity to unfairness and a tendency to hole back in their complaining behavior. Bearden and Mason (1979) found seniors to show the greatest amount of complaints against refrigerated (24 percent), canned (9 percent). and frozen (8 percent) foods.

Some Suggestions for Future Research

- Much greater attention should be given to understanding and matching products with seniors' deteriorating physiological abilities--such as packages that open more easily and revolving doors that require less strength to push.

- More detailed analysis of the innovative process as well as risk-taking behavior would foster greater adoption of improved products.

- Much more conclusive research is needed on brand preference and brand loyalty.

- More research on information search and processing, evaluative criteria, usage of self-concept matching with product image would be most helpful.

- More conclusive research is necessary on package size and label print size.

- Conflicting evidence on fashion-consciousness warrants further investigation.

- How marketers can gain better feedback on elderly product dissatisfaction should be Pursued.


Most "place" research has focused on the shopping behavior of seniors. Samli (1967) and Samli and Palubinskas (1972) discovered the elderly usually shop near their homes generally because they do not have their own transportation. They also found store loyalty to prevail--especially where store management can offer advice. Elderly with higher incomes and older ages displayed greater store loyalty.

Bernhardt and Kinnear (1976), in a study of Atlanta seniors found senior citizens to shop more traditional department stores and less in discount stores.

In supermarkets, Progressive Grocer (Zbytniewski 1979) found Baltimore seniors to be store loyal with nearly 80 percent shopping at their "regular" store. The elderly were conscientious shoppers with 70 percent reading store ads before entering the store. Similarly, Mason and Smith (1979) found the elderly using newspapers and personal observation while shopping as their primary sources of grocery product information. The Progressive Grocer study (Zbytniewski 1979) found older shoppers to shop more leisurely than time pressured younger shoppers and to avoid non-traditional supermarket departments such as delicatessens and health and beauty aids while frequenting perishables departments such as meat and produce.

Gelb (1978) found Houston shoppers welcoming special treatment. Seniors desired special clothing departments, carry-out service for their packages, clerks their own age, and stores showing an explicit interest in retirement age business (such as a "Welcome, Seniors"' sign in their window).

With respect to their use of such informational aids as open-code dating, nutritional labeling, and unit pricing, Bearden and Mason (1979) found the elderly to make less use of these shopping aids than other age groups. Over 40 percent of the seniors were not familiar with unit pricing (compared to 12 percent for other age groups) and less than 20 percent of the elderly considered open-code dating essential to food shopping (compared to 75 percent of the younger sample). The Food Marketing Institute (1982) cross validated these earlier unit pricing findings. Their focus groups found varied experiences with unit pricing and concluded that the elderly need greater consumer education about unit pricing. Reid, Teel, and VanderBergh (1980) found that while elderly women perceive risk in shopping, they did not exhibit interest in utilizing information sources to reduce risk.

Barnes and Peters (1982) studied seniors in one northeastern state and found retail stores clearly the most frequently used method of retailing. While only 8 percent indicated they never used a retail store, no more than 25 percent ever purchased by mail, telephone, or door-to-door. The frequency of use of these other modes were very low-mail (7.5 percent used mail "very often"), door-to-door (4 percent), and telephone (2.6 percent).

Some Suggestions for Future Research

- How might shelf space be better managed to meet the physiological deficiencies of seeing, bending, and reaching that the elderly experience?

- Research is warranted in the area of the importance of store image and the criteria used by seniors to discriminate between stores.

What fosters store loyalty?

- How could non-store retailing be promoted to the elderly?

- Research on in-store amenities (benches, shopping carts that pull apart more easily, special elderly checkout lanes and shopping assistants, special lighting and signs) could greatly enhance the shopping experience for seniors

- How can transportation to and from stores be facilitated?

- How might the elderly be better educated concerning the uses of unit pricing, coupons, food stamps, and open-code dating?

- Marketers should investigate how seniors can be encouraged to use more economical stores

- What information sources would be used to increase "wise' shopping?


Most research in the communication arena has focused on advertising--and much of that with the stereotyping of seniors in advertisements. Northcott (1975), Aronoff (1974), and Signorelli and Gerbner (1977) conducted content analysis and found seniors to comprise less than 5 percent of the characters coded in network programs in contrast to their 9.8 percent in 1970 and 11 percent in 1980 of the U.S. population. Seniors were found to be stereotyped as ineffective and passive In television commercials, Harris and Feinberg (1977) found the profile of the elderly to be unhealthy, unflattering, unstylish, and uninteresting The elderly portrayal reflects more the "old-old" segment with their physical and general health problems.

At the same time, 442 Delaware seniors studied by Schreiber and Boyd (1980) were found to view the portrayal of the elderly in TV commercials to be favorable. Sixty-nine percent indicated commercials were "often" or "always" useful in their buying decisions while only 30 percent found commercials "never useful." Those elderly who were heavy TV viewers saw the elderly as "realistic" while light viewers perceived seniors in commercials as "the way I wish people would be like."

Again, through content analysis of over 6500 magazine advertisements, Grantz, Gartenberg, and Rainbow (1977) found seniors, especially women, were under-represented. Yet they found magazines painted a less negative image of the elderly than television commercials. This was true across all magazines studied.

With respect to media usage, Bernhardt and Kinnear (1976) found oldsters the heaviest age group overall to view television. Elderly, especially women (Schreiber and Boyd 1980), showed the highest daytime watching as well as news watching between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Viewing declines at 9 p.m and after 10 p.m., the elderly are least likely to watch television. With radio, oldsters listen to less FM programming than other age groups. They do listen to as much AM as other age groups and this is generally done at home Over half the elderly read a daily newspaper and almost 70 percent read the Sunday edition. Seniors exhibited less readership of home-oriented magazines and news weeklies such as T and Newsweek.

Phillips and Sternthal (1977) found seniors to have a reduced ability to learn when the information is presented rapidly and when the pace is set by someone other than the senior. Learning is reduced when the message is cluttered with irrelevant information and when the oldster has had little experience with the issue of the message. The elderly were found to be no more persuadable than younger adults unless they believed they had less competence in making a judgment.

With respect to personal selling, Lambert (1979) found older people wanting better treatment from store personnel--more patience and courtesy. Seniors also indicated a greater need for personal assistance in locating products within the store. Gelb (1978) found Houston elderly to be willing to pay a bit more to shop in a store that went after the business of retirement age people. The aged are apparently dissatisfied with the lack of concern for them shown by retailers in general. In food shopping, the Food Marketing Institute study (1982) uncovered complaints about discourtesy by grocery store baggers.

Klippel and Sweeney (1976) found 101 Florida seniors to place more emphasis on the use of informal sources of communications such as friends than formal sources such as advertising. Thus, a satisfied aged customer can be a great source of business for retailers due to word-of-mouth communication.

Some Suggestions for Future Research

- More research attention should be paid to contextual aspects of advertisements other than the characters used.

More research is needed on attention getting value of various appeals--humor, animations, and even sex.

- Do older consumers find older spokespersons, perhaps because of implied wisdom, more believable than younger endorsers?

- What are the characteristics of product endorsers favored by seniors ?

- Is advertising generally considered deceptive by older consumers?

- Do mature markets see transgenerational ads with mixed groups more favorably than ads featuring only seniors?

- Research is needed on the roles expected of sales clerk.

- What sales promotional incentives (contests, coupons, etc.) are most effective?

- What innovative promotional methods could make the elderly more responsive in the marketplace?


This area of the marketing mix has been generally neglected by researchers. Early research by Goeldner and Munn (1964) and Forbes magazine (1969) suggest two price segments within the elderly. Goeldner and Munn found "Products in the low or moderate price ranges are more likely to be sought by the 'retired' customers who are necessarily price conscious because of lower incomes due to retirement." Forbes, on the other hand, found many seniors want to buy the very best. Towle and Martin (1976) found the elderly, more than other groups, to be conspicuous consumers "who seek approval of friends and see brands as a way of obtaining approval." Thus, they suggest price may act as a status symbol.

Looking at the impact of inflation on the elderly, Waddell (1973) and Changing Times (1971a and 1971b) both found inflation to cut back on an already limited lifestyle. Senior citizens cut back first on discretionary spending such as recreation, food taken away from home, and purchased appliances and furniture.

Research has shown a decided lack of familiarity with and usage of food stamps. Sherman and Brittan (1973) found that while two-thirds of their respondents were familiar with the food stamp program, only 10 percent participated even though the majority of the sample were eligible. Heltsley (1976) reported that while 30 percent of the elderly responding could have qualified for food stamps, only 7 percent had ever actually applied. Mason and Bearden (1978) had similar findings. Approximately 13 percent of their sample reported eligibility; only 6 percent reported current use. Mason and Bearden (1978) also found that the older consumer is a much less frequent user of coupons than the population as a whole. Of their sample, almost one-third reported no use of coupons in food purchases while an additional 14 percent reported seldom redeeming promotional coupons.

Bernhardt and Kinnear (1976) found only one senior citizen in six to have a store credit card; other age groups possess twice this level. Ownership of gasoline credit cards is less than 25 percent versus between 37 and 48 percent for younger groups.

While the aged have been found to like the concept of generics, the Progressive Grocer study (Zbytniewski 1979) of Baltimore oldsters showed them less likely to purchase them regularly. Seniors tried 40 percent less generics than younger groups. In supermarkets, seniors pay cash (98 percent compared to 87 percent for younger shoppers) and showed no usage of food stamps.

Lambert (1979) found 53 percent of the Florida elderly (65+) studied wanted senior-citizen discounts and have them applied to a wider variety of products and services-yet this was slightly less (59.4 percent) than the similar wishes of those aged 55 to 64. Seniors (10 percent) were found to have problems reading price information due to numerals being small or blurred. The Food Marketing Institute (1982) focus groups also uncovered problems in being able to see food prices because the print is too small or too fine. Gelb (1978) found 43 percent of the oldsters indicating they hardly ever or never purchase large package to save money. Seniors do not appear price conscious.

Some Suggestions for Future Research

- Research is needed to find out if the elderly actually pay more for products and services than younger age groups.

- How price conscious really are the elderly?

- Are more affluent elderly consumers less price conscious than those less Privileged?

- Why do seniors exhibit less use of credit cards?

- Is there a high price/high quality association with seniors?

- Research needs to up-date the notion of two elderly price segments.

- Do seniors find odd-even pricing an effective buying stimulant?

- Are price differentials between brands noticeable to the elderly?

- What would foster greater use of generics, discounted items, food stamps, and coupons?

- Do the elderly have narrower ranges of acceptable prices for various products than younger people?

- Are discounts promoted as rewards for long-time buyers more attractive than the same discounts given for lessened income or retirement?

- How large should price tags and their print be?


According to a study by Zelan (1969), interviewing the aged is not a problem. Yet very little research on the consumer buy patterns of senior citizens has been conducted (Waddell 1975 and Barnes and Peters 1982). A major limitation of many studies is the use of a captive audience for the study population. Residents of a single building (Mason and Smith 1974; Schiffman 1971 and 1972), attendees of a single senior citizen facility (Samli and Palubinskas 1972), or elderly in one or two cities (Lambert 1979; Bernhardt and Kinnear 1976; Gelb 1978; Martin 1976; Richards 1981) do not provide representative samples to draw wide-sweeping conclusions. Many studies result from small sample sizes (Samli and Palubinskas 1972 and Martin 1976) which limits the study's generalizability. In all cases of research, marketers are cautioned to improve the sampling scheme to allow a more representative group of senior citizens.

To date, the level of research on the elderly has tended to hit only the surface of this large market segment. Nearly all the research has employed the survey technique with small, localized populations. Large scale, national surveys of buying influences and behavior are clearly warranted. The use of experimentation has been excluded and could be helpful. The use of laboratory techniques to explore more deeply the interworkings of the elderly buyer's mind are needed.


While the guidelines drawn from this research review are subject to these above limitations, some conclusions are suggested. Many findings of the studies reviewed are as might be expected--the elderly view a great deal of daytime television, desire services over goods, shop close to their homes, and are not time pressured as they shop. Yet some popular conceptions of the seniors may well be misconceptions.

The elderly as a whole are neither in poor physical condition nor financially poor. The "young-old" outnumber the "old-old" three to two and are trying to live life to its fullest. The elderly are not price conscious and don't seek out discount stores, generics, or special economy packaging to reduce their expenses. In fact, many actually seek out expensive items. Senior women are quite fashion conscious. Instead of their age being a stigma, the elderly welcome being singled out by businesses and having products designed distinctly for them. In spite of what others believe to be more negative stereotyping in television commercials, there is some evidence that elderly consumers do not see these advertisements as degrading and insulting. As shoppers, they are conscientious and prepared. They are alert and interested in news over entertainment. In short, research on the elderly paints a very heartening positive portrait of the elderly, a growing population that is active, vigorous, and full of unique wants and needs. A richer understanding of the elderly will enhance our ability to effectively and efficiently serve this very important market segment.


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Charles D. Schewe, University of Massachusetts


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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