Are gadget makers shortsighted to ignore older buyers?

By Andrea Coombes
Last Updated: 2/21/2005 7:55:00 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — You don’t have to be old to find it a struggle to read the tiny type on your iPod, PDA or cell phone, but aging doesn’t help matters.

Yet despite the much-ballyhooed graying of America, tech gadgets seem to be going in a direction that’s bound to make the situation worse, with tiny keyboards and dimly lit screens.

Plus, consumer-electronics makers are only too willing to add a bewildering array of features bound to confuse even the most patient geeks among us, let alone those who just want the device to work out of the box.

As much of today’s advertising makes clear, product makers are intent on getting young, tech-savvy trendsetters to buy their goods.

That may be a mistake, given that the 50-plus market controls as much as $750 billion to $2 trillion in discretionary income, according to market researcher Brent Green, author of “Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers.”

“Companies are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t go after” older Americans, said Danielle Levitas, a senior analyst with IDC, a technology-research firm in Framingham, Mass. “It’s a demographic with disposable income and … it’s ripe for the opportunity.

“Some are going after 40- to maybe 50-year-olds with some of the TV stuff … and, to a smaller extent, media center PCs,” she said. “But over 50, there’s not nearly enough emphasis.”

Others agree. “Most mainstream consumer-electronics product makers have ignored or been extremely slow to do anything for” this market, said Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a market-research firm in Richmond, Va.

Sixty-five percent of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) said they’re doing more to stay current with technology now than they did 10 years ago, according to a 2003 survey by The Boomer Project.

“The premise that as boomers get older they’re going to stop paying attention to technology” is wrong, Thornhill said.

“In this day and age, you can’t. They’re not keeping up with fashion or pop culture to the same degree that they did 10 years ago, but keeping up with technology is still very important.”

Some companies take notice

When surveying its customers, PalmOne found about one-third of those over age 50 are new adopters of handhelds and smart phones.

“They are for the first time purchasing these handhelds and smart phones, which makes a lot of sense as technology is becoming more and more a part of our lives,” said Rose Rodd, director of product line marketing at PalmOne.

PalmOne (PLMO) is responding by making easy-to-read screens and products that are simple to use out of the box, she said.

PalmOne handhelds come with a “setup poster with just three steps, large type, large pictures, very simple language,” she said.

Other companies are more reticent.

An Apple (AAPL) spokesman said he couldn’t comment on the company’s plans to appeal to older consumers in the future, though he noted the computer maker’s operating system includes customizable features that allow for larger font sizes and contrasting colors.

Computer-maker Dell (DELL) tries to appeal to older buyers with affordable products, said spokeswoman Jennifer Davis.

And, she said, older consumers like Dell’s automated printer-ink management system. “The order is submitted for you and the ink (for) your specific printer is then shipped” to your home, she said. “That’s very valued by this audience.”

Anti-tech, or waiting for the right product?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that tech companies show little interest in developing products for older Americans: The 55-and-older age group has the lowest adoption rate for MP3 players, personal digital assistants, digital cameras and cell phones, according to a survey of 54,000 U.S. households last year by Forrester Research.

While 16 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds owned a PDA, just 5 percent of those 55 and older did. Seventy-five percent of those 18-to-34 had a cell phone compared with 53 percent of the older group.

But if companies made products that were less complex and easier on older eyes, would more people buy them?

“If it didn’t seem so complicated maybe more 70-year-olds would buy MP3 players or cell phones. Some of the products that seem really complicated, if you simplified them they would probably have a larger market,” said Mark Carpenter, general manager of Web strategies at AARP.

“Right now a lot of the focus is on adding new features,” he said. Companies “aren’t thinking as much about making them simpler to use. It has to change. The world is aging.”

AARP initially focused on getting firms to make Web sites friendlier for older users, but now Carpenter’s team also encourages companies to make better gadgets. See AARP’s Older Wiser Wired site.

Companies say they’re interested in retooling products to appeal to an older demographic, but “it’s just not at the top of everyone’s minds,” Carpenter said.


But digital camera makers are in the vanguard when it comes to appealing to a wider age range. For instance, Kodak (EK) and others are making cameras’ LED screens bigger, rather than smaller.

Kodak’s latest Easy-Share One camera offers a 3-inch screen, and many cameras come with 2-inch screens.

“Just a year or two ago, if you got a 1.8-inch or 1.5-inch screen you were doing well,” said Ed Lee, digital imaging analyst at InfoTrends/Cap Ventures, a market-research in Weymouth, Mass.

Plus, the cameras are getting easier to use out of the box. “More and more digital cameras are less dependent on the PC, so if you don’t want to use a PC you still get some of the benefits,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD TechWorld.

Digital cameras are “making the jump from PC peripheral to mainstream acceptance,” he said.

That may explain the enthusiasm with which middle-aged Americans are buying the product.

Twenty-four percent of those 55 and up said they owned a digital camera last year, up from 17 percent a year earlier, according to an online survey of about 1,000 people by InfoTrends/CAP Ventures.

But digital camera makers’ success in this area has much to do with their history. Unlike, say, PDAs, cameras have been sold to a mass market for years.

“A few of the companies are still film camera manufacturers so they understand the demographics of who takes pictures,” Lee said. “The older generation. They’re retired, they’ve got a lot of disposable income and they’ve got time on their hands.”

And they spend more on cameras: Those 55-plus spent $314 on average for a digital camera compared with the average $293 spent by 35-to-54-year-olds and the $296 by those 25 to 34, according to the InfoTrends survey.

Not in the spotlight

But it’s difficult to find other gadget makers who’ve embraced an older demographic to the same degree as digital camera makers, though tech consultants note that AOL (AOL) stands out among service providers for its success at tapping a wide age range.

That’s not to say tech-product makers aren’t studying demographics. “The majority of the PC companies that we deal with, and we’re talking Intel, Microsoft (MSFT), H-P (HPQ), they have all hired anthropologists” to study their customers, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, Inc., a technology consulting firm in Campbell, Calif.

But “the demographic that these guys are most interested in is Gen X, Gen Y,” he said.

Companies “really are looking at the more aggressive potential buyers and hoping and believing that they’ll have the greater influence on the bigger market,” Bajarin said.

“In that sense, all the hot new stuff is aimed at the younger crowd, not the older crowd.”

There are exceptions. Intel (INTC), for instance, employs a small group of social anthropologists to study how consumers use technology in the home.

Their initial aim was to assess how computers could best be used in connecting the digital home, but consumers had other ideas.

They told the researchers they didn’t mind a wireless home or a digital entertainment system, said Robert Manetta, a spokesman at Intel, but that what they really wanted was to use technology “to check in on my mother in Denver (because) helping my mother out is a bigger priority.”

Now Intel is studying the ways emerging sensor technology might be used to help Alzheimer’s patients stay home without a caregiver.

Of course, any conversation about technology may be moot when today’s 50-year-olds are 70.

“Twenty years from now, speech recognition will perhaps be to the point where we’ll be able to make some … breakthroughs, or text-to-speech will be at the point where we have a more natural interface with these products,” said Rubin, of NPD TechWorld.

At that point all we’ll have to do is make sure our hearing aids are turned on. Until then, tech companies may want to focus on ease-of-use.

“If a company can design something for older eyes and older hands to use more efficiently,” said AARP’s Carpenter, “you do everyone a favor.”

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