Need Recognition by Older Consumers

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

For the next several decades the U.S. population will include a large and expanding number of older consumers. Several reasons account for this phenomenon. Since the turn of the century life expectancy has increased and will probably continue to some maximum age, perhaps 120 (Hayflick, 1994). Further, the "baby boomer" cohort group, the largest and most affluent in U.S. history, begins to turn 60 in the first decade of the 21st century. When the individuals in a large population cohort with high discretionary income live longer than their predecessors, marketers take notice (Moschis, 1992, 1994).

As they observe older consumers, marketers want to understand what happens as seniors progress through each step in the consumer decision process for their products. The research described below examines the decision process for several goods and services and focuses particular attention on need recognition, the first step in this process.

I conducted open-ended interviews with 12 people over 60 including three each who were in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties (Alexander, 1996, 1997). The first two age groups included two men and one woman each and the last two reversed the ratios. The three respondents in the 60 to 69 group owned single family dwellings, one male in the 70 to 79 group lived in an age-integrated apartment building, and the remaining resided in an age-segregated apartment complex. All lived in an upper-midwestern community of 155,000 population.

I completed three interviews of 90 minutes duration with each respondent (Seidman, 1991), transcribed the 54 hours of audio taped responses and analyzed the transcriptions. Field notes written during and immediately after each interview and material written by the respondents for publication or for family members comprised additional sources of data.

The questions asked may have elicited concepts which the interviewees might not have otherwise mentioned. And even though they differed in age, education level, social class and occupation, all were Euroamerican, financially secure, and long time residents of the area. These facts may have compromised validity.

Engel, Blackwell and Miniard define need recognition as "the perception of a difference between the desired state of affairs and the actual situation sufficient to arouse and activate the decision process" (1995, p. 176). The data indicate that older consumers recognize needs for some consumer goods and services. For other products elderly buyers either find the differences between desired and actual states too small to cause need recognition or have completed the decision process and moved on to post-purchase evaluation. For a variety of reasons the respondents recognized the need for appropriate wearing apparel, shoes, air transportation, and specialized furniture. However, the search process yielded few acceptable alternatives for these items.

GOODS AND SERVICES AROUSING NEED RECOGNITION

Clothing comprised the most telling need recognized by older consumers. As people age their bodies and preferences in clothing styles change. Wearing apparel designed for youth may neither fit aging physiques nor appeal to older tastes. Elderly consumers in the present study needed, but could not find, clothing fashioned for them. The needs crossed age groups but differed in type by gender. Women, regardless of age, defined the desired state of affairs as wearing apparel which fit, was styled for the older person, but did not make them look like old women. Yet the clothes available for sale were either designed for young people or made them appear older than they felt. (Also see Belleau, Broussard, Summers & Didier, 1994; Chowdhary, 1988; and Underhill, 1996). The findings support Moschis' (1992, 1994) contention that the demand for apparel declines in later life partly because of the limited availability of suitable clothing. …