Single, but not Alone: Packaging for the big Little Household

by Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Marketers have done a nice job in identifying and capitalizing on certain lifestyle changes that call for package innovation.
They’ve caught up with fast-paced families with “on-the-go” food and snacks. They’ve recognized that no one has enough time to clean with the introduction of “touch-up” cleaning products. And, they’ve definitely noticed the growing disposable income and influence of kids in making everyday purchases.
But marketers continue to ignore one of the most dramatic lifestyle shifts among adult Americans: The inclination among many of us to live alone. The one-person household has grown from virtually nowhere 20 years ago to become a huge economic force that continues to pick up steam.
Market share has grown multi-fold
This movement presents a screaming opportunity for package innovation. Here are a few facts.
As of 2000, one-person households numbered 28 million, or more than one-quarter of all households. This represents a doubling of solitary households’ share of total households since 1960.
Given that trend, the number is certainly even higher today. You might be startled to learn that the actual number of one-person households has quadrupled in the past 40 years or so.
You may think these single households are comprised solely of the elderly and disenfranchised, with a few young singles thrown in—those believed to be without the economic clout worth chasing.
But you’d be wrong on all counts. The closer we look at this diverse segment, the more eye-opening it gets.
The growth in singles living alone has come at the direct expense of married couples with children. Divorce and the delaying of marriage have resulted in an unexpectedly large group of pre-retirement singles. In fact, about one-third of all people who live alone are younger than 45, and more than half are less than 55.
Those in the 55-plus age group still represent more than 40 percent of the living-alone segment, but the percent of pre-retirement singles is growing faster.  
And, while growth in the percentage of women living alone has tapered off, the growth rate for men is accelerating. In 1970, women were twice as likely as men to live alone. Now, women represent only 58 percent of one-person households.
As important as their sheer numbers is the living-alone consumer’s disproportionate inclination to spend money on themselves.
A self-indulgent lot
A family of four spends half as much per capita as the single person living alone. It’s not surprising that they can afford to spend more than those with kids, and their attitude helps drive this behavior.
These free-spenders have no one to treat but themselves, and they do it with a vengeance. While families may have to cut back in hard times, singles have the cushion to keep on treating themselves right.
What about the segment we most commonly associate with single-member households, those older than 55? Even this group warrants more investigation, as they are not a bunch of elderly, immobile senior citizens.
A study in Canada shows that 89 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds reported no physical or mental disability whatsoever. Our efforts to combat high blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking have paid off here. Seniors are remaining active and working and living healthy longer than ever.
Females predominate here, in an interesting contrast to younger groups (25 to 44), where males make up the larger percent of those who live alone.
It all adds up to a powerful and sustainable growth opportunity for consumer products companies. So, how have they capitalized to date?  Tool kits for women and single-serve frozen dinners.
We’re exaggerating to make a point, of course. But marketers have been remarkably slow to understand and exploit a monumental shift in buying power that will almost certainly snowball for years, if not decades to come. Thoughtful package structure solutions could lead the way right now.
If you run a chunk of a consumer products company, how might you think about leveraging package innovation to exploit this tidal wave of a trend? We propose two intriguing directions, illustrated with a few accompanying package structure concepts. Perhaps they will get you thinking about how you could respond.
1. Make cleaning time easier
Singles (both young and old) are notorious for neglecting housecleaning chores. An occasional load of laundry gets done only because the social cost of letting it lie is just too high.
How about a low-sweat, time-sensitive housecleaning system for guys that provides the know-how and the “juice” to insure both compliance and results?
Stick-anywhere dispensers come with single-use “gloves” already loaded with cleaner. Just slip on the glove and apply pressure and water to dispense the right amount of cleaner for the job.
The gloves provide different textures and cleaning solutions for different tasks. One might offer an abrasive texture for bathroom cleaning, and another, a smooth texture for glass. Stick them wherever they’re needed for thorough cleaning or a quick touch-up.
2. Living alone, with company
Meal items for singles (young and not so young) have always stressed “single-appropriate” portioning. The next wave of offerings should recognize that singles may live alone, but they may not always be alone.
A high-quality, chilled meal kit can be packaged in a multi-tiered cooker for fail-safe preparation and quick cleanup. The lower tier contains the entrée and sauce, while the upper tier is perforated for steaming vegetables or rice.
The entire meal is packaged in materials that go directly to the stovetop or oven.
This dinner-for-two might be sold with an Asian accent, in a cooking package that mimics a lacquer box and includes elegant square plates and even chopsticks.
With just these two ideas, you can see how the trend toward solitary households poses myriad opportunities for packaging design. So, take another look at the burgeoning live-alone population.  You may find that it’s no longer a single-minded growth opportunity for your category. BP
The authors, Ken Miller and Jim Warner, are the Managing Partners at One80 Design, New York City, a package structure innovation and design firm. Contact them at 212.268.1801 or or