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Consumer Trends

The senior customer class

As an older, milder, slower moving contingent, American seniors can’t possibly be fixated on the hot new restaurants, healthy menu items and groundbreaking aesthetics, right? Wrong. If you see an older diner and think milquetoast and mashed potatoes, you’re closing yourself off to a powerful dining group. Sure, some seniors may want the menu and decor to stay the same year after year. But plenty of others would just as soon shake up their dining habits. 

Now 36 million strong, the 65-and-older crowd controls 52 percent of all consumer spending, according to the AARP. Many are retired and three out of four live in metropolitan centers. What’s more, says Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group, a consumer research firm in Port Washington, New York, “This is a group that loves to sit down in restaurants.”

To some degree the stereotype of older Americans being less likely to splurge on dining out holds up. Only 2 percent of seniors are likely to eat at fine dining establishments, according to NPD’s survey of 600,000 consumers, and only 22 percent are likely to eat their meals out at mid-priced locations. But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy nice restaurant meals. While many seniors are sitting down in fast food and fast casual locations during lunch, says Balzer, they’re likely to opt for a nicer, sit-down restaurant for dinner.

Born anywhere between 1900 and 1945, marketers generally break seniors down into two groups. One consists of the “Greatest Generation,” which includes people 80 and older who lived through World War II and the Depression. The other, the “Silent Generation,” consists of those 61 to 79, who came of age in the 1950s. The notion would hold that older Americans are more likely to pick a restaurant and menu that will be consistent and reliable over time. But, says Chuck Underwood, president of the Generational Imperative, a marketing consultancy based in Cincinnati, Ohio, “more than ever, these generations…are willing to be flexible. With the Silent Generation you’ve got lots of curiosity and strong generational core values to be experiential and try new things.”

Seniors are drawn to a new restaurant as much by its looks as by its menu, service or even its specials, says Underwood. “Marketing tactics that are likely hot buttons are comfortable seating, a diverse menu that includes wellness items, minimal noise, prompt (but not fast) service…and a warm lighting aesthetic.”

It’s not until you look at much older Americans, well beyond 80, where they want consistency in their meal week after week.

In its 2005 Casual-Track survey, Sandelman & Associates tracked the dining habits of seniors 65 and older at full service restaurants. While the San Clemente, California-based consultancy found the habits of seniors and the general population don’t always vary widely, a few exceptions stand out. Older diners are more likely to order dessert—75 percent, versus less than a quarter of the average population. And when they do order dessert, they’re more likely to order pie or ice cream. Fish and seafood are top menu choices as are sides like baked potatoes, cole slaw and garden salads. Seniors tend to skip french fries, pizza and Mexican fare; are 19 percent more likely to order coffee than the average diner (6 percent); they’re more likely to order wine than beer; and they’re less likely to order soda (14 percent versus the average diner at 27 percent).

Seniors are as apt as any other age group to rely upon a friend’s recommending a restaurant. But, says Underwood, “these are generations with vivid memories of the Great Depression and World War II. These are two generations that have a great appreciation for the value of a dollar. They’ve been very effective savers [and] don’t throw their money around.”

Seniors are driven to fast food/fast casual restaurants more than any other. NPD says older Americans are likely to buy fast food 60 percent of the time. But the seniors who frequent mid-priced restaurants (which is 22 percent of all seniors) do so a lot more often than the general public. NPD calculates those seniors visit mid-priced restaurants 90 percent of the time they eat out, compared with 76 percent for the average American.

What does that mean? It means that diners 65 and over want to go out, sit down and eat their meal in a pleasant restaurant environment, as opposed to ordering it to go as younger people do.

But seniors are more likely to sit down in a restaurant where they perceive a high value for their dollars spent. That doesn’t mean they seek out only bargain basement pricing. But they do expect excellent customer service, a varied menu and a solid bang for their dining buck. “Restaurants think it’s all about pricing with the early bird special,” says Ron Santibanez, president of Qualified Solutions Consulting, a restaurant consulting firm in Moreno Valley, California. “If you have a nice, upscale restaurant that’s not overly priced and has value to it…they will be willing to go.”                                 

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