In 2017, my blog included a series of posts on age-friendly cities and communities. These were linked in to work I was doing for the Office for Seniors on this topic. At the time I did not specifically mention age-friendly businesses, but now I want to make up that omission, prompted by recent interest by local government in New Zealand and reports on initiatives in Australia and the UK, which mainly look at the retail sector.
This is important, not only because of the growing number of older people in the population, but because of their special needs in relation to shopping access and experience. A proportion of older people face practical challenges, which businesses need to be aware of and accommodate. For example, normal ageing often brings changes, affecting vision, hearing and cognitive skills. Shopping plays a part in social wellbeing for older people. It is an opportunity to socialise and to be around people, something which many of us missed during the recent lockdown.
Age UK set out a challenge to the retail industry – “What assumptions do you make about older customers, including their lifestyle, consumer preferences, health needs, or abilities?” They also carried out a survey among older people, asking “When you go out to the shops what are the two things you look for above all others, in terms of the shopping environment?” 
- The top two difficulties mentioned were not enough toilets and not enough seats in shops. The first is a major issue for many people, affecting their confidence to leave home and, in some cases, preventing them from doing so. Getting a key or pass code, or finding the toilets, present extra difficulties. Easy access to toilets can determine if seniors will visit a business at all. Sometimes adjoining corridors are hard to navigate because they are used for storage – A thing I encountered when I had a leg in plaster. Many people with mobility problems need a comfortable place to sit and rest while shopping. Seating is especially important near and in fitting rooms and areas where there are frequent queues.
There were other problems – Getting into a shop in the first place can be a challenge. People with limited strength may be unable to open stiff or heavy doors. Once inside, using wheelchairs or walking aids may be a struggle with aisles that are narrow or cluttered with trolleys, boxes of stock or rubbish.
Some people dislike self-service tills and prefer the social interaction of speaking to a cashier, so the recommendation is to have enough manned checkouts. The Age UK survey showed that many older people find the machines difficult or embarrassing to use, making it a stressful experience. When it comes to paying, people sometimes have difficulties remembering their PIN or making mistakes, as shown in a quote –
‘You put an item through and there’s something wrong, you have to call
the staff. It’s embarrassing, it’s as if you’ve been caught stealing. The
machine says “Problem in the bagging area.” I’m terrified of doing the
Many other things would make shopping easier and more enjoyable for older people. Some struggle to navigate supermarket or store layouts, remember where certain goods are located, especially when they are moved around, and there are no staff on hand to ask for help. Common challenges are reaching for items on high or low shelves and reading labels or prices in small font sizes. Age UK mentioned that one supermarket in Germany has dealt with this by providing magnifying panels on chains hanging from shelves and trolleys.
These issues revolve around customer service, which affects people of all ages and circumstances. Interactions with shop staff make a huge impact on customers’ experience, both positive and negative. Good customer service is a major selling point. Responding to the survey, people said they value simple things like politeness, patience, understanding, eye contact, and authenticity, i.e. speaking to ‘a real person’.
The need for more age-friendly service extends to telephone and on-line interactions.
Older people have many telephone-based consumer interactions, for example when talking to their energy company, bank, or phone/internet provider. The main problems seem to be long waiting times, poor staff knowledge and frustrating phone menus. Many find it difficult to understand what call handlers are saying because they are not speaking clearly or loudly enough. This does not necessarily depend on nationality, say Age UK. If the call handler was patient and checked that people understood each point, this might take a little longer but would mean that older people felt less rushed, confused, or pressurised.
Despite these difficulties, some people find the telephone preferable to going online. This applies to me for banking. I appreciate being able to ask questions to a real person. While some older people enjoy getting out of the house for shopping and to speak to others, this must be set against the convenience of shopping online, which was a life-saver for some in the lockdown and a great help for the house-bound.
But security is an issue. Some people do not feel safe banking online or entering their credit card details when shopping, especially when we are warned about scams. Missed deliveries, long delivery times and returning goods in the post can make online shopping less attractive.
Finally, there are complaints. Good customer service must include the means of resolving complaints or problems quickly and in the right spirit, regardless of the type of shopping access. But some people have difficult experiences trying to find the right contact for complaints and not getting considerate treatment by retailers. This calls for up-to-date, clear and well communicated complaints procedures, so that older people are confident of their rights. As one Age UK respondent said –
‘Everyone should complain. If you don’t complain the shop can’t put it right.’
 Age UK (February 2017) Age-Friendly business: Valuing and including older consumers in supermarkets and service companies.