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Meeting the mattress needs of baby boomers

By Patricia Frank / June 2009

The wave of baby boomer retirements is just beginning. Their health and, in many cases, their lifestyles are changing. How can the bedding industry meet the needs of this enormous demographic group?

This is the year that many baby boomers hit the economic wall. This is the year, according to economic forecaster Harry S. Dent, that turned boomers “from spenders into savers.” This is the year that added a third “b” to the description of boomers: As a demographic, they are big, bold and now—broke. Since 2008, many nearing retirement have watched their nest eggs shrink from ostrich–size to hummingbird–size.

The boomers—all 76 million of them—remain a pig–in–the–python demographic bulge. And they remain trendsetters. But the economic meltdown has made many boomers fiscally cautious.

“In general, the baby boomers are hanging on for dear life and waiting for the storm to pass”—especially the leading–edge boomers who turned 62 in 2009, says David Baxter, senior vice president at Age Wave, a San Francisco–based research and consulting group focused on the widespread effects of population aging.

A recent AARP survey found that 57% of people age 45 and older who are working or looking for a job and have lost money in the stock market during the past year are planning to delay retirement. They are facing a scary financial picture: shrunken IRAs and 401ks, a housing market slump, falling home valuations and declining interest rates on investments.

But not all boomers are in the same situation, Baxter says.

“Younger boomers, in their late 40s and early 50s, are reasonably distant from retirement. They’re at their spending peaks and they’re not holding off as much,” he says. “As the economy recovers, there will be a lot of pent–up demand.”

With 60% of discretionary income held by people age 50 and older, that’s good news for the mattress industry.

Other emerging trends show considerable potential for savvy manufacturers. We’ll look at several.

Home simple home

One significant trend: Boomers are staying home more. They’re eating at home, finding entertainment at home and even vacationing at home—“staycations” are big. When people spend more time at home, they tend to focus on the items in that home and are more willing to purchase crucial essentials.

“While boomer women have cut back, they’re still spending on things that make their home more comfortable and healthy,” says Carol Orsborn, chief strategist of VibrantNation.com, a Web site devoted to well–educated women over 50 who make $75,000–plus a year. What could be more comfortable and healthy than a great bed?
Simple living—another hot trend—means making do with less and getting rid of clutter. This purification process is what Orsborn terms the “new anti–materialism.”

“Women are thinking, ‘If what I have is less, then what I have has got to be wonderful,’ ” Orsborn says. “Beds are mythical, especially for boomers. Mattresses are one of those essentials that are going to be elevated over time. It’s funny how when you really want something, it moves from being a want to a need.”

Mattress manufacturers can position bed sets as the one crucial element that boomers shouldn’t stint on when creating their dream bedrooms. Think ads featuring uncluttered, spare, serene rooms with a bed floating in a sea of muted natural colors.

Rx: Take one bed

Many boomers think of themselves as “forever young” and, for some, the concept of middle age extends into their 70s.

“In reality,” Baxter says, “many boomers face increasing health challenges, including chronic conditions such as arthritis and diabetes, that require long–term management.”
Arthritis is a particular problem for the baby boom generation. From 2000 to 2004, the number of hip replacements in the United States increased 83% and knee replacements jumped 115%. If the trend continues, Arthritis Care & Research journal reports that we can expect to see “1.4 million knee replacements and 600,000 hip replacements by the year 2015”—with the largest increase among 45– to 64–year–olds.

Obesity also causes mobility issues. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston have found that baby boomers have significantly higher rates of obesity than their parents, who were born from 1926 through 1942.

Given boomers’ mobility issues, products of all types will be re–engineered for ease of access. This is where a concept called “universal design” comes in. It can help aging boomers deal with their health issues.

Baxter predicts we’ll see “more universal design products and services of high quality that meet people’s needs. Among them are cabinets that are easier to reach, larger grips on gardening and household tools, and bathrooms that are safer with fewer slippery surfaces and better lighting.”

But boomers generally don’t care for the term universal design. With their youthful world view, they look at grab bars and wheelchair accessibility as something for the elderly—not them. So we may see universal design called “‘ergonomic design”—a designation boomers can feel more comfortable with. Whatever it’s called, we’ll be seeing more of it.

There’s evidence that boomers do see a link between their health and their mattress. A Better Sleep Council survey found that women age 55 and older are more likely to consider a mattress purchase an investment in their health, but are more likely to keep their mattress longer than their younger counterparts—14.5 years on average. Web content targeting this group could make a strong case for replacing old bedding as an investment in good health. Testimonials from health experts such as orthopedic surgeons and chiropractors could provide meaningful recommendations and testimonials to help shorten the mattress replacement cycle.

That’s an opening for mattress makers to not only tout existing health and wellness benefits but to create new ones.

For example, for boomers, “getting in and out of the bed will become as important as the bed itself,” says Chuck Nyren, principal of the Nyren Agency in Snohomish, Wash., and author of Advertising to Baby Boomers.

Among other things, that may mean an end to thick, princess–and–the–pea mattress sets and a return to lower profiles. Changes to frame designs and improvements to adjustables could make it easier for aging boomers to get in and out of bed.

To combat problems associated with arthritis and other conditions, the pressure–relieving properties of mattresses will likely take on increased importance and, for obese boomers, sturdier and perhaps larger bed sets will be important. There could be other innovations, as well. Consider mattresses that monitor vital signs or bed sets with perimeter, motion–detecting lights that would illuminate the bed as people return after late–night trips to the bathroom.

Given this health intelligence, Orsborn recommends that manufacturers, “turn the focus of your advertising from product–centric to how your products deliver solutions for boomer problems. How do your products solve nighttime arthritis and back pain, snoring issues, mobility challenges, decreased night vision and depth perception, and the diminished strength that makes mattress flipping difficult?”

Connecting to the Internet

Boomers are connected, wired and plugged–in.

David Weigelt, a partner at Immersion Active, a Frederick, Md.–based marketing agency focused on older consumers, and co–author of Dot Boom, reports that about 80% of boomers are online.

“Adults over 50 make up the fastest growing constituency on the Web,” he says. “What’s even more important is that, even in this economy, they outspend younger adults 2–to–1 on a per capita basis.”

And it’s not just men who are online. “Boomer women make up the fastest growing segment on Facebook,” Weigelt says. And those women are often seeking the opinions of others about products.

According to Orsborn, 88% of women 50 and older say referrals from others, including online testimonials from strangers, are among the top three things that lead them to make a final purchase decision.

According to Weigelt, the key to a successful Web strategy is what Immersion Active calls “meaningful online engagement.”

“Our mantra is ‘lead with the right and follow with the left.’ We want to introduce marketing messages not by listing left–brain stuff like features and benefits, but by engaging the senses and evoking a right–brain physiological response,” he says.
But with boomers, it’s then important to follow up with the details.

“A lot of boomers who have discretionary income to buy any bed they want, are on the Web, investigating,” Nyren says. He works with clients to make their Web sites boomer–friendly and reminds them that boomers, regardless of education level, were educated to read.

“People in their 50s and 60s, if interested, will read every word. Then they’ll get out their reading glasses and read every word of the fine print,” he says.

So detailed Web content is crucial, but the sites have to be designed with boomers in mind.

“Keep in mind that older eyes find it difficult to read white or colored type against a dark background or over graphics. And some widgets are hard for older minds and fingers,” Nyren says. “But if the Web site hierarchy and font sizes work for the older brain, they’ll click on every link and will want to know everything there is to know about the product.”

Use relevant cultural icons

Some marketers think boomers are a monolithic demographic that can be reached with a universal message: Just use hippies wearing bell–bottoms and flashing peace signs at Woodstock and you’ve got the boomer demographic nailed, right? Not quite. An 18–year age span means the boomer generation is really two generations in one. The youngest boomers, born in 1964, were only 5 during the iconic Woodstock musical festival. Remember too, that 15% of boomers born between 1956 and 1964 are foreign–born. Make sure you market to their relevant cultural icons.

“Music from the ’60s can alienate the whole boomer market,” Baxter warns. However, “if artfully done with the appropriate icons, music can be an effective shortcut targeting specific age groups.”

Marketing to specific life stages works especially well with boomers.

“Companies should think about targeting by life stage rather than age—such as an older couple moving into the house of their dreams,” Baxter says. Pivotal life stages for boomers include seeing their kids off to college and becoming empty–nesters, downsizing their lifestyles, partial retirement and full retirement.

Marketers agree. The key to successful boomer marketing is three–pronged: touch on boomers’ life stages, differentiate advertising to various economic levels and use relevant symbolism.

New ways of living

Some boomers with money concerns are putting a fresh spin on communal living. This is especially true for single women whose retirement income is often smaller than that of couples or single men.

“ ‘Caring collaboratives’ describes this trend of buying apartment buildings or larger residential dwellings for independent cooperative living ventures,” says Matt Thornhill, founder of The Boomer Project, a research and consulting group in Richmond, Va., and co–author of Boomer Consumer: Ten New Rules for Marketing to America’s Largest, Wealthiest and Most Influential Group. Often the residents are united by shared interests or simply a need for companionship. One woman writing online about single women retiring recently acknowledged, “My worst fear is growing old alone.”

There’s a sizable boomer population of men and women who are divorced, widowed or have never been married. What are their mattress needs? Will they be more comfortable in smaller, double–size mattresses rather than massive king sizes?

Experts on this group expect that in coming years, we’ll be seeing more boomers staying put to be close to relatives and longtime homes instead of migrating in massive waves to the Sun Belt and age–segregated retirement developments.

“As money opens up again, some boomers will downsize or ‘age in place,’ ” Nyren says. “This means retrofitting their homes to do so.”

Baby boomers may have tightened their purse strings lately, but manufacturers who pitch their bedding products strategically will find boomers ready to buy beds that deliver solutions for their comfort, health and new life stages. This, most of all, is a generation that takes good care of itself.

7 boomer trends to target

1 ‘Green’ is mainstream Keep in mind that baby boomers are interested in living and shopping “green.” “The green and sustainable movement is here to stay. Eighty percent of all adult Americans think and act in a green manner” at least in some areas of their lives, says Matt Thornhill, founder of The Boomer Project, a research and consulting group in Richmond, Va., and co–author of Boomer Consumer: Ten New Rules for Marketing to America’s Largest, Wealthiest and Most Influential Group.

2 Less is more Baby boomers are paring their lives down to basics—it’s the new anti–materialism. But beds are mythic among baby boomers, says Carol Orsborn, chief strategist of VibrantNation.com, a Web site devoted to successful, well–educated women over 50 who make $75,000–plus a year. “Boomers think, ‘If what I have is less, then what I have has got to be wonderful.’ ” Beds will play a starring role in the new serene, uncluttered bedroom.

3 Sun Belt loses its allure Boomers are less likely than their parents to migrate to Sun Belt locations and age–restricted retirement developments. Many will stay closer to home or relocate to vibrant communities in other parts of the country. An example is an entrepreneur who moved from New York City to Boulder, Colo., and still works full time at age 80. As they downsize or retrofit their existing homes to fit their needs, expect to see an emphasis on universal design and ergonomic fixtures and furnishings to keep them comfortable and safe.

4 Wired and well–read seekers of information Boomers are online in huge numbers. The Internet is where they go to research and buy products. Online shopping is growing by leaps and bounds. Manufacturers’ Web strategies must consider how boomers use the Web and build sites that give them what they’re seeking.

5 Smaller beds for solo sleepers? These days, the buyers of beds are not necessarily couples. According to the Brookings Institution, in 1980, about two–thirds of Americans age 55 to 64 lived in married–couple households. That percentage fell to less than 58% in 2005.

6 Health issues on the horizon Expect to see many more hip and knee replacements as boomers age and growing girth takes a toll on joints. Also consider their vision changes, diabetes and other age–related illnesses and disabilities. Prostate and other problems lead to more nighttime bathroom visits.

7 Oldest boomers turn spiritual As leading–edge boomers reach retirement and beyond, they begin to ask “How can I leave a legacy?” Volunteering and a new interest in giving something back arises. Boomers support companies that are philanthropic.

Who’s a boomer?

Demographers and social scientists can argue about the exact parameters of the baby boom generation, but it’s generally considered the cohort of 76 million Americans born after World War II, from 1946 to 1964.

Retirement becomes retro

In 1950, nearly half of men 65 and older still were in the labor force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That percentage bottomed out in the 1980s at less than 16%. It has since climbed to 19%. As the oldest baby boomers reach 65, experts predict this figure will rise even more. Retirement, as we know it, will be redefined. Some 80% of boomers plan to work part–time after retiring from full–time jobs. For some, this is less a choice than an economic necessity.

It takes one to sell one

Baby boomers tend to respect and value the judgment of people in their own age group. (Never trust anyone under 40?) Because they put a lot of stock in the recommendations of their peers, there’s an opportunity for the bedding industry to use this experienced work force in marketing and selling mattresses to other boomers Who better to help fit the buyer to the product?


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