By elizabeth

Silver shoppers on the UK High Street

OXIRM member and executive education Fellow Elizabeth Howard thinks that retailers don’t cater well for the older shopper. How to find out? She goes shopping with her Mother. Read on…

I have been ticking the last box in the list for some time now. I am talking about the list provided by market researchers from which respondents select the appropriate age group – and the last on the list is ‘Over  55’.  There is sometimes, but not often, another box for ‘over  65’, and very rarely ‘over 75’.  They seem to be classifying me with all those older than me, and the last time I filled in the form I was rather indignant – then curious. It implies that my consumer behaviour is similar to that of all those older groups. Or perhaps just that the market researchers are not interested.  Look at a standard market research report and the evidence is there. Even a recent academic paper written about retailers’ perceptions of older consumers lumped all those older consumers together!

Surely this cannot be: Half the adult UK population is over 50, yet look at most consumer reports and you will not find as much segmentation of older people as of younger consumers. We’re on Generation Z now, perhaps, following on from Generations X and Y. I am not sure if there was a Generation A, but my formative years were the 1960s (rock’n’roll) then the 1970s (flower power). In the 1980s and 1990s we moved on and became part of the Thatcher revolution, earning and spending. Now we’re ‘swinging sixties’ again, with plenty of spending power and no intention of joining the pensioners clubs just yet.  A quite different generation from the older ones, surely?

My mother said she’d like a day out shopping, but sighed “there’s nothing on the high street for me now”. Nonsense, I thought. She has always enjoyed shopping, remains fit and well and has enough money to enjoy her days out. She is an older generation though; she won’t like what I like, so here is a good test. Our consumer attitudes must be quite different, we should like different things in any high street, I thought. Let’s find out.

Winchester seemed like a good destination. It is the sort of UK high street that should be somewhat insulated from any storms blowing through the retail sector. Its catchment includes some of the most prosperous parts of southern England and it’s a university city with plenty of young people around. Tourists frequent its pretty streets too, to see the Cathedral, the King Alfred memorial and so on. There should be a wide variety of shops. I certainly didn’t think it would be one of the ‘clone towns’ that some complain about.

Parking is ok. I suppose ‘ok’ is as much as we can hope for in a city. The multi- storey is reasonably clean though rather dark and seems to be in the middle of a refurbishment. Mother stands at the map at the entrance that says ‘you are here’ but neither of us, actually, can work out where ‘here’ really is.  Never mind, other people are dodging the traffic and walking downhill, so we follow. Oh good: we can see the high street sloping away in front of us, the sun’s out and we can see lots of small shops all the way down. Very promising…

Just before we reach the high street, a window in an eighteenth century façade and a display of floaty, flowery dresses catch my eye. We are both seeking summer outfits, so in we go. We are greeted pleasantly. Anokhi is a small independent shop with rails of stock mostly at floor level. Good: I can’t reach the higher rails in many stores. Linen suits in flower designs, chiffon tops, lacy cardigans, long cotton skirts and kaftan style tunics: all colourful and with colour theming in the display. It looks appealing (fashions do come around and they remind me of those kaftans I bought in the 1970s.)  The light linen jackets have sleeves and are not too long in the waist (mum’s shrinking in height, like many of her age) so I persuade her to try one on. The two members of staff keep an eye on us, but leave us alone. The jacket I choose doesn’t have a skirt to match in the right size, and mum says her jacket is too tight. I think she looks fine but she won’t agree. Never mind, we have had a good start, and both of us like the shop.

We set off down hill and oh, dear – it really is downhill from here on.  There are lots of fashion stores: Jigsaw, Hobbs, Monsoon, River Island, Phase Eight, and many more. I am sure each of them has a target market that is not me and certainly not my mother. See-through chiffon tops? Plunging necklines?  Layered tops with leggings? Let’s not be silly, we’ll go to the shops that cater for us.

But where are they? We do not, I admit, go exploring the secondary areas and almost all the shops on the high street seem to belong to the familiar major chains, though the street itself is attractive and the architecture is distinctive. Mother spots EWM and in we go. It’s full of grey-haired customers so this must be right. Mum is happy, looking at lots of cotton tops and skirts. She starts along the rail of jackets. “Why do they all have zips? I’m tired of zips, they break too easily, and when I get in the driving seat of my car I can’t undo them from the bottom”. She almost buys a shower-proof jacket – with buttons – but it’s a bit too long in the sleeves. I’m not going to buy anything at all here: the artificial fabrics, boxy styles and sludgy colours are not for me.  This is good, I’m not my mother. I’m reassured.

Marks & Spencer is next along, but we don’t go in: it seems to be a small store and mother especially likes the much larger ones. Debenhams looms at the bottom of the hill. Debenhams has had a resurgence on the high street so I am hopeful. Department stores, particularly, in the UK, John Lewis Partnership and House of Fraser, do cater for the more mature woman. Our experience in this store is not a good one, however. We need a cup of coffee and decide to indulge ourselves in a cake, perhaps, or a healthier sandwich or salad.  The small café has few seats and a queue at the small counter. The cakes are sold out. Sandwiches are being made to order, but the poor organisation behind the counter irritates everyone waiting. They need some queue management techniques there.

Back down on the fashion floor there is nearly as much mess. Rails of sale clothing (in mid-June) are full of dark, dismal last season’s outfits.  Pushing around the clutter, we find the summer linens and so on. Cut off trousers? For my mother? I can’t see much that appeals to me, either: mostly styles for the 20 to 35 year-old, I think. Debenhams has several shop-within- shop departments for its other brands – Principles, Wallis and others. I have liked Wallis styles in the past but really can’t face trying to get through the over-crowded floor to check it out.

Setting off back up the hill and deciding that we were not going to be able to buy clothes, we come to Montezuma’s. Now, mother is a chocaholic. I think she is still trying to make up for the deprivations of 1940s sweet rationing. Her favourite is Thorntons, and she hasn’t seen Montezuma’s before. It’s enticing, with a huge variety of chocolate flavours, styles and packaging. Flavours neither of us have heard of, nor imagined could be offered. The display is clever: you can see that there is a large variety but the impression is not of over-stuffed shelves (as Thorntons can be). Mum has a sharp eye for a bargain, so her purchase is a selection bag, where she can try lots of flavours and I am sure she will be looking for other branches of this innovative chain for future purchases. The prices alarm her a bit, however. My purchase is more in the ‘conspicuous consumption’ line.  My generation has more guilt about sweeties, I think, than hers. But if we can buy, and offer to our friends, organic, specialised, chocolates from unusual recipes, carefully described – then that’s all right.

We both leave happy and head for the car. Passing HMV I remember that I want to buy Mum some DVDs of her favourite old television programmes. “Let’s just pop in here before we leave and you can choose something.” She recoils in alarm: “it’s black and dark and what’s that terrible noise?” The generations have always been divided – or defined – by their music, haven’t they? We don’t go in, and I don’t suppose HMV will be surprised or concerned. Still, which shop can I take her in for DVDs? Amazon wins again, I think.
So, we are different. We are definitely not the same consumer group. But neither of us is very well catered for, on Winchester high street at least. That worries me, partly because of the lost markets for retailers. The argument that it is the younger groups who spend in the high street, and therefore it is not worth targeting older people, who would rather spend their money on their holidays or their gardens is, thank goodness, being questioned now as the population ages.  What really concerns me is: what is the generation that was born to shop to do, if the shops no longer appeal?

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