Japan finds gold in its silver market

All the talk about millennials and their digital retail habits misses the point that in many countries, including Australia, the population is ageing, and those aged from 50 to 70 have money and are willing to spend it. This is the so-called “silver market”.

Japan has the world’s oldest and fastest-ageing population. According to WorldAtlas 2018, 26.3 per cent of Japanese were aged over 65, with a median age of 47 years (Australia’s median age is 39 years, according to worldpopulationreview.com). Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Greece round out the top five for highest median ages.

Japan, theoretically, is something of a poster child for catering to the silver market, including in retail.

More seating, complimentary tea

The Japanese department store channel is in decline. In response, conglomerate Mitsukoshi Isetan has installed a raft of initiatives ranging from premium travel options and financial products (credit cards, insurance) to healthcare malls which include healthcare facilities and gyms. Apparel focuses less on business-related products like suits and more on travel-related and leisure clothing.They have also installed more seating and provide complimentary green tea.

Supermarkets have also been a channel in decline in Japan for the past decade, although recently they have been catering to the silver market by making shopping baskets lighter, aisles larger to accommodate electronic wheelchairs and shelves lower.

Japan’s historically strong and innovative convenience store channel is thriving as elderly shoppers often pick up one day’s items that can be carried easily on foot in one bag. They are also partnering with service providers such as food delivery and home cleaning services, developing prepared food such as easy-to-chew convenience meals and microwaveable rice meals, stocking smaller packages and nursing-care products, increasing the size of price tags for better visibility and increasing the shelf space of wagashi (a sweet dessert).

E-commerce, despite its constituents’ privacy concerns, is also a growth market for Japanese seniors who enjoy or require the convenience of home delivery.

Focus on comfort

Retail giant Aeon has renovated 13 of its urban outlets to attract senior shoppers, with a goal to reach 100 such outlets by 2025. At the Aeon Kasai Mall in Tokyo, shops and cafes open at 7am to cater to early-rising seniors, and there are outlets offering health checkups, morning exercise spaces and specialty stores selling walking aids such as fashionable canes and rentable smartphones for the hard of hearing. Employees have been trained how to serve elderly customers with dementia, which affects 15 per cent of Japan’s elderly. The Kasai store total footfall increased 10 per cent versus the previous year, driven mainly by seniors.

Keio department store was completely redesigned to appeal to customers above 50 years old, who account for 70 per cent of sales. The women’s clothing floor was rearranged by item so that customers could choose clothing according to price, size and colour instead of by brand. A special shoe section was set up using what older Japanese customers value most: leisure, health, relaxation and safety. These changes led to significant sales increases.

7-Eleven offers a meal delivery service and has created seating areas so that older customers can gather to socialise and practice their karaoke skills. Some stores have opened in apartment complexes.

Some retailers have reduced the speed of their escalators by one-third, to cater to seniors.

Rethinking the market

The elderly have surpassed infants as Japan’s largest source of demand for nappies, in the form of adult incontinence products.

Japan has also seen a boom in the purchase of artists’ drawing kits and specialist pen and pencil sets as millions take up hobbies. There has also been a renaissance in the infamous cramming schools which, now that they have fewer children to teach, are switching to life-long learning classes.

Purchases of reading glasses have increased rapidly among people 45 years old and over. Paris Miki has seen sales of reading glasses account for more than 50 per cent of sales for the past several years.

However, not all stores and product manufacturers are accommodating silvers’ changing needs. Seniors can find large-format stores and regional malls overwhelming, and product packaging may need to be redesigned in order to make it easier for seniors to read and open.

Developed nations with ageing populations – including most of southern Europe and Australia – take note.


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