Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Catering to the Boomers

Boston Legal on ABC is in it's final season. This weeks episode featured a law suit against the TV networks for not offering TV programming for Baby Boomers. (Infomercials don't count.)

However smart retailers are making adjustments according to this from the Wall Street Journal:

Home Appliances to Soothe the Aches of Aging Boomers

With the stock market in turmoil and housing in a slump, appliance manufacturers are taking the long view and retooling their offerings for aging baby boomers.

In the kitchen, General Electric Co. is designing ovens with easier-to-open doors and automatic shut-off burners. Germany's Siemens AG has introduced a glass cook top for its premium Thermador brand designed to prevent boil-overs. In the bathroom, Moen is trumpeting new grab bars that can support a 350-pound person, and Kohler is devising easier-to-handle faucet levers. Minnesota-based Truth Hardware reports booming sales for its remote-controlled window motors.

The offerings are largely geared for the roughly 76 million baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- who control the biggest share of purchasing power for the roughly $25 billion U.S. appliance market. And many of these people are demanding appliances that help them cope with the aches, pains and other infirmities they confront as they grow older. In addition, more than half of Americans are expected to have elder-care responsibilities within 10 years, and many will likely want their homes to be senior-friendly.

"This population is far more demanding and will refocus designers" on individual consumers, says Joe Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, which studies design and engineering for an aging population.

Beyond appliances, makers of autos, cellphones and other consumer electronics also are studying boomers' evolving needs and tastes. To test cars, Nissan Motor Co. has employees wear an "aging suit" that simulates stiff joints, poor balance and impaired vision. In the U.S., Ford Motor Co. employs software to simulate the motions of an older person using a vehicle.

Among appliance makers, Whirlpool Corp. has long tested products with potential customers who are deaf, blind or arthritic. The testing with arthritis patients helped prod the Benton Harbor, Mich., appliance maker to offer pedestals that raise the height of washing machines and clothes dryers for customers with back problems.

Whirlpool also offers washing machines with large knobs that make louder-than-usual noise when they're set, for customers with limited vision or arthritis. "It's not one of those little prissy knobs," says spokeswoman Audrey Reed-Granger. One model introduced last year plays musical chimes to indicate washing temperature or other features.

At GE's consumer and industrial headquarters in Louisville, Ky., designers use "empathy sessions" to help develop new refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers. Industrial-design intern Joanie Jochamowitz, 22, wraps her knuckles with athletic tape and wears blue rubber gloves to simulate arthritis. She shoves cotton balls in her ears to simulate hearing loss, dons special glasses to simulate macular degeneration and puts dried corn kernels in her loafers to simulate aches and pains. She grabs a walker. Then she tries to peel potatoes. (Watch the video to see more).

"I don't want to get old," she says, as she hobbles around the kitchen, fumbling with potato peelers and stove controls, and nearly spilling a pot of boiling water.

GE began the empathy sessions last year so its young designers could better appreciate how consumers use appliances. "When you've got designers that are 25 or 30 years old, it's very hard for them to understand what someone in their 60s or 70s experiences," says Kim Freeman, a spokeswoman for GE Appliances.

The company also arranges focus groups where consumers cook a meal in a GE model kitchen while staffers watch through cameras and one-way mirrors. And GE videotapes appliance users in their homes. The summaries from these tapes are used in brainstorming sessions about design changes.

"We note what they are doing. We see if those behaviors happen more than once and why," says Marc Hottenroth, industrial design leader for GE's Consumer and Industrial unit.

These efforts have prompted several changes in GE product designs, including brighter LED lighting that improves visibility inside new models, such as one with a French-door refrigerator atop a bottom freezer. This year, GE introduced a single-wall oven with two cooking spaces that can operate at different temperatures. Its research shows boomers cook and entertain more frequently and like the two-ovens-in-one concept. Some models can be raised off the ground for easier access. "You don't have to reach in as far," says Ms. Freeman. She says it prevents people from stooping awkwardly, losing their balance and burning themselves on the hot stove.

GE has new dishwashers and washing machines that allow users to put in an entire bottle of detergent a few times a year rather than a smaller amount for every load. The machines are designed to reduce confusion and make housework less of a chore, particularly for older consumers.

Nancy Hursey considered such features when she and her husband Francis recently shopped for appliances for a $72,000 kitchen remodel of their West Hartford, Conn., home. Mrs. Hursey, 61 years old, wanted appliances that would be easy on her arthritis and back problems. "I played with all the doors [on the ovens] to make sure they weren't going to be a problem for me," she says. She chose a double-convection oven that GE had redesigned so the doors could be opened more easily.

The Hurseys also chose a redesigned GE refrigerator that offers additional lighting, following advice from their interior designer, Laura Bordeaux. Ms. Bordeaux says she has been recommending that older clients avoid buying gas cooktops since an older client lit a shirt on fire when leaning over a burner.

Appliances traditionally were built in standard sizes so they could be manufactured more easily and fit into any kitchen floor plan. But the increased wealth of baby boomers in the U.S. led to a demand for more stylish and functional products.

Appliance manufacturers hope these design changes will buoy revenue. Sales and profits in the U.S. appliance industry are down this year because of the housing bust, the stock-market slide and the economic slowdown. GE reported third-quarter profit fell 82% in its unit that sells appliances. Sweden's AB Electrolux saw operating income drop 50% for the first nine months, and Whirlpool saw operating profits down 31.8% for the first nine months. GE is planning to sell or spin off its appliance division.

But for the long term, the appliance industry expects big returns because of baby boomers and hopes of a housing rebound. Freedonia Group Inc. in Cleveland projects major-appliance unit sales in the U.S. will grow to 77.2 million in 2016, from 63.4 million in 2006.

Bob Hanna and his wife Sharon shopped for ease-of-use features last year when replacing their avocado-green kitchen appliances in their Rock Island, Ill., house. They bought all Whirlpool appliances and were mostly pleased.

But Mr. Hanna, a 71-year-old retired mechanical engineer, says he doesn't like a dishwasher that Whirlpool had redesigned with baby boomers in mind. Mr. Hanna says he's confused by the 11 push buttons and lights on his Whirlpool washer with Quiet Partner III features. "I don't like a lot of buttons on the dishwasher," he says. For now, his wife has taken over the task of using the dishwasher.

Ms. Granger of Whirlpool says the company tried its best to make dishwasher controls of several styles for different consumers. "One product won't meet the needs of every individual," she says. "You can't expect the same dishwasher you would use for your parents would work for your grandparents."

Write to Paul Glader at

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