By Nathalie Nahai, The Web Psychologist and best-selling author

Let’s start with a bit of myth-busting. You’ve probably seen them. Those ridiculous ads showing a son, daughter or grandkid helping an older adult hack it out with new, confounding tech. There seems to be a pervasive myth in our society that unless you were born plugged in, chances are you don’t have a clue how to use the web. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

While young ‘Gen Y’ consumers in their late teens and early twenties are relentlessly targeted by companies conducting e-commerce research, the Baby Boomers are slipping under the radar relatively unnoticed. In their frenzy to hook in what appears to be a lucrative, influential younger demographic1, the big businesses are inadvertently missing out.

Whatever the perceived differences, it turns out that we all follow the same online development curve — starting with email and searching, and eventually moving onto shopping and other activities that involve privacy and security concerns2. In fact the research shows that when it comes to online browsing, there really isn’t much difference between older and younger users at all3.

Older adults comprise a large, and growing, segment of the population - together, they make up a lucrative market with low debt, higher disposable incomes and extra leisure time due to retirement and (typically) fewer family commitments4. Marketers are starting to cotton on, and with research showing that older consumers are more open to purchasing online5, it’s only a matter of time before savvy businesses start proactively targeting this group.

So, what drives the online shopping behaviours of the over-50s?

Well, research has found that for the majority of us (regardless of age), it’s a site’s security and the quality and quantity of information on it, that concern us most when we’re shopping online, with things like product price, navigation and buying speed only coming second6. However when it comes to ‘mature, affluent’ buyers (older, highly educated people with a high income), it turns out that the decision to purchase an item tends to happen offline, on the advice of friends and printed media — which is why word-of-mouth is so important. Once they’ve made their informed choice, price doesn’t play such a prominent role when choosing which site to buy from. Which probably explains why John Lewis and other such stores with a strong ethos of customer satisfaction continue to do so well, both on- and offline. They’re not the cheapest, but with an established name and a reputation that you can trust, they may just be one of the smartest businesses out there who are actually catching the big fish.

Nathalie Nahai is The Web Psychologist and best-selling author of ‘Webs Of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion’

[1] D. J. Hanford (2005, July 27). Long-Term Success of E-Tailers Will Hinge on "Echo Boomers". Wall Street Journal, p. B3A.

[2] Reaves, K. (2006). Top 10 Reasons Older Adults Should Be Online. http://www.family.org/focusoverfifty/articles/a0020568.cfm.

[3] A. Spink, D. Wolfram, B. J. Jansen, and T. Saracevic (2001). Searching the web: The public and their queries. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 53(2), pp. 226 - 234.

[4] D. W. McCloskey, K. Leppel (2010). The Impact Of Age On Electronic Commerce Participation: An Exploratory Model. Journal of Electronic Commerce in Organizations, 8(1), pp. 41 — 60.

[5] A. Bhatnagar, S. Misra & H. R. Rao (2000). On risk, convenience, and Internet shopping behavior. Communications of the ACM, 43(11), pp. 98 - 105.

[6] N. J. Lightner (2003). What Users Want In E-Commerce Design: Effects Of Age, Education And Income. Ergonomics, 46(I - 3), pp. 153 - 168.