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Ten Behavioral Distinctions of Older Customers

Marketers continually look for ways to group targeted customers to connect efficiently with them. The following offers insights into understanding better older customers.

1. Increased individualism

Older customers are less subject to peer influence than younger customers are. Keeping up with the Joneses is not as important as it once was; thus advertising that invokes social status benefits does not play as well in older markets as in younger ones. Largely freed from worrying about reactions of others, older customers tend toward greater practicality in buying decisions than younger customers.

2. Increased demand for facts

Older customers tend to be less responsive to sweeping claims in marketing messages as they age. Hyperbole turns them off. If older customers are interested in considering a purchase, they want unadorned facts, and more of them, than they usually wanted earlier in life. Years of buying equip older people with knowledge of what to look for when making intelligent purchases.

3. Increased response to emotional stimuli

Older customers tend to be quicker than younger customers to emotionally reflect lack of interest in or negative reaction to an offered product. On the other hand, a positive first impression can become embedded especially deep in the emotions of the older person — so much so that the older customer is often more disposed to be a faithful customer than the younger customer is.

4. Less self-oriented, more altruistic

Older customers tend to show increased response to marketing appeals reflecting altruistic values. This tracks with common middle-age shift toward stronger spiritual values in which concern for others increases. As altruistic motivations become stronger, narcissistic and materialistic values wane in influence.

5. Increased time spent in making purchase decisions

As most people grow older, they experience changes in their perceptions of time, but also in its meaning and role in their lives. For example, older people often ignore time-urgency strategies in marketing — such as “Offer good until —,” “Only three left in stock—etc…” Generally, “time is not of the essence” is a common attitude among older people, especially those who have retired.

6. See fewer differences between competing products

Because older people tend to be more highly individuated, and less influenced by external influences, perceptions of products are more internally shaped. They typically conclude that there is little difference between products than marketers claim. This contrasts with the tendency of younger customers to assert robustly the differences between a product they prefer and its competitors — even when clear differences do not exist.

7. See more differences between competing companies

Alternatively, older customers tend to be more responsive to “companies with a conscience” than younger customers are. From a self-interest perspective, they are also more attentive to warranty issues and a company’s reputation for honoring its warranties than younger customers.

8. With respect to making discretionary-purchase decisions, older customers tend to have a:

  • decreased sensitivity to price
  • increased sensitivity to affordability
  • sharply increased sensitivity to value

Older customers have more complex ways of determining value than younger customers. Value determination by older customers tends to be an existentialist exercise whereby soul (spiritual) values as well as mind (intellect) and body (tangible) values are combined into the value determination process.

9. Increased price-sensitivity in non-discretionary spending

As they age, many customers develop higher economic “literacy” and skillfully apply it to get the best price. In purchasing “need” items, older customers tend to be more  bargain-minded, whereas in purchasing “desire” items, they tend to be more value-minded in a holistic sense.

10. Often project what seems to be contradictory behavior.

We sometimes characterize older adults as selfish and selfless, penurious and profligate, spontaneous and deliberate, and so on. These conflicting attributes lead some to characterize older people as contradictory. For example, an older shopper may be penurious in using cents-off coupons in a grocery store, after which she drives off in a Mercedes. This is not evidence of contradictory behavior, but an example of the rules of thriftiness applied to basics, and the rules of whole value applied to discretionary expenditures


The differences in motivations and decision-making processes between customers in the first and second half of life sometimes frustrate many marketers who have yet to figure out how to market to older customers. Until recently, this was not a matter of serious concern because the young dominated the marketplace. The young are easier to sell to and analyze. Now, with adults over the age of 50 in the majority, marketers are being compelled to figure out the values and behaviors of older customers.

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