Is Packaging Meeting the Needs of Aging Baby Boomers?

by Mona Doyle
Stand-up pouches and pop-top lids offer convenience. But some seniors dislike these packages due to legibility and opening concerns.
The age boom isn’t just on the horizon anymore. It’s here, offering marketers an opportunity to win aging consumers with “senior-sensitive” packaging and marketing messages.
That means moving out of a mind-set that pays only as much attention to senior needs as government regulations require. Instead, take the approach of placing a high value on developing packages that aging shoppers actually understand, feel comfortable with, and find helpful and easy to use.
Here are three reasons for proactively responding to the needs and perceptions of aging consumers:
1. The number of aging consumers is growing and accelerating. The leading edge of the baby boomer bulge will approach the age of 60 in 2006. Many scholars believe the rapid aging of the global population to be the most dramatic event of the 21st century.
2. Aging consumers gravitate toward easy-to-use packages they are comfortable with, just as they gravitate toward models of cars with features that meet their needs and comforts.
Many mature consumers turn to cosmetics, hair coloring, exercise, yoga, herbals and cosmetic surgery to look younger. They also seek products and packages that make them feel young and avoid those that make them feel old.
3. Aging consumers avoid unfamiliar packages with benefits and features they don’t understand.
Packages that satisfy elderly consumers are both “senior-friendly” and “consumer-friendly.” Such packaging tends to please consumers of all ages, while having special advantages for seniors.
Running shoes offer insight
Here’s how this strategy applies to running shoes. Running shoes help walkers and runners “do it,” extend their reach and go faster and further by cushioning and protecting their feet, tendons and knees.
Although they are designed primarily for young athletes, running shoes are worn by millions of seniors who find that their cushioning, support and balancing enable them to walk further, faster and more comfortably than in any kind of traditional shoe. For many seniors, good running shoes make the deterioration of age disappear.
Senior-friendly packaging shifts the decline of aging from the “in-your-face” foreground into the background. It also enables seniors to bypass rather than confront their major or minor infirmities.
But many packages are not senior-friendly. In fact, some newer package forms that profess convenience are in disfavor with aging consumers, according to a recent survey of shoppers by The Consumer Network.
Earlier this year, The Consumer Network repeated and expanded a Packaging Report Card survey that it conducted in 2002.
In this year’s survey, participants were asked to rate their opinion of packaging and package types in 60 product categories on a five-point scale, with “1” being “Awful” and “5” meaning “Excellent.”
The researchers also asked consumers to comment on specific packages they liked or that needed improving.
The study findings show that some package types—stand-up pouches and “flip-top” or “pop-top” lids on cans—score continually poorer as consumers age (See chart).
Why do these relatively new types of packages and others receive low scores from seniors?
Habits are hard to break
Lifetimes of habit and belief are hard to change. After decades of associating jars with glass, many seniors are uncomfortable with jars that are suddenly made of plastic, even though in the abstract they state a preference for plastic packages because they are easier to lift and handle and less likely to break.
Younger consumers are attuned to the convenience benefits of plastic and are more likely than older consumers to associate plastic with high quality.
Older consumers value convenience too, but they need mental comfort and adjustment time along with it. Older consumers are comfortable with a world in which jars are made of glass, cereal comes in paperboard cartons, and cans are made of metal and opened with can openers.
The declining ratings do not mean that older consumers are resistant to all kinds of packaging change. Elderly respondents strongly prefer plastic for both prescription and over-the-counter medicines. They rate canisters with lids, which offer resealing benefits they fully understand, just as highly as any other age group.
Younger consumers put premiums on time and portability. Their time-stress perceptions add value to changes that save work and time, even when the increments saved are minimal as in using or not using a can opener or other tool.
Educating seniors on package pluses
Many older consumers don’t understand and/or haven’t been sold on the benefits of pouches. They see pouches as hard to open, sloppy to use, less protective and harder to store neatly than rigid packages.
Some older consumers believe that pouches are harder to read than rigid packages. Here are two reasons for this belief:
1. Many of the pouches carry a glossy finish, which makes it especially hard for aging eyes to read the package copy.
2. Flexible pouches feature rippled, folded or rounded surfaces. Aging consumers believe that anything printed on rippled surfaces is likely to be much harder to read than information printed on flat, smooth surfaces.
This suggests that marketers of flexible packaging should consider using larger print or higher color contrasts between the print and background.
Packages for tablets, pills and capsules receive the lowest ratings from respondents in the 60-74 age group. Many consumers in this group believe these packages could and should be more senior-friendly. Many also believe that package complexity is an excuse for high prices.
Although consumers aged 75 and older acknowledge that they find many of these drug packages hard to open, read and handle, they understand how they function, believe in their importance and are less skeptical about the reasons for the packages’ complexity.
Flip-top lids have been integral to soft drink cans for decades. But in the last few years, these closures have given new life to food cans, including soups.
Young consumers take flip-top or pop-top lids for granted. Some middle-age consumers welcome them because “good can openers are no longer available.” And some older consumers find them “a blessing” because they have trouble with the simultaneous manipulations involved in using electric can openers or don’t have enough hand strength to use a manual can opener.
But not all consumers are happy with flip-tops, and some are very unhappy. Most, but not all, of the unhappy consumers are seniors who have difficulty grasping the tab. Some have stopped buying cans they can no longer open.
Some seniors are feeling left out of packaging changes that don’t take their strength or eyesight into consideration. One told us she’d like to sue a certain food company under the American Disabilities Act because the company is failing to provide older people with weak hands access to its products. (I think she was kidding, but in today’s litigious environment, it’s hard to be sure.)
Flipping over flip-tops
In the course of conducting our Packaging Report Card Survey for 2004, we got more complaints about flip-tops or pop-tops than any other kind of package. The number and diversity of these complaints makes it hard to tell if quality control is slipping, proliferation is multiplying awareness, or more weak-fingered and older consumers are being “forced” to use them as they replace traditional cans.
Here are some of the comments:
-“Pull-tabs break off, fall in, and cut fingers.”
-“Many of the pop-top cans are horrible. They are supposed to add convenience, but in reality people are hurting themselves.”
-“Aluminum pull-tabs hurt my fingers. I think the tabs on tuna and fruit cups are dangerous and now avoid them.”
-“Sometimes with flip cans, the flip breaks off before opening the cans, sometimes it’s hard to get a finger under the flip to lift it.”
Larger tabs are easier for seniors to open than smaller tabs. But few consumers are aware of the tab-to-tab size differences, which are rather substantial.
The tabs on cans of soft drinks, juice and many store-brand soups are a third shorter and narrower than the pull-tabs on Campbell’s soup cans, which include instructions on how to lift the tab. If brands like Campbell’s called attention to their larger-size tabs, tab-shy consumers might be less inclined to be angry with them or avoid them.
In summary, these packaging ratings and comments suggest that developing senior-sensitive packaging and marketing will pay dividends. The first steps are learning what seniors need to know about your packaging as well as how easy or difficult it is for them to read, handle and use it.
The author, Mona Doyle, is CEO of The Consumer Network Inc. Her forte is marketing and packaging research and strategy development. Contact Mona at 215.235.2400 or

Package Ratings That Declined With Advancing Age
Category Age 20-39 Age 40-59 Age 60-74 Age 75+
Plastic Jars 4.1 3.6 3.6 3.6
Cans (Flip-Top) 3.9 3.6 3.4 3.2
Stand-Up Pouches 3.3 3.2 3.1 2.8
Tablets/Capsules 3.4 3.0 2.9 3.3
Ketchup Bottles 4.3 3.6 3.7 3.6
Tuna Pouches 3.4 3.1 3.1 2.6
Prepared Foods 3.5 3.0 3.2 3.1
This chart shows the mean 1-5 scale ratings for each category that declined with age. 5 equals “excellent” while 1 is “poor.” Ratings below 3.5, which show wider dissatisfaction, are printed in bold.
Source: The Consumer Network