There's no question older people are a golden market for all kinds of businesses, and the senior citizen discounts that seem to be everywhere have been increasing. But some experts predict their demise.
The Florida Restaurant Association found 25 percent of its members offer senior discounts, up from 20 percent in 1988, spokesman Robert Nelson said.But the restaurants are turning even more quickly to early-bird specials, hoping to attract the same clientele by differentiating dining hours rather than age.
The percentage of members offering early-bird specials went from 17 percent in 1988 to 52 percent this year, Nelson said.
"The perception is that these are skinflints out there looking for the lowest possible dollar," said Ralph Gasparello, head of the National Association of Senior Travel Planners based in Hingham, Mass. "That might have been the case, but I think now you've got a whole new group coming up the ladder."
The 1,570-inn Choice Hotels International, which runs Clarion Hotels and Quality, Comfort, Rodeway and Sleep inns, has focused on the senior market for four years.
"When we did our research, we found that there was a lot of other things besides discounts that seniors wanted," said marketing director Bill Todd. "Three words: consistency, credibility and reliability."
The chain reserved first-floor and non-smoking rooms in part of its effort to appeal to seniors, and business in its Senior Saver Discount program went up 716 percent in the year ending in June, Todd said.
Royal Cruise Lines based in San Francisco was the first in its industry to associate with the American Heart Association to develop a health-conscious menu, and it offers lecture programs on some cruises to target older vacationers, Jeff Ostroff, author of the book "Successful Marketing to the 50- Plus Consumer," found in his research.
Margaret Lynne Duggar, vice chairwoman of the Florida Pepper Commission on Aging and a consultant on targeting older markets, sees businesses moving away from straight discounts in the 1990s.
"Across the nation, it seems logical that the older consumer will become such a large proportion of the buying public that offering discounts mainly based on age will not be a viable option for business in the future," she said.
"The benefit of a pricing program like that disappears if everybody's doing it," said Greg Gable of Age Wave Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., an information service company focusing on older customers. "Companies are starting to look at how to go a step further."
With the poverty level among seniors at about 13 percent, value often is more important to older Americans than price.
"Millions of people are willing to spend the 50 cents more if they think they're going to get the good product, the good service, the good experience," Ostroff said. "That's a mindset that's less likely to be found in a 21-year-old than in a 51-year-old."
An age standard also can be a problem - drawing resentment from seniors who feel it's demeaning to be singled out by age and generating age discrimination charges by those left out.
Peter Levine of Plantation, Fla., filed a complaint with the Broward County Human Relations Division over a C&S Bank checking account reserved for people 55 and over.
He rejected a settlement that would have classified him as an "honorary senior" to get the account. "It's unconscionable. It's like welfare for the rich," he said.
Ostroff says a discount is a no-cost quick fix that doesn't require any investment of time or money and doesn't build brand or name loyalty.
"I don't have any problem with marketing programs that are designed to attract regardless of age," he said. "I really have a problem with the ageist one. I really think it's age discrimination and reverse discrimination."