KANSAS CITY - For Baby Boomers and Gen X shoppers, price, certainty, and pre-planning differentiate the two generations from their younger cohorts.

“They’re much more about switching chains based on price, and much more about pre-planning the trip and very much instore shoppers — traditionalist so to speak,” said Jonna Parker, principal of the Fresh Center of Excellence for Chicago-based IRI. “Whether it be how you pick what goes in your feature ad, how you leverage displays in the store, how you utilize price, promotion as a combination of feature and display are all strategies anchored around Baby Boomer and frankly, Gen X.”

Even during the pandemic. Tamara Barnett, vice president of strategic insights for Bellevue, Wash.-based The Hartman Group, noticed Gen X and Boomers relying more on past experiences. According to her, older consumers focus a lot more on taste and familiarity and are less focused on exploring new things. 

Unlike younger generations, Gen X and Boomers are less drawn to new flavors or impacted by environmental or ethical concerns. They’re even less likely to pay attention to some health attributes such as organic or clean label.

“There’s a certain amount of comfortability they have with the sort of products or brands that they’ve consumed for a while and so while they may be interested in some of the emerging types of brands that are coming out, when they are forced to make that trade between price and some of those other emerging ingredients or product attributes they’re leaning more on the price end of things,” Barnett said. “They’re a little bit more set in their ways where they’ve figured out what works for them and they feel less of the need to be pivoting.”

More than anything, simply offering high-quality fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables and meat can go a long way with Boomers and Gen X, added Steve Markenson, director of research and insights for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association.

“Clean and neat stores with great product selection and variety and accurate product information are also important,” Markenson said. “Older generations are more focused on the core offerings, while younger generations focus more on other issues – technology, online shopping, nutrition/health information, local products/produce, foodservice, private brands, etc.”

Gen X versus Baby Boomers

Overall, Gen X tends to serve as a bridge between millennials and baby boomers, Markenson noted. While younger generations are more likely to love or like grocery shopping (51% of Gen Z/Millennials) that percentage decreases in Gen X to 43% and drops to 30% for Boomers and older.

IRI’s Parker likes to call Gen X the “sandwich generation.” They grew up with and are accustomed to a traditional in-store grocery experience, but many members of this middle generation still have kids in the home and work full-time jobs.

“Gen X is a tough generation to define as they’ve always been because there’s going to be in this decade a lot of Gen Xers doing behaviors that we had previously thought were more about Baby Boomers,” said Parker. “We have to keep that in mind that there’s a generation that grew up with grocery stores and are not digital natives. Then you have some mimicking of millennial behaviors in that when things are easy and convenient to a chaotic lifestyle during your peak years.

Hartman Group’s Barnett noted that what indicates generational shopping patterns even more than confinements of specific generations themselves is life stages. Gen X is a generation straddling life stages. Some members of the generation which are as young as their early 40s have young kids in the home, while others are just now becoming empty nesters. 

For members of Gen X who have kids in the home, they are much more likely to exhibit the shopping habits of the younger generations. Their purchase decision are also more likely to be influenced by their kids, some of whom belong to Gen Z.

“We found that the age of 50 is a key tipping point culturally, physically and socially,” Barnett said. ”One challenge might be as you are thinking about these older cohorts, there might be the need to break up below the genetics and think about how some of their implications might be aligned. There are so many different implications depending on the age and life stage of consumers in this cohort.”

Using the perimeter to support health and wellness

While Gen X and Baby Boomers tend to be less motivated by product claims, many members of those two generations are still looking for foods that provide preventative health benefits, noted IRI’s Parker.

While claims like natural or organic don’t have as strong of an appeal to older shoppers as they do to younger shoppers, claims like heart-healthy or low sodium are health attributes older cohorts will be on the lookout for. 

“To some degree, if you think about it, they’re someone who's eating because they have to eat a certain way,” Parker said. “I have to cut out salt. I can't eat red meat because I had a heart attack — a medical necessity versus eating for better wellness. An older consumer is much more thinking about medical prevention.”

Hartman Group’s Barnett pointed out that 50% of all consumers reported trying a new dietary approach in the last year such as Whole 30, plant-based or keto, but diet experimentation was the lowest among older consumers.

Within those Gen X and Boomer shoppers who did opt to try a new diet, they put more emphasis on ensuring that new diets still allowed them to meet their expectations of taste and texture and highly valued reliability.

“They’re interested in improving their health, and they want to continue to have new experiences and new discovery but they’re less going to be the tip of the spear,” Barnett said. “I think that shows the reliance on attributes like price and quality and familiarity and for sales and those sorts of things.”

Since the fresh departments naturally include healthy products with reliable and familiar tastes, Barnett suggests that retailers help these shoppers find the perfect healthy pairing of items through intersecting produce, meat and seafood products that go together and enforce health and comfortable discovery.

COVID drives older shoppers to e-commerce

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how consumers have approached grocery shopping over the last year. For many Gen Xers and especially for many Baby Boomers, the pandemic was the first time they shopped for their groceries online.

“I think we’re going to see an openness we wouldn’t have seen otherwise to online as part of the mix for older shoppers and without the pandemic, I don’t think we would have seen that,” said Parker. “If you counted the Baby Boomer out as your audience for your e-commerce strategy, I think you’ve got to evaluate that.”

Retailers will have to approach older generations (who are very much still influenced by price) online differently than they do younger generations. While the millennial online shopping strategy might guide shoppers to discovery of new products, Boomers and older members of Gen X are going to be looking for the staples they’ve been buying for decades.

Parker predicts that older generations are going to be leerier of the possibility of another pandemic and another period of items missing from shelves.

“I think there’s going to be a surge of stock-up behavior of essentials,” Parker said. “Because Baby Boomers were so affected, and so many of them did go through so many health risks, I think we’re going to see a bit more stock-up than we might have before.”

Post-pandemic meal solutions

For shoppers of all ages, cooking at home increased substantially over the last year.

For younger consumers who had little experience cooking for themselves, solutions like meal kits and prepared meals were a big success. But for Gen X and Baby Boomers, that shift to cooking more meals in the home was less of an uphill climb, Barnett noted.

While all cohorts will likely increase restaurant sourcing in the upcoming months to overcorrect from pandemic cooking fatigue, Barnett thinks in the long term there will be a compelling opportunity for what she calls supported cooking. 

“For older cohorts, I don’t think there’s all of a sudden going to be an interest in cooking from scratch but once we get into the fall months and have been reenergized by foodservice, I think people are going to want to be cooking more, but they’re going to be looking for affordable and accessible solutions,” Barnett said. “I think new skills and techniques they learned from the pandemic have the potential to work their way back in.”

Rather than meal kits or fully prepared meals, Barnett thinks older generations of shoppers are going to be cooking for creative tools, tips and offerings that help them bring together certain components and allows them flexibility. 

Older shoppers are more likely to be inhibited by diet restrictions and want flexibility to be able to use ingredients that fit their lifestyle. Because of this meal kits and fully prepared meals can be restricting.

“I think it can be kits, but it might not literally be a packaged kit,” Barnett said. “It might be about how you bring together certain components and really allow them that flexibility and how consumers can bring together fresh cooking in ways that are really accessible that still can be done in 15 or 20 minutes or maybe even less.”