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WalMart, Baby Boomer Lifestyles & Future Innovations in Retail
Ken Gronbach writes on CNBC.com that “Aging Boomers Could Spell Big Trouble for WalMart.” If true, this is truly a disruptive demographic when the world’s largest company is supposedly stumbling as its baby boomer clientele ages.
Gronbach notes that despite WalMart’s (NYSE: WMT ) strategy of being more efficient (tuning its world-renowned supply chain strategy), more customer-focused with its Project Impact initiative, more top of mind with a $1.6 billion spend in advertising making it the the 5th largest advertiser, the retail giant achieved less than 2 percent growth in the last three quarters of 2009. Why? Gronbach suggests it’s because WalMart is chasing a shrinking market — the baby boomer. Older and less consumerist, the baby boomer consumer that was the basis of WalMart’s success may now be its Achilles heel. He hypothesizes that trying to keep up with the boomers is distracting WalMart from the future – the younger X and Y generation consumers.
Shopping Cart and Shopping Cart Evolution
Demographics are more than numbers – behind the curves and projections are lifestyles and behaviors. Before WalMart or anyone throws the boomers out with the bathwater – some demographic lifestyle realities should be considered:
Mind the Gap – the baby boomers invented the generation gap to emphasize how different they were from their parents. Today the gap between parent and child is smaller than we think. Boom parents are more likely to be “friends” with their children. Mother-daughter shopping teams scour malls and box stores together in search of styles and good buys. Despite the economic downturn, the boomers, while older, remain responsible for most of the nation’s income and are key influencers of how their elderly parents and children shop.
Home Alone – home composition drives consumption. The fastest growing household in America no longer consists of 2-plus kids, two parents, a dog and a van. America is increasingly a home-alone experience. According to Pew Research, only 5 percent of Americans lived alone in 1950 – today that percentage has tripled to ~15 percent. Almost one in five blockbuster homes are homes to one. And, for those over 65, 30 percent live on their own. But wait – while age may correlate with living alone, even younger Americans between the ages of 30 and 49, in career and consumer prime, report an unprecedented ~10 percent living alone. Smaller households equal smaller purchasing behaviors. Lifestyle, not life stage can tell us more about what happens in retail. Buying in bulk for a table of one makes little sense at any age.
Boomerang Love – as with most socio-economic trends, a number of factors that conflict at the same time emerge. The nation’s economic slide may be moderating how far younger consumers are distancing themselves from their prosperous parents. Pew Research reports that 13 percent of parents with grown children hear the stomping of big, grown-up feet in the house. The number of 18 to 29-year-olds “back home” has increased – it’s unlikely that their prosperous mums and dads are making them buy alone if they can’t afford to live alone.
Insight and Innovations
While demographics are said to be destiny, consumers no longer behave according to the life stage models that many companies have come to rely on. Research at the MIT AgeLab indicates that traditional approaches to generational marketing must be tempered with an understanding of the changing context of life, new technology, and the realization that attitudes as well as consumer expectations remain dynamic throughout the lifespan. AgeLab’s consumer and retail research suggests the future will be different and it’s likely to be smaller too. Smaller household sizes may require product manufacturers and retailers to rethink package size, reconsider what the new definition of convenience is for home-only households, and redesign the store experience and formats for consumers of one or grown-up daughter-boom-mother shopping safaris.
WalMart’s gigantic market size was achieved because it is a learning organization. Elephants are intelligent creatures and, sometimes, when they have to please a crowd, they can dance. Don’t discount WalMart – or the boomers – just yet.
Coughlin, J. “Disruptive Demographics, Design & the Future of Everyday Environments,” Design Management Review, Spring 2007.
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