The stereotype of ageing is one of “decline”. However, there are things we do better with age. One of those things is to manage our emotions. Older people shape their environments in ways that fulfil the goals that they value most highly. They want to maintain life satisfaction and a high level of emotional wellbeing. Researchers started to look at the emotional wellbeing of people in their Third Age only in the nineteen nighties. What they found was not decline. Depression and anxiety were less prevalent than in younger groups. Healthy ageing consumers were at least as satisfied with their lives as younger groups. They were less worried about social and financial issues. They experienced less anger and were less upset by natural disasters.
All this did not happen by chance but involved active management of emotions by older people. We prune social networks to leave only the most emotionally fulfilling. Unpleasant situations are actively avoided. We are better able to distance ourselves from unpleasant situations. Indeed we are better able to take the other persons point of view. Once in memory we remember things more positively. We rewriting our own autobiographical “files” to highlight the positive experiences.
Given all that effort, we are very unlikely to go and complain about the lighting in the restaurant or the level of background music. If things go wrong, we are more likely to deal with the emotional distress, and accept the apology and excuse. We will remain loyal because we have “seen it all before". The restaurant gets neither an angry or a lost customer. We do not provide the typical kind of market feedback that service firms need. They may not know they have had a failure.
The service experience influences us sub-consciously. We do not appreciate improvements in a conscious way. If the firm has put a lot of effort into customizing the experience for older people they may not get the benefit. Instead all we have is a general sense of “liking the place more”. Even then our ability to promote it through “word of mouth” is limited. Our social networks are smaller. Even more importantly we feel younger than our years. We do not want to be tagged with an older stereotype. We certainly do not want to recommend somewhere that signals “for older people”.
How then can the normal market mechanisms work? Advertising to Third Agers to show the “better” service experience is difficult. We have to avoid triggering a negative stereotype. As we saw last week we also have to avoid triggering the “if you win, I lose” reaction. German supermarkets talk of “the Best Age” or “Best Generation”. The Japanese Aeon Malls talk of the “Grand Generation” . No one has solved the problem of addressing this group.
The very nature of the Third Age market means that the drivers of competitive change are weaker. Feedback from the market is less and people do not complain and even remain loyal. Investment to improve the service experience is difficult to justify. There is no easy way for it to be used to attract more customers. Retailers and service firms are left to make the changes they can and hope that the revenue comes.
Watch for consumer “hacks”
The Third Agers can communicate their needs even if they are less likely to speak up within the service setting. Service firms need to be more sensitive to the behaviour of their customers.
Service settings guide us to follow the script. We do not have to follow it. We will sometimes “hack” the service experience. We will use it in ways for which it was not designed, to satisfy our needs. Paco Underhill, an author and consultant, has spent a whole career watching people shop. From observation alone he can flag to retail or service organizations the problems with their store layout and design. For example he observes that the first ten feet of a retail outlet are ignored. Customers are “decompressing” before starting to shop.
He devotes a whole chapter in one of his books to chairs. More specifically it is the absence of them. Men seem to need chairs where they can wait, when shopping with their partners. The result is that they “hack” the system. They can be found squatting on any available ledge or windowsill in the store. He has many pictures of men improvising chairs in all kinds of settings. As customers become older, chairs are going to be needed. Stores that find customers “hacking” need to be made aware of what this means.
Many personal hacks now involve the smartphone. We use of the flashlight to read. Today many older people can be seen using the camera on their smart phone to magnify text. Otherwise it would not be readable. Smartphones may not have been designed for that purpose, but people will find a way. Many older people carry Tabasco or other spicy condiment in small bottles. This enables them to enjoy food that otherwise would seem bland. People bring their own cushions to restaurants or pillows to hotels.
In this way service customers can communicate whilst maintaining their own emotional position. Indeed, they may even be getting an increased sense of control from their “hack”. The important thing is that someone “gets the message”. It can be a designer or a service provider. They must understand what they are seeing and not be biased by their own stereotypes.