What older surfers want from the Web
May 28, 1999
by Barb Cole-Gomolski
(IDG) -- Last November, San Francisco-based GreenTree Nutrition Inc., which runs an online vitamin store at www.greentree.com, redesigned its Web site to make it more user-friendly for older shoppers. Now, with one click, users can get to a section of the site devoted to seniors, says marketing director Tim Hogan. There they can research health conditions and find out what dietary supplements can be used for treatment or prevention.
Separately, Healthgate Data Corp. (www.healthgate.com), a Burlington, Mass.-based Web publisher of health information, is gearing up for an August launch of a new webzine called Healthy Senior that will be syndicated on multiple health care sites.
The company already offers The Senior Health Advisor, a free service where people can submit health questions to be answered by experts.
GreenTree and Healthgate don't know what percentage of their online customers are over the age of 50, but chances are it's substantial.
According to Jupiter Communications Inc. in New York, there will be 7 million people age 50 and older online by the end of this year. When it comes to shopping online, "this group is running neck and neck with their younger counterparts," says Fiona Swerdloe, an analyst at Jupiter.
Altogether, 68% of online buyers are over 40, according to a survey by Ernst & Young LLP and the National Retail Federation. Older Americans have the time, the money and the motivation to shop online. Lugging heavy items, or even getting out of the house, may not be as easy for them as it once was.
As a result, online merchants are scrambling to woo this audience. In doing so, they're confronted with some interesting challenges. Should they single out older Web surfers, and if so, how?
According to experts, the answer depends on what you're selling.
Generally, the Web is a behavioral medium, says John Jordan, director of e-commerce research at Ernst & Young in Cambridge, Mass.
"The behavior is what matters," Jordan says. "Companies should be paying attention to what people do on the Web, not who they are."
By observing its customers, GreenTree learned that older shoppers had a higher need for information than their younger counterparts. "But they want that information presented in a simple way," Hogan says. That's why the company allows Web surfers to easily reorganize the site to highlight products that are more likely to be of interest to people over the age of 50.
Simplification was also in order when it came to product selection. "We have 99 [different types] of vitamin C," Hogan says. "That can be overwhelming to anybody." To make it easier for shoppers, the company recently began highlighting three products in each category -- GreenTree's pick, a market favorite and a best value.
GreenTree's Web site also has a lot of information about conditions "for which there is no magic pill," Hogan says. For instance, lots of older men are concerned about prostate cancer. On GreenTree.com, you can read about the risks, but "we won't try to sell you anything," he explains.
It turns out that what older Americans want is generally the same thing that everybody else wants from the Web -- security, good values and intuitive, fast-loading pages.
In a recent Jupiter survey, people over 50 were asked what would most help them to purchase online. "They said 'finding good deals,' 'finding what I'm looking for' and 'credit-card security' -- the same three things that younger people cited," Swerdloe says.
Seniors can have special needs, though. "It may be more difficult for them to see," says Don Lowy, president of The Senior Network, a Stamford, Conn., firm that helps companies market to older Americans. "Web merchants should be using bigger print" for seniors, Lowy says. Keep the site clean and easy to read without a lot of distracting motion and sound, he advises.
"I like fast-loading sites," says Larry Larsen, 57, of Los Altos, Calif., who has recently purchased books, software and a treadmill online. "It really irritates me when I go to a site and it takes 20 seconds to load." Another annoyance, he adds, are "sites that try to put too much information on their home pages. Larger print would be nice, too."
Because members of the mature audience have more time than their younger counterparts, "information is king," Lowy says.
"I agree with that," says Larsen, a self-described information junkie. For a recent new car purchase, Larsen used the Web to compare two models for "several hours a day for at least a week."
Brokerage Charles Schwab & Co. in San Francisco recognizes the importance of older Web surfers but has stopped short of redesigning its Web site to make it more appealing to the 50-and-over crowd. "We're focusing on educating this market," says Dan Hubbard, a Schwab spokesman. Schwab has an alliance with SeniorNet, a San Francisco organization that provides computer assistance and training at more than 150 sites across the U.S. The brokerage provides SeniorNet with educational information on investing via the Web.
CD-Now Inc., a Fort Washington, Pa., online music store (www.cdnow.com), also believes that alliances are key to reaching the older audience. The company has a strong presence on ThirdAge.com, a Web site run by ThirdAge Media Inc. in San Francisco. One of several sites aimed at older people, ThirdAge is looking at ways to market directly to seniors via e-mail. "If you can create a comfortable shopping experience, this group is not a hard sell," says Michael Crotty, director of marketing at CD-Now. To that end, CD-Now has started offering music from the 1950s and '60s that older shoppers may have owned as records but not yet replaced as CDs. "Lots of older Americans feel out of place in big, loud, music retail shops that cater to younger buyers," Crotty says. At the same time, he adds, they like to give music as gifts.
Overall, Web retailers have to walk a fine line to appeal to the 50-and-over crowd without putting them off. Swerdloe says merchants should play up the convenience of online shopping because this audience "might not be as mobile," but they must be careful not to talk down or insult the group.
"These people think of themselves as young," says ThirdAge founder and CEO Mary Furlong. "The word senior really doesn't work anymore," she says. Many older Americans, she adds, work past retirement age, enjoy good health and lead active lifestyles.
Older Americans don't appear to be any more reluctant to use their credit cards over the Web than younger people. But building a sense of trust -- and affiliating with trusted brands -- is important to this group, Furlong says.
Seniors are a savvy user group, adds Rick Lawson, vice president of content at Healthgate. "We don't dummy down our information. They are vocal users with strong buying power. Treat them like you would your mother."
How to annoy older online shoppers
1.Repeatedly refer to them as "seniors."
2. Load your Web page with small type and flashy graphics.
3. Refuse to provide lots of content for them to research their purchases.
4. Make your site load slowly.
5. Talk down to them or single them out for their inability to comprehend the site or the security behind e-commerce.
Cole-Gomolski reports on IT labor issues and the health care industry for Computerworld. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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