Leave COVID Behind, NOT Your New Old Online Buyers
For decades, most retailers depended on foot traffic to their brick-and-mortar stores much more than the website they felt compelled to build late in the last century. Furthermore, “direct to consumer” isn’t really a new concept; thousands of prosperous companies marketed by direct mail and catalogs only, collecting orders via mail and phone before “that internet thing” came along.
In the 21st century, we all realize that it's nearly impossible to grow a small, medium, or large size retail business without an e-commerce site. However, many traditional store and catalog marketers have resisted investing in their online infrastructure and customer experience because web sales are considered supplementary revenue flow and/or their key customers fall into a “more mature” demographic.
It’s been widely touted that one in four dedicated retail customers have enjoyed the convenience of shopping online so much that they will continue to do so. Even I was surprised by Forrester’s report that, by April 2020, 62 percent of consumers had made their FIRST online purchase, and 60 percent were over the age of 60. In addition, as reported by eMarketer, this segment increased its online spend by nearly 50 percent in spring 2020 alone. This population segment holds more than half the total U.S. wealth, is less affected by joblessness — many are retired — and more of their income is disposable.
Yes, I’m talking about baby boomers, defined as individuals born between 1946 and 1964. “Older Americans just don’t buy online” is what was cried … until COVID, when everybody stayed home. Even now, as stores re-open, COVID has forever changed the way we shop, and the older buyer “grew up” in the last year and a half. They’ve experienced new brands’ websites that are easy to search and navigate. They text, Zoom, and FaceTime with their kids and grandkids. They ask Siri. They're not nearly as afraid to ask for help in getting what they want and need via an electronic device; many now prefer it. In addition, those boomers are now buying for their Greatest Generation parents.
As a direct marketer who helps brands drive revenue, it’s important to remember that your agency, consultancy or employees overseeing such activities as paid, organic and print are responsible for attracting and driving traffic to your website. It's still up to YOU as a business owner or executive, however, to make sure you're prepared to convert that customer using the tools and channels the consumer selects.
Think about it: What have you first been forced to do out of necessity, then realized how easy it can be? Who held your hand and made it easy? Are you willing to go back to “the hard way”? This is why traditional retailers and catalogers need to take a step back, stop expecting their 55-plus buyer to pick up the phone, and make the experience come together to improve sales.
I've noticed a few common mistakes in the online boomer market during the last year. Consider the following:
- CX and Your Website: If you still consider your website “that order entry portal …” it’s not. It's where people look for more details on your products than can be included in the catalog. It’s where they go to explore the category more deeply. Catalogs are now a part of the store experience — a top three conversion driver. Make sure the customer experience meets expectations without overcomplicating the process.
- Online Chat: Millennials aren’t the only people who avoid talking to someone on the phone. Many don’t like making calls to customer service departments. I’d rather multitask and do a quick online chat. Make it clean; don’t tangle them in a bot for long or they’ll log off fast.
- Digital Advertising: Yes, you should, if any of your customers are below the age of 80. For many, a smartphone is stuffed in their jeans pocket or a tablet is sitting next to the TV sofa.
- Product Recommendations: True life example, first: I made a purchase for my elderly mother (so I'm shipping it sight unseen to her). The site sells by collections! I can buy the entire set I see, but I want to change the color of the top that goes under the jacket. You serve up 15 colors, but I can’t tell a good match among the tiny online swatches. I called Customer Service to ask for help, but she didn’t have that info. The same thing happened when trying to buy a swimsuit from a venerable cataloger/retailer. Tops are sold separately from bottoms, which is good. I thought the site would offer up some good color combos for bottoms (or ANY bottom), but it didn’t. I used online chat to get recommendations. If a customer orders separates and the fabric and/or color don’t match, chances are, it’s all coming back as a return. If you want to reduce returns, think through how a buyer puts their order together and simplify (or train) the touchpoints.
- Creative: I see lots of clutter in senior marketing — packed catalog and web pages; overly segmented categories causing scrolling instead of search or list selection; tiny type and bad eyeflow in print. Too much information can overwhelm the buyer.
- Catalog Mailing Frequency: I know the rule — those who just purchased are most likely to buy again. I expect and want you to send a few to me. A full year or two of monthly catalogs, though? And then there’s the opposite spectrum of new pure-play mailers who take my catalog request or first-time purchase from their test and never send me one. There’s a happy medium. The proper amount of consistency counts. Use your metrics to make sure you're mailing profitably, not wasting or leaving money on the table. Mailing everyone all the time isn't the right answer. Get sharper and hire a consultant who can help you weed out the chafe and focus on the gems.
- Deserting your Boomer Demographic: The millennials are coming, and, yes, established brands need to evolve. I see stalwart brands, however, focusing the majority of their attention — and budget — to favor this competitive demographic over their 50-plus market (i.e., the loyal buyers). I have a saying, “make your buyers pay for your prospecting.” Beware of offending your core market too quickly.
What are some assumptions you’ve made for your business, thinking you don’t have to change because your customers don’t like change? Buyers, especially boomer buyers, have evolved in these past 15 months. Challenging your practices will not only help you improve to meet their needs, but prepare you for the generation right behind them who is already digitally savvy.
Related story: Catalog Costs: How Low Can You Go?
Paula brings in-depth experience designing, developing and implementing strategic cross-channel marketing programs for both B2B and B2C. She has worked in radio and TV, moving to print & online as marketing director for Skyvision where she oversaw direct mail, e-commerce & infomercials along with launching a second catalog, Field Trips, from scratch. She continued applying her creative and marketing strategies to clients large and small to develop direct marketing programs that delivered results. Paula has driven relationships with brands around customer data, email, mail, ecommerce, online advertising and new technologies. She joined Lett Direct in 2016 to lead business development activity for print and digital across new/existing clients and partners. Paula is a past member of DMA’s Catalog Council and speaker at ACCM & DGA, is currently a Bronze sponsor of NEMOA and an ACMA member.
Hopefully soon, you’ll find Paula singing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus again or sipping a fine wine at a Lake Michigan harbor.
You can reach Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org