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Despite their rising spending power, millions of older consumers are set to face difficulties when buying and using products this Christmas because of the restrictive design of many goods, retail spaces and services, a new report reveals.

Research by the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK) for Age UK published today shows that while accounting for a growing slice of the nation’s purchasing power – nearly £100 billion a year – consumers aged 65-plus are facing design barriers at every stage of the shopping experience, from accessing money and shops to unwrapping and using goods. It also suggests that the lack of age-friendly products and services could help explain why older people with higher incomes are more likely than their younger counterparts to be among those spending the least.

By failing to listen to the needs and aspirations of this growing age group, companies could be missing out on a multi-million pound business opportunity, the report indicates. Previous research by Age UK showed that for nearly one in three over 65s hard-to-open packaging and poor design are the features most likely to put them off buying a product, but a new survey shows these barriers could alienate an even larger number of older consumers.

According to an Age UK/TNS poll, nearly half of over-65s can struggle to take lids or caps off products such as plastic milk bottles or jars because of the packaging (48%) and over half have difficulty reading the instructions on food products as the print is too small (54%). Despite being more likely to own a TV set than the rest of the population, one in ten over-65s say they can find it hard to use remote controls because of the small buttons (11%), while one in five say kitchen tools such as salad spinners, potato peelers and scissors are uncomfortable to use (20%). One in five over-65s also report having difficulty using a mobile phone because they are too small (20%).

Design barriers are found right at the start of the shopping experience, the survey shows. One in seven over-65s can find it hard to use cash machines because they cannot read the screen (14%), while nearly one in five admit to avoiding shopping on the High Street because of lack of public toilets (17%). When stopping for a restaurant meal, one in four over-65s struggle to read the menu in restaurants as the print is too small (25%).

However, sloppy design doesn’t affect just older people. Over one in six under-40s can struggle to open packaging (16%) while one in seven say they have problems reading instructions on food packaging (14%). This suggests that by embracing inclusive design businesses could improve their offering for consumers across the age range. Some companies have already risen to the challenge and launched inclusively-designed products including telephones with big buttons and simpler menus, kitchen and DIY tools with better grips and easier-to-use bathrooms. Wheeled suitcases and the new generation of motion-control game consoles are also great examples of inclusively-designed products which have proved popular with different age groups.

To influence and help the commercial sector to recognise and factor in the needs of older people, the charity is developing Age OK, an accreditation mark which demonstrates that a product has been designed inclusively.

ILC-UK also welcomes the announcement from the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts that the Government will fund Independence Matters, a project led by the Technology Strategy Board and the Design Council that will drive design-led, socially based technological innovations to help older people live active, fulfilling and independent lives.

Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director at Age UK, said:
“The consumer is king, we are told, but many in later life will feel they are relegated to a much humbler role in today’s marketplace. The attention the wider business world pays to them has lagged far behind their growing spending power.

“It’s time for businesses to wake up to the scale of the opportunity they are missing and for the Government to promote inclusive design by demanding accessibility and usability in the products and services they procure.”

David Sinclair, Head of Policy and Research at ILC-UK, author of the report, said
“This report highlights a big market failure. The fact that we have an ageing society is not a new one, yet far too many companies, big and small, seem blissfully unaware of the changes that are happening around them. There is a significant market advantage to be gained for those companies which will address the issues facing older consumers.”

Maggie Philbin, who as Tomorrow’s World presenter introduced the nation to then-futuristic now-everyday gadgets such as mobile phones and fax machines, is backing Age UK calls for more inclusive design. She said:
“Devising products and spaces that can make life easier and more comfortable for the largest number of people is the essence of industrial design. The challenge is now to convince the industry that age-proofing mainstream products will not only make life easier for many older people but will also offer them a tremendous business opportunity.”

Michael Wolff, designer expert and Government’s adviser on inclusive design, said:
“Age UK’s report makes an irrefutable case for inclusive design – design that takes account of everyone’s needs and desires. Ambitious businesses should make this a key priority if they want to reach the expanding older consumers’ market. For those in central or local government, it’s a loud wake up call to promote inclusive practice in the design of services and public spaces.”

You can download a copy of the Golden Economy report here.

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