Profiling the Senior Citizen Market

ABSTRACT - This paper examines the personal characteristics, shopping behavior, credit usage, media habits and leisure time activities of consumers in the senior citizen market. A comparison on these dimensions is made with consumers in other age groups with many similarities and differences noted.


Kenneth L. Bernhardt and Thomas C. Kinnear (1976) ,"Profiling the Senior Citizen Market", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 449-452.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 449-452


Kenneth L. Bernhardt, Georgia State University

Thomas C. Kinnear, University of Michigan

[The authors wish to thank Ferguson Rood and Edward Mumford of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution for permission to use the data in this paper and for their valuable assistance on this project.]


This paper examines the personal characteristics, shopping behavior, credit usage, media habits and leisure time activities of consumers in the senior citizen market. A comparison on these dimensions is made with consumers in other age groups with many similarities and differences noted.


The growth in the size of the senior citizen market has been well documented in the marketing literature (Salmi et. al., 1972; Goldstein, 1968: Forbes, 1969; Business Week, 1971). In 1900, there were just over 3 million people age 65 or older, approximately 4 percent of the population at that time. By 1950, the number of senior citizens had grown to 12.3 million, and the percent of the total population in over 65 age group had become 8 percent. Compared to 1950, people today are living much longer, are retiring at an earlier age, and are having fewer children. The results of these trends are presented in Table 1. As shown in the table, there are now more than 21 million people age 65 or over, comprising more than 10 percent of the U.S. population. Furthermore, the senior citizen market is growing over twice as fast as the rest of the population.

Even though these trends have been going on for many years, there is surprisingly little known about the consumption behavior of this market. As one source explains it, "The American obsession with youth has caused most businessmen simply to ignore the elderly." (Forbes, 1969). Indeed, from 1950 through 1970 the youth market was growing much faster than the senior citizen market, and the average age of the population dropped by more than two years. This trend has now been reversed, and the average age of the population will rise in the next few years, paralleling the increasing importance of the senior citizen market.

At the 1970 White House Conference on Aging, it was reported that the aggregate income of persons age 65 and over was approximately $65 billion in 1967, more than double the level of 1958 (Chen, 1971). The 1970 Census indicated this figure had grown to $68 billion. Expenditures by senior citizens was estimated in 1971 at $60 billion, "far larger than the vaunted and highly amorphous youth market -- variously estimated at anywhere from $20 to $45 billion" (Business Week, 1971). In addition to being economically important, the senior citizen market is politically important. Comprising 10 percent of the total population, persons over age 65 account for 17 percent of the population old enough to vote, and they vote in much higher proportions, 70 percent, than younger voters (Business Week, 1971).

The average man age 65 today can look forward to thirteen more years of life, and the average woman to sixteen more years. By the end o~ the century individuals will he spending one quarter of their lives in retirement (Forbes, 1969). Because of these trends, it is important for consumer behavior researchers to begin to study the attitudes and behavior of this increasingly important market segment.

Most of the research that has been done investigating the senior citizen market has focused on the implications of the increasing numbers of individuals age 65 and over, their share of aggregate expenditures, and the type and sizes of products purchased by this group (Reinecke, 1964: Goldstein, 1968: Media Decisions, 1973: Forbes, 1969: Business Week, 1971). For example, Reinecke reported that the differences in general patterns of expenditure of older consumers were due almost entirely to a lower income and smaller number of individuals per household (Reinecke, 1971). Age itself had little influence, with the exception that medical and utilities expenditures rose with age and clothing expenditures tended to decline with age.

Although Zelan (Zelan, 1969) reports that interviewing the aged is not a problem, very little research has been conducted on consumer behavior patterns of the senior citizens. Schiffman has studied perceived risk (Schiffman, 1972), the importance of informal sources of information (Schiffman, 1971), and social interaction patterns (Schiffman, 1972) involved in the purchase decision for a salt substitute product. Mason and Smith conducted an exploratory study on the shopping behavior, distance traveled, and sources of information used by elderly residents of a public housing project (Mason, et. al., 1973). Samli and Palubinskas studied the expenditures, leisure activities, and media habits of middle and upper class attendants of a senior citizens center.

The major limitation of each of these studies is the population used for the investigation. Each used a captive audience, residents of a single building (Mason et. al., 1973; Schiffman, 1971 and 1972) or attendants of a single senior citizen facility (Samli, et. al., 1972). In addition, the sample sizes used in these studies are quite small, over 100 only in the Samli and Palubinskas study in which 211 (55 percent) of the attendants to the center completed the self administered questionnaire. There is thus a need for a study of the consumer behavior of the elderly using a population and sampling scheme which allows the examination of a more representative group of senior citizens.

The purposes of this study is to profile the senior citizen market, using a large probability sample of the population of a major metropolitan area. Specifically, this study investigates the (1) personal characteristics, (2) shopping behavior, (3) credit usage, (4) media habits, and (5) leisure time activities of the senior citizen market.











Personal in-home interviews were conducted with a probability sample of 3,435 male and female adults age 18 and older in the 15 county Atlanta, Georgia SMSA. Eleven percent of these interviewed, 380 people, were age 65 or greater. The results were weighted to balance properly for individuals difficult to find at home, number of adults at home at the time of interview, day of the week the interview was conducted, and several population characteristics. The interviews were conducted on evenings and weekends between November 1972 and July 1973 by Belden Associates of Dallas, Texas as part of a major study for the Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta's major newspapers.

Results: Personal Characteristics

The personal characteristics of senior citizens compared to other age groups was investigated first, and the results are presented in Table 2. Because the life expectancy of females is greater than that of males, females comprise 62 percent of the over 65 age group compared to slightly over half for the other age groups. Most of the senior citizens were retired, 64 percent, resulting in a significantly lower income distribution than the other age groups. Well over half of the elderly earned less than $5,000 per year, versus only one quarter or less of the younger age groups. In addition, the proportion of younger households earning $15,000 or more was three to four times as great as the household headed by senior citizens.

The proportion of white, blacks, and other racial groups among the senior citizens was approximately the same as that for other age groups. As might be expected, there is a large difference in the education level of senior citizens compared to other age groups. Almost two thirds of those age 65 and older have not completed high school, and only 9 percent are college graduates. The extent to which these differences in personal characteristics, higher percentage of females and lower income and education, result in differences in consumer behavior will now be examined.

Shopping Behavior

Table III presents department store shopping behavior by age category for a number of different stores. Separate data are presented for heavy versus light usage, with three or more trips in the previous month defined as heavy usage. Senior citizens are significantly less likely (at the .01 level) to use discount stores like Arlans, GEX, K-Mart, or Richway, than all other age groups. For example, only 5 percent of the elderly made three or more trips to K-Mart in the previous month, compared to between 14 and 19 percent of the other age groups.

While they are much less likely to shop at discount stores, it appears that senior citizens are a significant supporter of the traditional department stores in the city. The elderly appear willing to travel to the downtown shopping district and to pay higher prices for department store merchandise. Further research should be conducted to determine the cause of the senior citizens' preference for traditional department stores over the discount stores. The research should seek to determine if the differences described here are attributable to merchandise offerings, transportation problems, or image and attitude differences.

Credit Card Possession and Usage

Data on store and gasoline credit card ownership by age category is presented in Table IV. Only one senior citizen in six possesses a store credit card. The comparable figure for the other age categories is twice this level or more. The pattern of ownership of gasoline credit cards is similar, with less than one quarter of the elderly owning a gasoline credit card, compared to between 37 and 48 percent of the younger citizens. Unfortunately, this research did not seek to determine' the cause of these differences (which are significant at the .01 level). It would be interesting to find out why so few senior citizens have a store credit card, even though they are as likely to shop the traditional department stores as the other age groups.

Media Habits

In the study, detailed media habit information was collected. Space constraints here require that only a verbal summary description be presented. The findings are:

(1) Over half of the elderly read a daily newspaper, and almost 70 percent read the Sunday newspaper. This readership level is higher than that of the under-35 age group, and is somewhat less than the level of the 35-64 age group.

(2) The senior citizens are slightly less likely than other groups to be readers of home-oriented magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, and of general readership magazines such as Reader's Digest. They are very much less likely than the other age groups to read the news weeklies (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report), and also magazines such as Playboy. It appears that the elderly read selectively and prefer to get their news from newspapers and broadcast media.

(3) They listen to A.M. radio as much as others, but are much less likely to listen to F.M. Their listening is primarily at home, with only 19 percent listening to the radio in the car, compared to 48 to 64 percent for the other age groups. The heaviest listening period for the elderly is between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., when about 25 percent of them listen to radio, about the same level as the other age categories. During the afternoon and evening hours, the listening rates fall dramatically. For example, only about 6 percent are listening in the 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. time slot, versus double that level for the other age categories.

(4) The elderly are heavy watchers of early morning television, with over one quarter of them watching television before 9:00 a.m., twice as many as the other age groups. From 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. the senior citizens are also heavy TV watchers, with a higher percentage watching (approximately 33 percent) than the other age categories. The elderly appear to be television news oriented, as indicated by the fact that the period between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. draws about 66 percent of all the elderly, by far the highest percentage of an any age group. After 9:00 p.m. their rate of watching begins to fall, and after 10:00 p.m. they are much less likely to watch than the other age groups.

Leisure Time Activities

The study measured respondent involvement in over seventy leisure time activities. Only the most interesting findings in relation to the elderly will be presented here. As a group the elderly spend their time reading books (43%), sewing (27%), attending baseball games (15%), fishing (15%), going to movies (11%), doing crossword puzzles (10%), gardening (31%), attending church activities (58%), going out to eat (51%). They are also heavy users of long distance telephone (65%), taxi cabs (32%), mass transit (43%), and laundromats (23%). These are the activities where they spend their time. However, in almost all instances even for these activities, they do them less than the other groups.

Their pattern of activity is similar to other groups, but their activity level for each is lower.

The elderly do not take part in physically oriented activities very much, as we might expect. However, there are some activities that are open to them in which they have very low involvement. These include, nonvoting political activity (5%), attending fashion shows (7%) and attending sporting events other than baseball (average about 3%).


This article has presented a profile of the senior citizen market on a number of dimensions. The findings indicate that the market is large, economically important, has specific shopping, credit and media habits, and takes part in particular types of activities. It is the authors hope that this paper will stimulate others to examine this much neglected and under researched segment of our population.


Yung-Ping Chen, "Income Background," Report of the White House Conference on Aging, Washington, D.C., 1971.

"Don't Write off the Senior Citizen Markets," Media Decisions, (July 1973), 64-67; 112-116.

"The Forgotten Generation," Forbes, (January 15 1969) 22-29.

Sidney Goldstein, "The Aged Segment of the Market, 1950 & 1960," Journal of Marketing, 32 (April 1968), 62-68.

Joseph Barry Mason and Brooks E. Smith, "An Exploratory Note on the Shopping Behavior of the Low Income Senior Citizen," The Journal of Consumer Affairs, (Summer 1973), 204-210.

"The Power of the Aging in the Marketplace," Business Week, (November 20, 1971), 52-58.

John Reinecke, "The 'Older' Market -- Fact or Fiction?" Journal of Marketing, (January 1964), 60-64.

A. Coskun Samli and Feliksas Palubinskas, "Some Lesser Known Aspects of the Senior Citizen Market -- A California Study," Akron Business and Economic Review, (Winter 1972), 47-55.

Leon Schiffman, "Perceived Risk in New Product Trial by Elderly Consumers," Journal of Marketing Research, 9 (February 1972), 106-108.

Leon Schiffman, "Social Interaction Patterns of the Elderly Consumer," AMA Proceedings, (1972), 445-451.

Leon Schiffman, "Sources of Information for the Elderly,'' Journal of Advertising Research, 11 (October 1971), 33-37.

Joseph Zelan, "Interviewing the Aged," Public Opinion Quarterly, (Fall 1969), 420-424.



Kenneth L. Bernhardt, Georgia State University
Thomas C. Kinnear, University of Michigan


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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