How Well Do You Know Your Baby Boomer Clients?

Baby boomers are such an important group to kitchen and bath designers, typically representing a large percentage of many firms’ business. While it’s quick and easy to group them according to age – officially identified as people born between 1946 and 1964 – it’s important to not make too many assumptions beyond that general classification when designing spaces for this age group.

Like Generation X and Y, there can be surprises when you try to stereotype them, as discovered when KBDN conducted a recent survey where more than 300 dealers and designers responded to questions related to kitchen and bath design trends and important concerns/products/project elements for Gen X and Y, baby boomers and mature homeowners.

One reason why it’s important to not make too many generalizations is that the official baby boomer category is such a large group, with very diverse preferences.

“There’s a misconception that baby boomers are a homogenous group,” says Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, Ellen Cheever & Associates, in Wilmington, DE. “But it’s too big of a group. It spans 20 years. It really needs to be divided into leading-edge and trailing-edge baby boomers. Younger – leading-edge – baby boomers are much more like Generation X. The older half, or the trailing-edge baby boomers, are much more like our mature clients.”

Dealer comments from the KBDN survey support her thoughts. And, while there were certainly similarities in boomers' preferences, there were also some key differences.

Age in place

One common theme that designers see with baby boomer clients is the desire to age in place. In fact, many of the designers surveyed noted that boomer clients often do a renovation at this point in their lives to incorporate products that will help them remain comfortably and safely in their homes as they age.

“They love extra drawers or pull-outs as they are trying to age in place,” notes Shirley Landels, M N’ M Cabinets in Portland, OR.

“I’m finding baby boomers are looking to make things more ‘user friendly,’” says Art Warren, CMKBD, Gravelle Woodworking, Ltd., in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. “They are realizing that age is going to start playing a factor and they are making that concern one of the more important factors in their design selections. They are more concerned with cabinet options that make storage items far more accessible than just ‘toys’ to occupy space.”

Jessi Lowry, of the NY-based Bath Classics Showroom, agrees. “They are staying in their homes longer, planning for a time when they may not be as mobile,” she says. “Decorative grab bars, walk-in showers with hand showers and items that are easy to clean [are important].”

Functionality is also highly valued among this demographic, with designers seeing boomer clients asking for fewer or no steps, cabinet organization and designs that offer ease of use. One designer mentioned that his boomer clients want “soft-close everything.” Quartz countertops are also a frequent request, as are pantries and pull-outs.

Lynn Hegstrom, of the CO-based Bollinger Design Group, adds, “Baby boomers want things handy…a place for trash and recycling, and drawers for everything rather than doors with roll-out shelves.”

Transitional style gains ground

Traditional styles are still common with the boomer demographic, and many designers say these clients look for timeless designs that offer classical styling and simple elegance.

“Baby boomers are sticking to the more traditional color palettes and more traditional quartz and granite…nothing wild,” says Michelle Goetzinger of Blume’s Solid Surface Products in Freeport, PA.

Carl Heitz of CEK International, in New York, NY, indicates his baby boomer clients want tasteful spaces, designed with a focus on resale. “No bright colors, basic white subway tile or marble, with a tasteful border edge or cap,” he says.

But some designers are beginning to see a change and are entertaining more requests for transitional, and even contemporary, styles. For Trish Burgess, Kitchen & Bath Concepts of St. Simons, Inc. in GA, clients are looking for simple lines with fewer places for dirt and dust to hide or settle. “They want easy-to-use and easy-to-keep-clean appliances,” she says. “Less is definitely more, but this group also wants it to be very attractive since they are continuing to entertain at home.”

“Baby boomers right now are still doing the more traditional looks, but are also moving into more transitional design,” says Evelyn Boldt, Interior Expressions, Inc., in Sarasota, FL.

Thomas R. Kelly, TRK Design Company, with locations in Marblehead, MA, Nokomis, FL, and Belgrade Lakes, ME, finds that boomer clients want simple, uncluttered design…“a place for everything, but minimal. Much like the younger generation, they want a seamless transition between rooms and spaces.”

John Lang, of Lang’s Kitchen & Bath in Newtown, PA, sees contemporary styles becoming more common. “Bucks County has been a very traditional market in the past,” he indicates. “With boomers we see much more simple and clean-lined kitchens. Contemporary styling seems to be creeping into our traditional styles. As for baths, large-format porcelain tile in earth tone colors still represents the bulk of the market, although we see a trend occurring with contemporary, horizontal grain, hanging vanities.”

Hip and tech savvy

While there are some similarities amongst baby boomers’ design preferences, there are a few potential surprises as well.

“It has amazed me how our baby boomers are much more hip,” says Dawn Zarrillo, Custom Design Kitchens, Inc., in Duanesburg, NY, noting their interest in cleaner lines and warm wood tones. “Potfillers, wine storage and coffee bars – even in master suites – are a must.”

And don’t count them out when it comes to technology and new products.

“Younger baby boomers are very tech savvy and comfortable using the Internet,” notes Cheever. “This is a generation that loves to learn.”

As such, it’s important for designers to help clients determine why they want a certain product or design. “A designer’s role is to offer alternatives, not talk a client into, or out of, anything,” Cheever stresses.

One designer also notes that it’s his baby boomer clients who are stepping up to the plate as far as green products.

Jonathan Smallwood, of Kitchen & Bath Wholesalers in Philadelphia, PA, states, “I would say there is an overtone of ‘green mentality,’ now more than ever. Concerns about lumber sources of manufacturers come into play. This mindset carries over to countertop inquiries as tops containing recycled material are gaining in popularity in this age group.”

Make a statement

Several designers also indicated that boomer clients appreciate their expertise and are looking for advice about how to make a statement.

“Baby Boomers are looking for a big impact,” says Jonathan Synovic, of Source 1 Project Solutions in Butler, WI. “They most likely have not changed the kitchen or bath in many years and are ready to bring it back to life. They understand the process and really enjoy working through design. A growing number of boomers are looking for products that will aid them as they get older, but they want these items to look and feel very elegant.”

Baby boomers have worked hard to attain a new kitchen and see it as a reward, adds Steve Livingston of Livingston Interiors in California’s San Francisco Bay area. He concludes, “They want to be fussed over and enjoy good service. For some, it can be the culmination of a life’s work. Design wise, they trust the expertise of the designer and appreciate their specialty. Personalization is important, too, and they want a unique element in the design, i.e. a special finish or wall treatment that is a conversation point.”