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Meet the new boomers: Shifting values from products to relationships.
by : 

Sara Wiseman

March 1, 2012

A new retail reality is here—and it looks a whole lot different than most of us imagined. The new reality started gathering momentum back in 2008, when, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the economy slid off the rails and global markets went haywire. Four years later, we still haven’t recovered, and one thing is becoming increasingly clear: We’re not going back to the way we were.

One of the reasons change is here to stay? According to the new Boomer Values Realignment Study, post-war baby boomers born between 1946 and 1965—the most influential consumer demographic in the U.S.—has been profoundly affected by the events of the last few years.

The study, a joint venture by Civano Living, Ypartnership and American LIVES, was conducted as an effort to measure the long-term psychological effects the economic downturn has had on people ages 45 to 65. The data shows a clear trend: Boomers—a core customer demographic for most retailers—have had a major value shift.

From product to relationship

According to Kevin Kelly, CEO and founder of Civano Development and former president of wellness resort spa Canyon Ranch, a values shift from consumerism to relationship building has risen in boomers across the board—whether they’re spiritual seekers or mostly mainstream.

A few factors have combined to make this shift even more pronounced, notes Kelly. First, he says, “Folks at this age are already coming to a natural point of transition; they’ve had or are winding down their careers and families.” At this age, most boomers are naturally positioned for a new phase of self exploration.

Secondly, he says, “This group was especially jolted by the abruptness of the economic downturn and the length of it.”

And thirdly, the boomers grew up during the Cold War era, a time when the U.S. had fewer economic competitors. Now, it’s clear the balance has shifted toward globalization, Kelly explains—and this has changed how boomers see themselves and their place in the world.

“These three factors together have accelerated the trend line,” Kelly says. “Right now, boomers are either rediscovering their root values or prioritizing what’s important to them. And what’s emerged at the forefront of this trend is a focus on relationships, not products.”

Value-based shopping continues

No doubt about it, boomers are still strong consumers, Kelly notes, but they’re spending more cautiously, and they’re much more selective. “Customers still want the best product at the best price; that’s a given,” he says. “But now, more than ever, they are interested in sustainable products and products that represent their values and expand their well-being.”

This population is especially concerned with health, environment, and the methods by which items are produced, the study shows, noting that:

  • 66% express concern about the air and water quality and processed foods to which their family is exposed.
  • 92% prefer less toxic construction and maintenance materials.
  • 97% want or are leaning toward energy-efficient heating and cooling systems for their home.
  • 80% think it’s “somewhat or very important” to have alternative energy sources to generate electric power.

Relationship-based shopping emerges

Yet, even more than top quality, well-priced, and value-aligned products, what today’s boomer customer is looking for is relationship. To this end, the study shows:

  • 87% believe “caring for others is an important ingredient to make a purposeful life.”
  • 89% feel it’s important to “be there for family and friends.”
  • 90% want their home to be an enticing gathering place for family and friends.

Furthermore, when the respondents were asked to reply to various programs and services that would enhance their well-being, the highest-rated answer was not fitness, medical services, or massages, but “events and social gatherings where I laugh and engage with friends.”

“Gathering is the means; relationship is the outcome,” says Kelly. In other words, if you want to capture this “new” boomer on a consumer level, it’s essential for retailers to create forums and events that facilitate social gathering.

In-store or virtual, the data show creating structures for relationship building will be the differentiating factor for success this year and in the near future.

Creating in-store community

If your store has enough room, consider building relationships with events and social gatherings. Karen Harris, co-owner of Isis Books and Gifts in Englewood, Colo., has been building community successfully with her customers for the past 32 years.

The store averages about 25 events or workshops per month. “We’ve actually limited the number of events now in comparison to what we offered in our early years,” says Harris. “We used to have classes every weeknight and all weekend, but since my husband and I became parents eight years ago, we limit most of our offerings to the weekend.”

Some keys to her store’s success: “We offer our workshop space at a crazy low rate to help local teachers be able to offer their skills at a reasonable rate to students. This is also helpful for national authors—most are working with a shoestring budget, and to be able to use a beautiful space at a store that really works to promote their events brings us quality people,” she explains.

Mixing it up is also important: “Having really interesting offerings entices customers who are new to us, so we make new contacts, and it also encourages our regulars to come back again and again.”

It’s important to not have the same events all the time, Harris notes. “An event we held earlier in the year to a standing-room-only crowd might only draw one or two people six months later.”

Overall for her store, “classes and events around psychic development are always a draw, as are shamanic work and magick.

“Events need to be done professionally and well,” she insists. “You need to have a large enough room, and it needs to be clean and attractive. You and your staff have to be organized, not haphazard about the way you get the word out.”

Lastly, Harris offers a note of caution: “Just because someone wants to teach a class does not mean that they know how to teach or even know much about the subject,” she warns. “Talk in depth to a potential presenter, and pay attention to their organizational skills, demeanor, and knowledge base. Remember they are representing you and your store.”


Boomers value community—in-store and online

Community is increasingly important to the baby-boom generation, but what if you don’t have enough space for in-store events, or don’t have the staff to manage them? Or, maybe you already developed a full events program, but want to expand your relationship building further?

Social media is a perfect tool for creating community, as long as you use it consistently, says Karen Stuth, co-owner of Satiama (www.satiama.com), an online store and community.

“The rules are the same for virtual or brick-and-mortar stores,” she says. “The key to building community is you want to build a sense of connecting to your brand, and you want to be unique, special, and different from those who are similarly situated.”

That means knowing what your customer truly wants. “Sometimes a retail or online store really doesn’t have a grasp of what their community wants,” Stuth says. “Product sales don’t always show the true story; there could be unmet needs that you can’t track that way.

“I advise that stores check in frequently with their customers. They might consider running a short, three-question point-of-sale questionnaire” to help them gather this information, she says.

“Ask your customers what they want on a regular basis: What do you need? What do you need us to provide? How can we help you? This helps you put your finger on the pulse of what your customers really want, and also lets them know you are listening to them.”

Stuth often hears retailers worry they have to add an online store or have an active website to build online community. But, in fact, “a website isn’t necessary to shape an online community. A simple Facebook page and the activities you initiate” can do the job just as well.

“You do have to work to engage people,” she adds. Some ideas might be to set up a discussion as an event, and invite people to come and participate for a limited period of time. Give coupons to those who participate. Or, “ask an author to host an online discussion. That’s something they can do virtually, and often they’ll do it for free.”

Stuth’s site hosts online astrology and shamanic communities, which are subscription based, as well as a free monthly meditation community, which features well-known authors and holistic experts. “It supports our brand promise,” she says, “and it’s yet another way we can serve our community.”


Bonus: Five key questions to ask your customer today

Set up these questions as a quick online survey, or ask your staff to ask these questions at point-of-sale. Then track the responses. The answers may surprise you—and help you understand what your customer really wants and needs from you.

  • How can we help you?
  • Did you find what you need?
  • How can we serve you?
  • What did you like about your experience?
  • What would make your experience better?

Sara Wiseman is a branding expert and author of several books, including Becoming Your Best Self. She is a founder of The Gratitude List, a contributor to Daily Om, and hosts her own radio show, Ask Sara. She also has released three CDs with her band Martyrs of Sound. For more information, visit www.sarawiseman.com.