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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Messages to merchants and senior customers
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Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

The senior segment of the population in this country is growing and will continue to do so for years.

Message to merchants: You have a large and growing market, so cash in on it. Seniors need, want and can pay for things other than adult diapers and hearing aids. It is true that economic wizards and policy planners have long been blind to demographic tidal waves like the Baby Boom - which led to near-crisis programs to provide schools, colleges, teachers and so forth - but such folks should be smarter now. Maybe they should be talking to seniors instead of assuming they already know.

There are some important differences between seniors and other segments of the public. For example, take packing, contents and serving sizes in food. Generally, we do not and should not eat as much. Further, many of us live alone, having lost our spouses. If smaller boxes, cans, bottles or whatever can be found, they cost more per ounce or gram. Established habits of frugality drive us to avoid the higher unit costs, even though part of the larger container will spoil before we can consume the contents.

Then there is the marketing strategy of buy one, get one deals (BOGOs) or twofers - essentially the same thing. Take cantaloupes at two for $4. I like cantaloupes and can eat about a fourth of one at a time, thus one fruit is eight servings for me. They will spoil at that rate. Who wants cantaloupe that often? Two bottles of ketchup will last for months in most one-person households. We seniors consume differently.

Message to merchants: Most stores already issue plastic savings cards to be used specifically at that chain of stores. Consider also issuing special cards for seniors, as one store here does, and use them to let seniors buy just one, not two, and discount the prices on smaller packages. Why should you do that? To grab a bigger slice of the growing senior market! Use your sales flyers that go to thousands of customers each week to announce in large print that you are senior friendly, that you offer prices and packaging appropriate to their needs.

Message to merchants: Another senior friendly suggestion is to bring back "bag persons." Do not ask if people using canes or walkers want help. Some do not like to admit their need for help but gladly agree if pushed a bit. Take the shopping cart. Smile and gently ask, "Where is your car?" Yes, I know that bag persons cost money, but becoming the place where seniors shop could grow your business enough to offset the cost. Put the bagging service in your ads.

The serving sizes issue is more serious at restaurants. One sandwich chain advertises low-calorie, even healthy items, but most places are still in the supersize-everything mode. If you are not very hungry or are concerned about suicide by food, you might have to stay home or pack a lunch. It is entirely possible to get more calories, sodium and fat in a single meal than anyone should eat in a whole day.

Message to merchants: In a prominent place on your menu, show your new offerings that are rather healthy, reasonably priced and not too large. It also might be good for your business to bring back senior citizens' discounts. Don't make them ask for it; give it automatically. Highlight the practice in advertisements and grab more of the market to offset the cost. Seniors, support these merchants with your dollars - and force yourself to stop committing suicide by food. Eat the good-for-you stuff.

Comfort is a big issue with seniors. They need a place to stop and sit when they shop. What a downer it was when the mall management removed the seating there! Most stores have no resting places. My late wife liked to shop, but for many years, health problems made it unwise for her to do so alone. So, we gravitated to stores where I could sit while she shopped. I was rarely alone. There were always "waiters" like me or folks who were just too tired or weak to go on.

Message to merchants: Every store needs resting places for elders and would be wise to provide them and make it known in their advertisements. It might bring business.

Of course, parking and access are always problems, and they get worse with disability issues that keep expanding. Big and busy places, like the superstores, are especially troubling. If they add more spaces for the handicapped, some become so far away they're useless to handicapped people, and the cart depositories are even further. Spaces for special customers, like those who are picking up phoned-in items or who are pregnant, impact that limited area.

Message to merchants: Real policing of handicapped spaces would help with the problem. So would bag persons to deliver purchases to vehicles and return shopping carts.

Access means more than getting into and out of buildings. It also means getting to things one wants to purchase. Crowded aisles, some semi-blocked by the special of the week, are obstacles to people who are hurting and having difficulty getting around. People who use aisles for conversation places, well, a plague on them, especially store employees.

Seniors like predictability. Dealing with the unknown is frustrating, confusing and tiring. The merchandising ploy of scrambling stuff to tempt shoppers to buy something else while searching for what they need, well, that comes close to elder abuse.

Message to merchants: Stop doing that. Keep the aisles open. Insist that employees be alert to customers needing help, and escort them to the things they want to buy. You can do better than a vague "aisle 3" response.

Message to seniors: Support merchants that respond to your needs and preferences. Shop there, and urge others to do the same. Team up and shop there together. Become an economic force. It is your life and your money.

What if no merchant does anything for you? Because many decisions about how chain outlets here are made in corporate headquarters far away, it is hard to change how things are done locally. Still, you are not helpless. I am an avid supporter of local business, which provides the jobs and taxes that keep the community alive. However, those who cannot get their needs met locally are justified in taking their business out of town. It's your life and your money. A day's outing by a group of shoppers to a place where merchants meet their needs offers an option. An accessible SUV or van with a good driver could make for an interesting, profitable outing for a group of friends once or twice a month. A call to Soundoff about how much fun you had might catch the attention of folks who have not paid attention to you before.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.



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