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Food marketers reaching out to aging boomers

Many new products are marketed to younger consumers who are part of Generation X, Generation Y or the “Millennials,” but food manufacturers and retailers are recognizing that they need to go after aging baby boomers who have money to spend and time to shop.
Dave Johnson speaks during food summit in Chicago
“As the kids leave the household and you’ve got that older consumer, there are a lot of needs that we see,” David Johnson, president of Kraft’s North American Commercial group, says.Frank Polich / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Many new products are marketed to younger consumers who are part of Generation X, Generation Y or the “Millennials,” but food manufacturers and retailers are recognizing that they need to go after aging baby boomers who have money to spend and time to shop.

Companies are starting to change everything from the way they package the food they sell to the staff they use in their stores, industry experts said this week at the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago.

“As the kids leave the household and you’ve got that older consumer, there are a lot of needs that we see,” said David Johnson, president of Kraft’s North American Commercial group. His company, the largest food maker in North America, calls consumers 50 years and older the “liberated boomers.”

Kraft is responding with products such as a South Beach Diet line and Crystal Light drinks — which appeal not just to older consumers but also to those looking for healthier alternatives to the company’s mainstay products such as macaroni and cheese.

Other food makers are also looking at ways to reach smaller households, such as Unilever Plc/NV’s restaurant-style line Bertolli Dinner for Two, and Sara Lee Corp.’s ready-to-eat meals such as Jimmy Dean sausage sandwiches and skillet meals, executives said.

Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist, gerontologist and president of AgeWave, consults with companies on developing products for the aging population. He addressed manufacturers and retailers at the Information Resources Inc. Summit in San Francisco in early March, and said many companies need to do a better job of reaching those over 45 years old, a segment which is growing, while there is essentially no growth below that age.

Dychtwald, whose books include 1999’s “Age Power: How the 21st Century will be Ruled by the New Old,” noted that 76 million babies were born in the United States between 1946 and 1964, with the oldest of that group hitting 60 this year.

He gave the companies tips such as recognizing that the placement of a product is crucial. Aging shoppers with arthritis cannot reach higher shelves without discomfort, while those wearing bifocal glasses don’t clearly see what is placed on lower shelves. Also, commercials should use actors in a higher age range, rather than just loud, hip ads that appeal to a younger market with less spending power, Dychtwald said.

Perry Odak, president and chief executive of Wild Oats Markets Inc., said his company is set up for the shopping patterns of the older population.

“We’re not in the business of selling huge, big, large family packs,” Odak said at the Reuters Summit. “Our stores are really built around being able to service a population that’s probably buying in smaller sizes.”

He said customers shopping for one or two people, such as empty nesters, can just choose the amount of bulk items they need. Wild Oats, which caters to shoppers looking for natural and organic foods, also has gluten-free, sugar-free and diabetic products, which are important for aging clientele.

Ken Harris, a partner at consulting firm Cannondale Associates, said aging Americans are also becoming a more important part of the restaurant labor force. He said restaurants can be an outlet either for older people who retire and then realize they miss the social aspect of work or those who find they need more money than they planned for.

“The key to the restaurant industry in terms of service and help is going to be seniors,” Harris said.