Selling to retirees is tough trade for firms
Which untapped market has about as many people as Russia's entire population - and is still growing?
Answer: China's elderly.
Pensioners on the mainland - the 60-plus generation that witnessed the Cultural Revolution in grey Mao suits - number about 143 million but are expected to double by 2025, according to the latest government forecast, made in 2006. The total annual income of this grey population, including pensions, part-time job remuneration and family cash gifts, was estimated at between 300 billion yuan (HK$340.74 billion) and 400 billion yuan.
The consuming power behind these numbers is whetting the appetite of marketers seeking to unleash the potential of this ever-growing demographic segment. But so far those efforts have borne little fruit.
Part of the problem has been this generation's traditional lack of financial security. Being the children of a highly planned communist economy has stunted the consuming appetite of the silver-haired generation and made them notoriously frugal.
But above all, the failure to tap the retiree market has been more to do with business frustrations, reflecting off-track corporate strategies and stereotyped thinking.
'In the past decade, we have seen too many ambitious start-ups aiming at eking out profits from selling products or services to the elderly specifically, only to hit the wall and fall apart quickly,' said Wu Hanzhang, the chairman of oldkids.cn, a Shanghai-based social networking website catering to senior citizens.
'People in this area, including us, have paid steep prices to figure out the best way to go.'
Oldkids, established in 2000, now boasts 100,000 daily clicks, in addition to 30,000 subscribers nationwide, and has survived thanks to a Shanghai government outsourcing scheme that commissioned the company to run a programme teaching the city's senior citizens how to use the internet.
Mr Wu admitted the website had a disproportionate reliance on the outsourcing revenue stream but complemented that with earnings from a fledgling elderly social networking event business and subscription fees from website users.
'It's still too early to talk about meaningful profits for our business,' he said.
Indeed, with the exception of industries such as drug manufacturing, corporate China, along with foreign companies operating on the mainland, has made very few attempts to seriously consider the elderly as a priority. Among the relatively small group that has, even fewer have successful experiences to share.
Baidu.com - the mainland's leading internet search service firm - launched a Chinese-language search engine tailored for the elderly early last month. Although equipped with senior citizen-friendly features like bigger fonts, the new search engine drew ridicule from Chinese-language netizens for being cosmetic corporate social responsibility.
Kunal Sinha, the executive director,discovery, at Ogilvy & Mather, a consulting firm, says there is a scarcity of innovation in the corporate world's pursuit of China's elderly.
'The business community has just begun to make sense of the segment as a group that enjoys high savings rates and now have the desire to spend,' said Dr Sinha, who recently compiled research on marketing to the growing population of Chinese elderly.
He said it would take a deep understanding of the characteristics of these senior citizens' social and buying behaviour before any business model could thrive.
'In most developed economies, where a strong sense of individuality dominates, senior citizens make purchase decisions independently... they do not enjoy much family support, [unlike] the social network seen here in China,' Dr Sinha said.
'The reciprocatory nature of inter-generation relationships in China means senior citizens expect the younger generation to look after them. Even if they don't share the same roof, they live some place close by. That affects their buying behaviour to a large extent.'
In fact, Mr Wu said sometimes it was more effective to pursue the younger generation than to sell things to senior citizens.
'The pensioners have lived through the hard years and tend to tighten their belts, especially after quitting their job ... so their children's decisions would have a huge impact on their own,' he said.
In addition to family members, Chinese senior citizens are also likely to refer to each other when it comes to shopping.
'No one exercises, eats out and plays music by themselves or as a couple...they usually go in a whole group,' Dr Sinha said. 'That social behaviour and networking are very interesting. In marketing terms, you don't necessarily have to go to individuals but groups, because they take decisions together.'
Health-care products are the obvious beneficiary of the rapidly ageing population, but Dr Sinha also nominates a few others in his research.
From the throngs of elderly morning exercisers congregating in parks across the country every dawn, emerges a rosy outlook for sportswear products targeted to the elderly.
As government statistics show, about 58 million senior citizens now engage in sporting activity of one form or another on a daily basis, making China's pensioners the world's most physically active.
'Sportswear manufacturers tend to promote hi-tech, expensive products, having young customers on their mind as targets,' Dr Sinha said.
'But the elderly just want something simple, comfortable and which provides good cushioning. I don't see any apparel makers, be it international giants such as Adidas or domestic manufacturers, paying much attention to this area. From that perspective, you create a whole line of products.'
Telecommunications has also emerged as a good bet. A few domestic mobile makers have already launched 'handsets for the elderly', featuring such senior citizen-friendly functions as bigger fonts and voice dialling. More elderly have also acquired skills to explore cyberspace, something that did not come into existence until after the heyday of their learning life. Mr Wu advised vendors to sharpen their service skills when catering to greying customers for their gadgets.
'For youngsters, you simply sell them the products, and they can easily figure it out themselves,' he said. 'But for the elderly, you have to provide sophisticated after-sales service to help them fully understand the equipment in question. Otherwise they lose confidence and shy away from buying.'
But once senior citizens find themselves comfortable with a certain brand, the loyalty is usually assured, which is in stark contrast to the fickleness of the younger consumer set.
Despite the upbeat consumption potential, however, there are deep-rooted social realities that may cast uncertainty over this grey market. The pension system was not introduced in China until the beginning of the decade, and a considerable share of the population, particularly in rural areas, has not been properly covered by the safety net. That puts the financial security of many elderly mainlanders in question.
In addition, high housing prices and shrinking family support due to the one-child policy have forced most pensioners to liquidate their assets.
'In a society where retired parents spend a significant part of their life savings to make down payments for their sons' and daughters' homes, I can't see an incoming splurge by pensioners,' said Ren Yuan, a professor at Fudan University.
'China could rise to become the world's largest market, but only after these silver-haired customers feel secure.'