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May 2013

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Online retailers are getting smarter about the way they sell to us, but are they still blinded by outdated paradigms?

Recently Amazon launched an online store dedicated to the Over 50 market. For the first time a major global retailer has broken ranks and focused on a specific target market, rather than their product line.

Chance Wales, Director of Health & Beauty at Amazon says, “We’re excited to offer customers in the 50+ age range a place to easily discover hundreds of thousands of items that promote active and healthy living. This is a destination where a customer can purchase anything from vitamins and blood pressure monitors to skin care items and books on traveling the world”.

In addition to the usual product range, product info, ratings, recommendations and reviews that we’ve come to expect from Amazon, the new online store offers a ‘Resource Centre,’ providing tips on beauty, healthy eating, caregiving, and other topics relevant to these customers and designed to aid shoppers in product discovery.

The Over 50 market is the current Holy Grail for companies all over the world from retailers to property developers, finance and insurance companies to pharmaceutical manufacturers. They’ve been called ‘Senior Citizens’, ‘Wrinklies’, the ‘Grey Market’ and most recently ‘Third Agers’. In most Western markets people aged 55 to 64 have the highest disposable income of any age group, with the 50+ market making up over one third of the population in countries such as the US, the UK and Australia. It’s little wonder retailers are looking for a larger slice of their pie.

The change we’re seeing is Amazon evolving further from the traditional retail model towards a customer relationship model, where they’re becoming a highly customised aggregator of products and information. Like the products they sell, the content provided on their site isn’t their own. It’s created by a third party,, who have market specific expertise and are able to speak with authority, relevance and authenticity to this market on subjects like ‘Boosting Brain Power’ and ‘Losing Weight’.

This new mindset is more telling than appears at first glance. Amazon are taking a genuinely customer-centric approach, seeking to stock whatever products are most important to their Over 50 customers, rather than looking to flog the products they have to whoever might want to buy them.

This paradigm shift represents a fascinating direction for retail that’s well suited to online. For years now eCommerce businesses have been collecting data on our shopping habits, but with few exceptions, we’ve yet to see this mountain of ‘big data’ translating into any kind of customer benefit.

Years ago, before Amazon was a twinkle in the eye, we worked with a retail entrepreneur who had a vision for an ‘All Male Retail Store’; a department store format where every element from product range to store layout, brand and customer service was crafted to appeal to the way men preferred to shop. His vision memorably included ‘the dinner date pack’ with all of the elements required to pull-off a romantic dinner date including: cooking utensils, recipe book, ingredients, candles, and a Barry White CD.

I have to admit, I find the idea of highly personalised retail offerings to be very compelling. But the sting in the tail of this concept is truly understanding who the customer is and getting the offer right.

And this is where I believe Amazon has got it wrong. There’s a very good reason why the Over 50 market has proven a handful for brands to master, and that’s because it’s not a single ‘market’ – not even close.

The 50+ category is sub-segmented into as many as forty different types, each grouping determined by influences such as state of mind (how old I feel, not how old I am), age and wealth, lifestyle, sex, and family dependencies. Picture the 50-60 year olds in your life and you begin to grasp the dramatic differences in the way they walk, talk, dress, and even more importantly, the way they think. Many fifty year olds share a greater affinity (not to mention shopping and technology habits) with those a decade younger than those a decade older.

For Amazon to group all customers 50 years old and above into a single customer offer undermines the very principle of what they are trying to achieve with their new venture. What we’re seeing from Amazon is a great new approach to retail that is letting itself down in execution by not understanding their target audience nearly well enough.

But let’s not throw the Baby Boomer out with the bath water. Amazon has offered us a glimpse of the future. In this futurescape, why wouldn’t I choose to shop at a store (online or otherwise) where every nuance from product range to branding, from recommendations by peers to published content of interest was specifically and carefully crafted to suit slightly ageing (even if in denial), creatively oriented, passionate about travel and good food, time poor fathers of teenagers?

The potential exists for these new breed retailers to fine-tune their understanding of my shopping habits and lifestyle. Over time their offer could be targeted to me in a personalised manner that current retailers could only ever dream of.

The ultimate endgame is for online retailers to leverage their ‘big data’ to create a segment of one, an online marketplace just for me. It’s a concept I find both enthralling and a little unsettling.


Peter Singline and David Ansett are co-founders and directors of Truly Deeply, a Melbourne based brand strategy and design consultancy.




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