Look for a Potential Boom from Baby Boomers

The oldest baby boomers turn 63 this year. This generation’s buying power has been front and center in sales discussions for decades, and it would be a mistake to allow baby boomers to disappear from your radar screen simply because of the existing economic climate.

Despite the recession, boomers still have assets estimated at $45 trillion, so we can’t ignore their numbers or their wealth.

Many boomers are homeowners. The value of those homes may have fallen, but these boomers still have substantial home equity. Additionally, economic circumstances may force a larger percentage of boomers to remain in their existing homes.

Multi-generational homes are also increasing in number. Boomers are caring for aging parents in their homes rather than moving them into more expensive assisted-living facilities or nursing homes. They also are housing children and grandchildren who don’t have the means to buy or rent housing.

Even before the economic downturn, boomers wanted to stay in their homes for the long term. According to the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) landmark study, “Fixing to Stay,” more than 90% of people 65 and older want to continue living in their current homes for as long as possible. Eighty-two percent say that even if they need help caring for themselves as they age, they prefer not to move.

To remain in their homes, aging boomers will need to update their door hardware, kitchens and bathrooms to fit their changing mobility. In fact, according to the AARP study, more than 70% of people age 45 and older have already modified their homes to make them easier and safer to live in as they age.

Finding Help

Where can boomers turn for help with customizing their homes so they can stay where they are? Big-box stores offer deep inventories and economies of scale, but don’t provide carefully chosen collections of truly outstanding products or the expertise to help boomers combine products and solutions to meet age-related needs.

According to “Fixing to Stay,” boomers want knowledgeable and trustworthy professionals they can work with in upgrading their homes, and they’re worried that they won’t be able to find them.

This spells opportunity for our industry. Decorative plumbing and hardware showrooms teamed with selective contractors are baby boomers’ best resource for making the upgrades they want and need.

Dave Patters with The Bath + Beyond in San Francisco, CA explains that most showrooms offer decorative lever handles for faucets and door hardware. These products are stylish and well crafted – and easy to use. “Merging form and function is something that appeals to all generations,” Patters says.

Walk-in tubs are another market opportunity. However, many of the existing models are not particularly decorative. When walk-in tubs become more stylish, in addition to being functional, they are likely to be a staple in high-end showrooms.

Tucson, AZ-based Benjamin Supply president Mark Berman explains that his company has always paid particular attention to aging-in-place requirements because Tucson is a large retirement area. The company has created special vignettes and product sections in its showrooms for customers with limited mobility and disability needs. The firm also provides special training to its sales team to specify and explain aging-in-place products, and has run promotions and targeted print ads to attract customers interested in modifying their homes to meet age-related requirements.

Millers Decorative Plumbing & Hardware in Dania, FL boasts a wide range of products to meet aging-in-place needs. “We have always dealt with an older crowd compared to most other areas,” company president Debbie Miller says, “so we’ve been selling these products since we started our business 36 years ago.”

All of these products, Miller points out, can immediately meet safety and health needs for people of all ages, and she believes decorative plumbing and hardware professionals should market and advertise them that way. For example, people of all ages who are interested in good hygiene may welcome the benefits offered by bidets, and children may benefit from thermostatic shower valves as much as older people do.

“In our showroom, we’ve found that semantics are as important as the products themselves. References to limited mobility or handicapped products are not well received by this generation. Sales professionals need to understand the importance of nomenclature. They need to emphasize that these products add beauty, safety and enhanced functionality,” Miller says.

Aging-in-place products are becoming more attractive. For instance, grab bars were once very utilitarian looking. “Now, grab bars come in multiple finishes and styles, and different lengths and widths, and can be high end as well as basic,” Miller says. “All of a sudden, we’re able to provide people with products that don’t remind them that they’re getting older. We’re not only able to provide safety, we’re able to provide safety in beautiful products.”

Miller suggests another way to capture the senior market: “If you’ve got a condo or housing community for people 55+, it’s fantastic to have suites of aging-in-place products that you can present as a package to builders and designers,” she says.

Boomers will look to well-informed professionals to specify and supply the best products for their unique circumstances. There are opportunities for manufacturers to address this growing demographic and market need by designing, developing and producing products that help people with their age-related needs while adding value and beauty to their homes.

Most significantly, decorative importers and manufacturers can build an aging-in-place story around their products. This story can be told in the company catalog, on the Web site and in hand-out literature.

Independent reps must be able to present product stories to their distributors and trade professionals.

Finally, showrooms have the ability to create a comfort level with both contractors and homeowners. The best way to seize clients’ attention is to create showroom vignettes presenting the style of today while offering all the necessities required for the aging-in-place market.

In addition to displays, consultants must be capable of creating a plumbing or hardware package that addresses aging-in-place issues. Having both working displays and significant industry knowledge will better separate your business from the competition.

The need for age-specific products and expertise is now nationwide. The winners in this market will be companies that take the time to thoroughly study the aging-in-place market. Showrooms will be well served to create displays and train their staff to better respond to the needs of this large and wealthy slice of the population.