Do You Really Want to Go Younger?!

This week a client lamented that his customers are growing older, and he intends to target younger prospects with his future catalog mailings. This “Ponce de Leon syndrome” is frequently expressed to me, and in fact, has led many direct marketers to disastrous results  as they purposely pursue younger customers with their existing offers, or produce entirely new catalogs targeting the younger demographic. In most cases, this search for younger customers is a misplaced quest born out of some emotionally influenced misperception, rather than reality.

So, what is reality? For many years, the average age of a catalog customer has been mid-50s and does not appear to be changing. Currently, baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 number a whopping 76 million. These boomers are now moving through their 50’s and 60’s. They  are entering that phase of their life when they have the most discretionary income to spend, making them the ideal catalog customers. The demographics actually favor companies serving those with a few grey hairs!

A better question is, “How does my merchandise and marketing strategy need to change in the future to serve those who will enter the demographic I currently serve?” “How will these baby boomers and those coming behind them be different?” My guess is that the answer to this question is not as much as we might think. There is a degree of truth in the cliché that, in spite of our best efforts, we really do become like our parents as we age. However, there will be differences.

These aging boomers are much younger for their age – 70 is the new 60 (certainly true in my case!). However, in comparison to an earlier generation of peak catalog shoppers, the new catalog shopper is healthier, more active, and will live longer. More than any preceding generation, they have lived the American dream.

And there are also differences in Generation X coming just behind the baby boomer. Their “passages of life” are coming later – getting married, having children, buying their largest home, selling their largest home, and retiring. They will be avid consumers in their later years. For them, 70 years of age may be the new 50!

To maintain relevance to your changing customers and answer the above question, it is critical that you know your customer. Set up a program of customer research: demographic studies, surveys, and focus groups. Analyze merchandise sales by new customers, loyal customers, and customer age groups. We once had a client who placed a life size cut out picture of their customer on the wall of their office, along with demographics as a reminder to all who they served. Last week, I visited a client who similarly described their primary client, but had names and behavioral profiles for two generations of clients that are coming behind them. This client is setting the stage for the changes that will be necessary to serve these new generations of customers.

Remember that Ponce de Leon failed in his quest to find the fountain of youth. Most merchants will also fail in reorienting their merchandise and marketing to serve a younger demographic. It is challenge enough to simply appreciate how those entering the demographic of your current customer is changing and adjust what you are doing to meet their needs.

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