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Need recognition by older consumers.


For the next several decades the U.S. population will include a large and expanding number of older consumers. Several reasons account for this phenomenon. Since the turn of the century life expectancy has increased and will probably continue to some maximum age, perhaps 120 (Hayflick, 1994). Further, the "baby boomer" cohort group, the largest and most affluent in U.S. history, begins to turn 60 in the first decade of the 21st century. When the individuals in a large population cohort with high discretionary income live longer than their predecessors, marketers take notice (Moschis, 1992, 1994).

As they observe older consumers, marketers want to understand what happens as seniors progress through each step in the consumer decision process for their products. The research described below examines the decision process for several goods and services and focuses particular attention on need recognition, the first step in this process.

I conducted open-ended interviews with 12 people over 60 including three each who were in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties (Alexander, 1996, 1997). The first two age groups included two men and one woman each and the last two reversed the ratios. The three respondents in the 60 to 69 group owned single family dwellings, one male in the 70 to 79 group lived in an age-integrated apartment building, and the remaining resided in an age-segregated apartment complex. All lived in an upper-midwestern community of 155,000 population.

I completed three interviews of 90 minutes duration with each respondent (Seidman, 1991), transcribed the 54 hours of audio taped responses and analyzed the transcriptions. Field notes written during and immediately after each interview and material written by the respondents for publication or for family members comprised additional sources of data.

The questions asked may have elicited concepts which the interviewees might not have otherwise mentioned. And even though they differed in age, education level, social class and occupation, all were Euroamerican, financially secure, and long time residents of the area. These facts may have compromised validity.

Engel, Blackwell and Miniard define need recognition as "the perception of a difference between the desired state of affairs and the actual situation sufficient to arouse and activate the decision process" (1995, p. 176). The data indicate that older consumers recognize needs for some consumer goods and services. For other products elderly buyers either find the differences between desired and actual states too small to cause need recognition or have completed the decision process and moved on to post-purchase evaluation. For a variety of reasons the respondents recognized the need for appropriate wearing apparel, shoes, air transportation, and specialized furniture. However, the search process yielded few acceptable alternatives for these items.


Clothing comprised the most telling need recognized by older consumers. As people age their bodies and preferences in clothing styles change. Wearing apparel designed for youth may neither fit aging physiques nor appeal to older tastes. Elderly consumers in the present study needed, but could not find, clothing fashioned for them. The needs crossed age groups but differed in type by gender. Women, regardless of age, defined the desired state of affairs as wearing apparel which fit, was styled for the older person, but did not make them look like old women. Yet the clothes available for sale were either designed for young people or made them appear older than they felt. (Also see Belleau, Broussard, Summers & Didier, 1994; Chowdhary, 1988; and Underhill, 1996). The findings support Moschis' (1992, 1994) contention that the demand for apparel declines in later life partly because of the limited availability of suitable clothing. "Most of today's shoes and clothes are developed for the young consumer," he states (1992, p. 216).

Not only style but function and size concern older shoppers. They need clothing, which can be easily fastened with aging fingers. Because the search process yielded few alternatives, some interviewees had Velcro fasteners fitted to their garments. Size caused problem recognition for two male respondents. Both a 63-year-old and a 74-year-old needed clothing in large sizes. Shirts or pants which fit were purchased in anticipation of need notwithstanding style.

An increasing number of people over 60 will not only need appropriate clothing but also possess the discretionary income to buy what they like. Yet the data indicate that the search process results in few alternatives. Clothing designers and manufacturers would do well to consider the clothing needs of older people and provide satisfactory options.

The respondents recognized a need for attractive and well fitting footwear. However, even though they purchased and wore shoes, the search process did not always yield alternatives with attributes which corresponded to their evaluative criteria. A 65-year-old male wore one pair of Nike athletic shoes to the exclusion of others he owned because the others hurt his feet. He wanted comfortable, leather dress shoes but the search process yielded no satisfactory alternatives. Another man, aged 78, purchased a particular style of low-cut dress boot. However he could not obtain it in a narrow width, purchased a wider boot instead and inserted an innersole. And a 96-year-old woman complained that local shoe retailers did not carry her small size. She ordered a desired style of sandal from a catalog. On the other hand, several interviewees had successfully completed the decision process and wore shoes which they evaluated positively. A 96-year-old male found the athletic shoes he bought comfortable. A 93-year-old woman said the search process yielded three or four brands of the slip-on style she preferred.

The criteria respondents used to evaluate shoes included style, fit, and price but not safety even though sturdy footwear reduces the risk of falling (Gabell, Simons & Nayak, 1985; Tinetti & Speechley, 1989). Dunne, Bergman, Rogers, Inglin and Rivara (1993) found that few older people consistently wear sturdy shoes, defined as those with laces and nonskid soles. They include walking, athletic, and men's dress shoes but not canvas or women's dress shoes. Note, though, that four of the respondents in the present study purchased and wore shoes which could be classified as sturdy. Because function often gives way to style, shoe manufacturers might produce sturdy shoes in styles older consumers find attractive. Changing evaluative criteria is not usually easy, but shoe manufacturers and retailers should attempt to educate older people about the value of sturdy footwear.

Commercial airlines satisfied most of the interviewees' long-distance transportation needs. Several bought packaged excursions to overseas destinations, one had purchased tickets for a 14-day tour of European cities, and most traveled by air to visit friends and relatives. Need recognition led first to search for a travel agent or air line, then to an evaluation of the possible alternatives and finally to choice of an agent or carrier. Experiences generally met expectations and post-purchase evaluation yielded little dissatisfaction or dissonance. However, a 65-year-old married couple complained of the airlines' practice of overbooking. They had been involuntarily bumped on two occasions, received complimentary tickets from one airline, but that carrier declared bankruptcy before they could use the tickets. And the 93-year-old respondent nearly missed a connecting flight because an electric cart driver ignored her while picking up younger, more able passengers. She also protested that airplane restrooms were neither large enough nor arranged conveniently for older people. She chose to forego further air travel for these reasons.

The respondents particularly enjoyed organized tours because tour directors usually fly with the travelers to solve problems. As a result of the directors' activities travelers experience few glitches, their expectations are met, and post-purchase evaluation yields satisfaction. Airports may wish to create tour director type positions with the sole responsibility of alleviating aging travelers' problems. These problem solvers would meet older travelers at their gates as they deplane, order electric carts, provide information about connecting flights, help arrange hotel rooms for the night and point out restaurants and retail shops. Assistance becomes especially necessary when airlines cancel flights or incoming flights are late and connecting flights missed. While some airlines occasionally station employees at gates for late flights, none target older people and they limit the services offered to information about connecting flights.

Pleasing older, affluent travelers will become increasingly important to players in the air travel industry as the structure of airport ownership undergoes changes. Though most U.S. airports remain publicly owned, many communities will follow the example of Europe, Latin America and Asian countries and privatize their facilities (McKenna, 1996; Delays Can be Expected, 1996). As for-profit businesses, U. S. airports will need to compete with local retailers and increase the sales volume of their own shops (Reese, 1996). Anything an airport does to make flying more pleasant for the affluent older traveler can increase both passenger boardings and concourse retail sales. Airports and airlines which neglect their older consumers' needs will lose this market's travel dollars.

The infirmities which often accompany aging generate need recognition for products and services which help compensate for these disorders. Because of arthritis, for example, two of the oldest respondents experienced difficulty in arising from chairs. Though otherwise quite active, both needed canes to help them stand. At that, the 96-year-old man had to rock back and forth in order to arise. And arthritis forced a 71-year-old woman to choose chairs carefully. She experienced great difficulty in getting up from some styles. These older consumers recognized a need for specialized furniture. However, because they could find little information about chairs which might help them solve this problem, the need remained unsatisfied.

Furniture manufacturers and retailers should consider the unfulfilled needs for specialized furniture. Also, public and private institutions should probably ponder the needs of their aging clients as they purchase furniture. Churches and theaters, for example, might want to install chairs from which older consumers can easily arise.


The purchase decision process for some needs experienced by aging consumers had been completed to their satisfaction and were no longer extant. Elderly buyers had recognized a need, found acceptable products, purchased them, and experienced little post-purchase dissonance or dissatisfaction.

Though respondents located and purchased all the food items desired, two issues seem worthy of note. First, though medical conditions required some older consumers to follow specialized menus, supermarkets carried all foodstuffs needed to prepare meals. And the food service at the age-segregated apartment complex prepared special dishes for heart patients and diabetics. Second, the oldest of the respondents worried little about their diets. They ate what they wanted whether or not existing medical conditions called for specialized menus. At 93 and 96 years of age they believed heart disease and diabetes paled in comparison to the knowledge that they had already exceeded their expected life spans.

Although adequate housing comprises a problem for many older citizens (Margolis, 1990, pp. 77-105), all the interviewees had satisfactorily solved their housing needs. The youngest respondents lived in single-family dwellings purchased years earlier. Each realized that the desired end-state would eventually change, but until it did they were satisfied with existing housing arrangements. The 74-year-old interviewee lived with his wife in a multiple age apartment building. The lodging met all needs and he expressed little concern over a potential change in the desired end-state. The remaining eight respondents lived in an age-segregated retirement complex. Each had decided some years earlier to move into the complex and all expressed satisfaction with their decisions.

Older consumers purchase such medical products as eye-glasses, hearing aids, canes, walkers, and electric carts. The respondents expressed satisfaction with all but hearing aids. Three had purchased hearing aids though, for a variety of reasons, none wore the devices. First, compared to eyeglasses adjustment to a hearing aid takes much more time and effort. Second, because these amplification devices merely increase the volume of auditory stimuli and can not restore lost frequencies, sound quality suffers. Third, because hearing aids amplify all stimuli wearers cannot distinguish one voice from background noises. In summary, expectations about hearing aids weren't met, thus post-purchase evaluation yielded dissatisfaction, though no one returned the aids for refunds. Additional research is needed to determine why dissatisfaction occurred and what marketers can do to meet expectations.

All the respondents constantly evaluated the results of financial planning decisions made years earlier and all but one expressed satisfaction. In fact, two people's incomes increased after they retired. The exception was a 96-year-old woman who had sold a business years earlier, carefully budgeted her funds to last the rest of her life, but lived longer than she expected. She desired to continue living in the apartment she had occupied for several years, but had exhausted her financial resources. Impending insolvency resulted in internal search for alternative solutions to the problem.

Older citizens tended to satisfy recreational needs with a pattern of activities established some years beforehand. Several attended classes designed specifically for them on topics they chose. Others spent summers at lake cabins and winters in sun-belt states. Several vacationed by automobile or signed up for short tours of European and Asian countries. One man hunted and golfed. A number played bridge on a regular basis. They all watched some TV and most spent some time reading. The point here is that a truncated decision process operated; a problem was recognized, a solution remembered, and a decision quickly made. The one exception was a woman in her sixties. She enjoyed dancing but her husband did not. And though the existing and desired state of affairs differed, search apparently yielded few alternatives for they did not attend dances.

Health problems and declining energy levels created problem recognition for personal services. However, choice and purchase automatically followed problem recognition. Thus the health care system provided in-home assistance when one respondent broke her arm. And for those who did not feel up to cleaning their apartments or washing clothes, the retirement apartment complex supplied housecleaning and laundry services. In sum, these benefits became almost automatic once problem recognition occurred.


"With the emerging prominence of the mature market, several companies have begun to develop and promote products aimed at the aged population" (Moschis, 1994, p. 149). These firms make mistakes, however, both when they treat older and younger consumers alike or assume they have a homogeneous older market. The results of the present study, therefore, may interest these companies as they attempt to analyze the consumer decision process for goods and services targeted toward the older market.


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Chowdhary, U. (1988). Self-esteem, age identification, and media exposure of the elderly and their relationship to fashionability. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 7(1), 23-30.

Delays can be expected. (1996, July 27). The Economist, 340(7976), 51-52.

Dunne, R.G., A.B. Bergman, L.W. Rogers, B. Inglin, & F.P. Rivara (1993). Elderly persons' attitudes toward footwear--a factor in preventing falls. Public health Reports, 108(2), 245-248.

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McKenna, J.T. (1996). Diverse needs drive Latin privatization. Aviation Week & Space Technology, 145(13), 46-47.

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Reese, S.M. (1996). Airport retailing takes off. Stores, 78(9), 74,76.

Seidman, I.E. (1991). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tinetti, M.E., & M. Speechley (1989). Prevention of falls among the elderly. Medical Intelligence, 320, 1055-1059.

Underhill, P. (1996). Seniors in stores. American Demographics, 18(4), 44-48.

M. Wayne Alexander, Moorhead State University
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Author:Alexander, M. Wayne
Publication:Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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