STILL CIRCULATING

Older folks are on strict budgets. They have plenty of money. They're ill and losing mobility. They golf or swim several times a week.Elders, about 34 million Americans aged 65 and older, account for about 13% of the population, according to Tom Otwell, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons, Washington. This demographic will swell over the next 30 years, to about 20% of the consumer

Older folks are on strict budgets. They have plenty of money. They're ill and losing mobility. They golf or swim several times a week.

Elders, about 34 million Americans aged 65 and older, account for about 13% of the population, according to Tom Otwell, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons, Washington. This demographic will swell over the next 30 years, to about 20% of the consumer base. Clearly, the graying of America has implications for retailers.

"Getting the folks there and offering them a full range of products" is the strategy that Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., uses to cater to a diverse group of older Americans, according to Bernie Rogan, director of public relations.

Newer supermarket units provide motorized carts or scooters that elders can use, as well as accessible restrooms and benches. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1989 required stores to have one checkout lane wide enough for a wheelchair. While none of these amenities apply strictly to older people, Rogan noted that an increasing amount of the New England chain's business is coming from those who are 60 and up.

Beyond the stereotypical oatmeal, prunes or sardines, which one manufacturer says "people discover when they hit 45" because sardines are a good source of calcium, and products like Ensure, a canned drink that fills daily nutritional needs, most retailers are not promoting particular Center Store products to seniors.

However, some offer nutritional tours of their stores, advertising them in advance as a guide to low-fat, low-sugar or low-salt foods, to fit in with health concerns. Heart-healthy foods such as oatmeal are popular with many age groups. As retailers explore whole-health merchandising, they may find seniors at the forefront of consumers.

Giant Food, Landover, Md., has offered flu shots in its stores for the last four years, and operates under the assumption that drawing older customers there for vaccinations will result in more sales. Although the vaccinations are offered as a community service and to enhance Giant's image, it also builds store traffic, said Raith Erickson, manager of pharmacy services.

He noted that last year, 25,000 people got the vaccines. This year, clinic hours have been dramatically expanded (to six hours, from two last year), so Giant anticipates a significantly higher count. Vaccinations against influenza and pneumonia cost $10 and are offered in 143 food-pharmacy combination stores and in 17 to 19 food-only stores.

Erickson said that the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, recommends flu shots for those over age 65, among others. The vaccines were heavily promoted, with in-store signs and brochures as well as radio tags and print advertising.

To attract seniors, supermarkets could give discounts, as do some alternative formats like the Caldor mass-merchant chain, Norwalk, Conn. Every Wednesday, anyone age 62 or over can get 10% off anything in the store, chainwide.

A variation on that theme is practiced by Gerland's Food Fair, a small chain based in Houston. Gerland's has a points program to reward loyal customers, explained Kevin Doris, president. For most, the reward kicks in when the shopper reaches 400 points; for senior citizens (over age 59), the threshold is 300 points, which amounts to a discount for them.

At Gerland's, seniors do not have to meet a purchase requirement. For example, if a product is on sale with a limit of two and a $10 additional purchase, seniors don't have to make the additional purchase, although they must honor the limit.

Gerland's encourages customers to register when they reach 59. An electronic indicator then stays in their loyalty-card file, showing that they are seniors, although their exact birth date is never noted. These programs and benefits are promoted through signage in the stores, "and from time to time, we have it in our ads," Doris said.

"That group of customers is very price-conscious," he noted. The reward is a 5%-off gift certificate good on the next shopping trip. Points are earned when certain items -- 3,000 of them in the store -- are purchased. Prescriptions filled in the store pharmacy count. Doris said Gerland's demographics are older than average. He attributes this to the smaller size of his stores -- around 40,000 square feet -- which older customers say they prefer.

Transportation to the store is the principal problem for the elderly, some retailers told SN.

In Ridge, in eastern Suffolk County, New York, several large retirement condominium developments lease former school buses to take residents shopping and to other locations almost daily. They drop residents off at Waldbaum's, King Kullen Grocery Co., A&P, Pathmark Stores, Edwards Super Food Stores and Produce Warehouse units in the area, according to spokeswomen for the developments. Transport is paid for by the housing facilities.

"Most are on a fixed income, and they're always looking for sales," said Elfrieda Gaias, a board member of Leisure Knoll, Ridge, who runs the bus trips for that development. Shaw's Rogan said that, when asked, the chain will provide transport, usually by van, to store locations that are not always convenient for non-driving people to reach. It's community-driven rather than corporate, he added. "In East Boston, we have a vendor [store owner] who takes the groceries home for the customer, for a nominal fee," said Rogan.

Elders in Action, a nonprofit advocacy group, approached Fred Meyer Inc. about certification more than two years ago, said Theresa Enderle, regional food supervisor for the Portland-based chain. Elders In Action evaluated one test store to find out what changes could be made to create more accessibility and accommodation for elders. Based on the evaluation, Fred Meyer made minor changes at store level, said Enderle, such as increasing bench seating, adding parking spaces, and recommending some structural changes for remodels.

"The benefits we gained [from partnering with Elders in Action] were in customer service, which is good for us as a retailer," Enderle said. "Senior citizens are becoming more vocal about those needs, and they are a good portion of customers."

Enderle added that Fred Meyer's range of choices is also elder-friendly. For example, customers can buy smaller sizes of detergent, and small portions of prepared meals. In frozen foods, many single-serve portions are available, as well as sizes for smaller families, she said.

Enderle is on the agency's board of directors. "We are working very hard to take that program nationally," she said.