Whatever consumer product or service your business sells, it's probably being bought by customers who are older than those you sold to 10 years ago. Jeff Ostroff, vice-president of The Data Group, in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and director of its PrimeLife Marketing division, reminds marketers that the typical American consumer isn't getting any younger. Between 1990 and 2000, the 45-and-older population of the United States will have grown by 18 million people, and the under-45 population will have grown by only 5,000.

Ostroff: Stop thinking of the over-50 population the way you remember your grandmother 30 years ago. Stop thinking about ages and think instead about stages of life. Stages are related to age, but they don't correspond precisely. For instance, people preparing to retire have certain needs -- for financial-planning services or for different kinds of insurance or housing.

People are most likely to reach another stage -- grandparenting -- in their fifties, which provides a multibillion-dollar opportunity for businesses that understand that grandparents spend money differently on kids than parents do. Our national survey on grandparents showed they tend to place a high value on purchases they see as part of passing on to the youngsters some of their own knowledge and experience.

Inc.: What will the over-50 population look for in products?

Ostroff: Empty-nesters of any age will look for products in smaller packages. Retirees of any age have more time and will look for ways to fill it -- going back to school, traveling, or buying a franchise.

Inc.: Are we going to start seeing a lot of ads pitched to older people?

Ostroff: Not from smart advertisers. You can say in an ad that the people who will really benefit from this product are those who have a lot of experience in whatever. But if your ad talks about a product being for older people "because now that you're older, you have these new limitations," that isn't likely to be well received.

Inc.: What about retail self-service?

Ostroff: Hard question, because what people expect for service depends partly on their age and partly on what they're used to. For example, the automated-bank-teller machines that really bother many of today's older adults will be less bothersome to aging baby boomers. They're used to them, just as they're used to pumping their own gas.

But while we won't see the end of self-service supermarkets, we will see more emphasis on personal service. Most older consumers feel they've contributed a lot to society, so they expect to be treated respectfully and catered to. That will be especially true of the aging baby boomers, who've been catered to all their lives.

Inc.: So, figuring out what an aging population wants might be tricky?

Ostroff: One thing businesses, especially medium-size to small businesses, might do to help themselves stay on top of these changes is to get 50-plus consumers involved in their marketing. Employ them in sales or customer-service positions and get their feedback and advice. -- Tom Richman

* * *

Jeff Ostroff's book, Successful Marketing to the 50+ Consumer (Prentice-Hall, 1989), details business opportunities and where they will be, shows how companies can market to aging consumers, and also has appendices listing agencies, organizations, and periodicals that can be great information sources. n

* * *