Older Adults Shopping Online:A Fad or a Trend?

Chapter And Authors Information
Older Adults Shopping Online:A Fad or a Trend?
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Ebrahim Mazaheri


Older consumers have been embracing online shopping at an accelerating rate following the COVID-19 outbreak. Higher risks of being infected have forced older adults to adopt new technology and become internet savvy to avoid potentially life-threatening interactions with other customers in brick-and-mortar premises. Industry reports from around the world reveal considerable growth in the number of purchases, frequency of shopping and the amounts spent by this consumer segment. In addition, older consumers have started to show more interest in ‘buy now, pay later’ services. Some research agencies even suggest that seniors will drive eCommerce growth for the next several years. This chapter will review the literature about factors affecting older adults’ adoption of online shopping, and the impact of the pandemic on why, how and what they purchase online. This discussion seeks to contribute insight as to whether seniors will continue to shop online when restrictions on movement and social distancing are lifted.

Keywords: Online Shopping, Older Adults, Post-Pandemic Ecommerce

1. Introduction

People in the age group of 60 plus comprise the fastest growing segment of the global population (Ma et al., 2020). In most developed economies, this age group constitutes 15-28% of the total population (World Bank, 2019). As people grow older, their health-related expenditures also increase. It is predicted that between 2020 and 2060, the European Union (EU) countries will need to invest 1.3% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in healthcare support services for aging population, in Japan the forecast is up to 1.8% of GDP (Williams et al., 2019). Keeping the elderly healthy and independent can reduce these economic and social pressures. Technology in general, and information and communication technology (ICT) in particular, can help older adults to be more independent, thereby reducing healthcare spending (Spann & Stewart, 2018).

Age makes humans more physically and cognitively frail and limits their ability to learn (Huxhold et al., 2020). Older adults may also have fewer financial resources and less interest in social interactions with younger generations to engage in learning new things and skills (Wanka & Gallistl, 2018). These factors appear to inhibit the adoption of ICT among the elderly who lag behind other age groups, creating what Seifert et al. (2020) call the ‘double burden’ of digital and social exclusion. As an example, more than 30% of Americans aged 65 plus did not use the internet in 2019 (Pew Research Center, 2019), and only 20% of residents of US aged care facilities participated in online social gatherings with their family at the start of the pandemic (Vogels, 2020).

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected older people more extensively than other age groups. The elderly must be considerably more cautious in their social interactions due to the higher chances of experiencing critical health issues if infected (Hewitt et al., 2020). Maintaining physical distancing and self-isolating increases the level of their social exclusion (Seifert et al., 2020). Bereft of usual in-person contacts with friends, family and wider community, older adults were reporting more depression, anxiety and overall loneliness during lockdowns, than previously (Kotwal et al., 2020). Although adoption of ICT could help to reduce the lack of social interaction and provide emotional support, some seniors either did not know how to use their devices or lacked internet access during this period (Lips & Eppel, 2020).

For those more fortunate ICT-savvy seniors, the internet helped to cope with loneliness, facilitated socializing on a regular basis, provided access to available social and health services, and enabled the purchase of goods online (Kotwal et al., 2020). In fact, online grocery shopping has increased threefold among older adults in the UK since the COVID-19 outbreak (Baily, 2020). A similar trend is observed in New Zealand where online shopping among the 75+ age group has increased by 34% in comparison to 2019 (eCommerce Spotlight October, 2020). Some authors (e.g. Nimrod, 2020) suggest that the higher income seniors living in urban areas are more likely to adopt ICT during the pandemic. Although socio-economic factors can have a significant impact on the ICT adoption and, thereby the growth of online shopping, there are also some psychological factors at play. This chapter discusses these and other key factors contributing to the growth and habits of online shopping among older adults. This literature review further seeks to clarify whether the older generation will contribute to eCommerce growth in the near future, as some studies suggest (Mintel News, 2020).

2. Older Adults’ Online Activities

2.1. Who Are ‘Older Adults’?

Despite being one of the fastest growing groups of online shoppers (Mintel News, 2020), older adults are often portrayed as the least tech-savvy and the most limited demographic group in their access to ICT (e.g., Kania-Lundholm & Torres, 2015). The link between age and the rate of ICT adoption is supported by studies of physical and cognitive changes in the human body that generally make older people less capable of connecting to digital world (Seifert et al., 2020). In some of the literature reviewed, old age is considered as ‘a problem’ that slows ICT adoption (Weaver et al., 2010). Although these arguments can be valid in general, it is important to remember that one does not become ‘old’ overnight, and that aging is a process (Knowles & Hanson, 2018a). Nevertheless, many academic studies refer to older adults in terms of chronology (e.g., Ma et al., 2020). As soon as people achieve a certain age, they are affiliated with the ‘older adult’ category. This age can vary from ‘over 40’ to ‘over 75’ in different studies (Wagner et al., 2010). Sometimes, the concept of being ‘old’ is defined in legal terms. For example, until relatively recently, turning 55 led to mandatory retirement in Japan (Clark & Ogawa, 1996). A ‘retiree’ status suggests that one may become ‘old’ in a workplace environment earlier than in a more general context, such as most academic studies that use 65 as a cut-off age for the ‘older adult’ group (e.g., Vroman et al., 2015). The numerical definition of the ‘older adult’ category can be quite convenient (especially in quantitative studies), but it does not properly reflect demographic and psychographic diversity of older adults, especially in terms of their ICT use (Knowles & Hanson, 2018b). For this reason, membership in an age group should be defined by a specific context rather than a chronological framework. Certainly, plenty of older people do not think that they should be affiliated with a specific age group and claim that age has nothing to do with their ICT engagement (Kania-Lundholm & Torres, 2015).

2.2. Factors Influencing Older Adults’ ICT Adoption

In addition to gerontological factors, low socioeconomic status is another commonly cited reason for limited use of ICT by older people. Although electronic devices and internet connection are considerably cheaper now than a decade ago, many low-income seniors still do not find them affordable enough (Choi & DiNitto, 2013). Low education levels and lack of work-related experience with computers represent further barriers for ICT engagement (Kania-Lundholm & Torres, 2015). Economic, social, physical and cognitive factors appear to be key reasons to viewing older people as a digitally excluded and, thereby, vulnerable group in digitalised societies. However, there are also several psychological factors that can have a more decisive impact on older adults’ ability and interest in ICT adoption.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak rendered most older adults homebound, many avoided the digital world by visiting relatives, brick-and-mortar stores, agencies and government offices. Although making all of these visits and attending to different errands could be done online quickly and without any physical effort, many seniors say they preferred doing everything in person. It was a part of their daily routine, maybe their only chance to socialise with other people, which was especially important if they lived alone. Some older adults were making trips to banks and shops to keep these businesses running, even though it was possible to do all transactions online (Knowles & Hanson, 2018b). It was against this group’s moral beliefs to support technologies that they believed could make people redundant and corporations wealthier (Knowles & Hanson, 2018b). This is why some seniors referred to the corporate world’s interests, not senior consumer benefits, as key drivers behind societal pressure to adopt ICT (Schreuers et al., 2017). Unsurprisingly, many older people admit they resisted engagement with the digital world. A similar rationale was used in the case of print media. Seniors avoided reading online newspapers and magazines because they did not want to lose paper-based sources of information, something that they have been using their entire life and have nostalgic attachment to (Joshi et al., 2020). Although such anti-technology attitudes of seniors can be compared to fears of the Luddite movement about machines taking the job of textile industry workers in the early 19th century Britain (de Castella, 2012), people may also resist ICT adoption due to some real risks involved.

Only some consumers may know that data brokers continuously collect online data about them and resell it to third parties who use it for marketing purposes (Auxier et al., 2019). When this practice is exposed, consumers are often alarmed about the threat to their reputation and privacy (Tsesis, 2014). In the case of older adults, the privacy breach is especially likely to happen. This group was found to be less alert to the possible monitoring of their online activities than younger adults, and therefore less informed when making decisions about sharing their personal information (Auxier et al., 2019). At the same time, older adults are generally more risk-avoiding than younger adults (Roalf et al., 2012). For example, they are wary of being targeted with highly personalised advertisements based on their browsing history stored with the help of HTTP cookies (Knowles & Hanson, 2018b). However, this concern about the generally safe practice of using cookies for advertising purposes is not extended to other more insecure activities. Being unaware of privacy settings on social media, older adults keep their personal details exposed, making them vulnerable to scams like phone calls about a ‘computer problem’ or about family members requiring financial ‘help’ (Mentis et al., 2019).

Although traditional mass media regularly informs users about online security risks in general (e.g., Facebook database leak), many older people have quite a vague idea about specific internet security hazards (Grimes et al., 2010). Limited understanding of such risks makes seniors an easier target for hacking and phishing attacks than younger adults (Garg et al., 2012). While some seniors are aware about this threat and decide to limit the ICT use or avoid it completely (Frik et al., 2019), others accessing the internet through public computers and public Wi-Fi networks are more exposed to possible security hazards (e.g., malware infection) associated with shared access (Anderson & Perrin, 2017; Frik et al., 2019). Using public ICT services is often due to financial hardships (Park, 2013), as is the use of second-hand devices passed on by relatives or friends. In such case, both previous and new device owners can suffer from unintentional personal information leak and unauthorised access (Frik et al., 2019).

Insufficient ICT knowledge, limited experience with internet, and consequently, the lack of confidence with digital devices is another inhibitor for ICT adoption among older adults (Vroman et al., 2014). In some cases, seniors’ motivation to start using ICT can be undermined by factors that disrupt their traditional way of doing things. For example, a bank can find it too expensive to have a physical office and decide to move all services online. For older adults, such closures may pose a significant challenge. They realise that their competency in dealing with ordinary things is compromised. Some seniors use this feeling of being newly incompetent as an excuse to avoid the digital world. They argue that they are ‘too old’ to learn new things, and they deserve a break after a long work life (Knowles & Hanson, 2018a). Also, they believe that it is unfair to expect them to do what trained professionals used to do for them (e.g., managing their bank accounts). Such attitudes find support and understanding in the media: after all, older adults are perceived by many as frail people who are not physically and cognitively apt to use ICT (e.g., Huxhold et al., 2020).

Events like the COVID-19 crisis can compel older adults to revise their ICT rejectionist stance. Without the option of visiting shops and offices in person, they find themselves in a position of ‘sink or swim’ and have to work on the improvement of their digital proficiency (Morrow-Howell et al., 2020). For instance, since the pandemic outbreak, 23% more Australian seniors started using digital technologies new to them (GCMA, 2020). This suggests that neither limited digital skills and access to the internet, nor slowing cognitive processes may be as critical inhibitors for ICT adoption as portrayed (Knowles & Hanson, 2018b). Older adults vividly demonstrate that they can learn how to use technology when it becomes necessary. The growing uptake of technology since the pandemic outbreak can mostly be attributed to those seniors who had no prior knowledge and experience working with computers. Other people in their 60s were likely already using digital technologies before the COVID-19 crisis, as they were in their 40s when the internet became widely available in the early 2000s.

Online shopping has become one of the main reasons for the growth in ICT use among older adults in times of lockdowns, with physical distancing restrictions making purchasing goods and services online more attractive and efficient. There is already some early evidence supporting this argument. For example, in Japan, the use of credit cards for online transactions increased by 7% among older adults since the COVID-19 outbreak (E-commerce in the time of COVID-19, 2020). A similar trend is observed in Australia, where 19% more seniors shopped online for groceries during lockdowns (GCMA, 2020). Although data about what in particular seniors purchase online is limited, their shopping interests and new purchasing patterns can be inferred from available academic literature and general reports about online shopping during the pandemic.

2.3. Why, How and What Older Adults Purchase Online

The COVID-19 crisis with its physical distancing and social isolation requirements has been one of the most influential triggers for the growth of online shopping in 2020 (Watanabe & Omori, 2020). In addition to these factors, there have been other things contributing to seniors’ interest in online shopping. On average, many older adults were doing well financially before the start of the pandemic; for example, Americans over 65 had control over 43% of US household wealth (Li, 2015) and were already doing more shopping than in the past (Atkinson & Hayes, 2010). Unfortunately, their retirement savings have shrunk significantly in 2020 (Morrow-Howell et al., 2020) and indications are that shopping now is more often about alleviating financial hardships rather than for indulgences. The Nielsen Report (2020) about consumption dynamics during the pandemic suggests that financially constrained consumers, including older adults, search online for better deals and cheaper alternatives more frequently than before.

Some seniors take more desperate steps to engage in online shopping during lockdowns. In New Zealand, a growing number of 60 plus customers have started using ‘buy now pay later’ financial services to purchase products online (eCommerce Spotlight, September 2020). Many of these financial services are promoted with the help of emotional rather than rational messages. Older adults have been found to rely more on feelings than deliberation in their decision-making (Peters et al., 2007). Promotion of borrowing as an easy and worry-free solution for daily needs can be the reason for the growing popularity of this service among older adults. Possible negative effects of ‘buy now pay later’ services can be avoided if older generation is provided with more factual information about expected benefits and risks (Carpenter & Yoon, 2015). After all, the information about product benefits, pricing and financial risks has been found to influence older adults’ intention to shop online (Lian & Yen 2014).

In addition to financial considerations, older adults are likely to consider the possibility of online shopping due to its convenience. The traditional way of shopping relies on a sequence of physical actions executed in a complex and dynamic environment (especially in big cities) that involves multiple social interactions (Brenner & Clarke, 2019). Many seniors need to walk, drive or use public transportation to reach a shopping outlet. Even after they arrive in their destination, they may experience such inconveniences as poor footpath condition and broken steps. Online shopping removes most of these inconveniences. It reduces search and transportation costs, increases the range of possible alternatives and reduces the number of undesirable social interactions (Watanabe & Omori, 2020). Despite these advantages of online shopping, older adults can be deterred from making purchases online by high shipping costs, inability to check merchandise in person and a long wait time (Lee et al., 2017). Wait time can be especially frustrating for seniors shopping online for groceries. One New Zealander in his 70s revealed that his groceries order was placed in a month-long waiting queue by the order processing system (Feek, 2020).

Negative experiences akin to an extensive wait time are likely to discourage older adults from making their purchases online. This age group appears particularly likely to discard any alternative new behaviours (e.g., shopping online) immediately after they acquire negative information about these alternatives (Yoon et al., 2009). In terms of information search, seniors tend to consider fewer sources than younger adults: they stop searching for any new information about an option as soon as they feel that enough detail has been found (Peters, 2010). It has been suggested that this lack of time investment in product or service research can be due to a decline in seniors’ cognitive processing that makes information searches too taxing (Salthouse, 1996).

Related to easy-to-process information about relevant product dimensions, older adults also prefer to have a few, rather than a plethora of alternatives to choose from when making their decisions (Tanius et al., 2009). One of the possible ways to facilitate selection of alternatives can be the ‘compare products’ option integrated into a website. Using this tool, customers are able to consider several offerings (either products or services) in terms of the most important criteria (e.g., price and quality) without the need for using other decision aids like taking notes. Older adults with vision impairment will also appreciate fonts, layouts and colours that are easy to process and appear to be familiar. After all, familiar information is often perceived as true (Law et al., 1998). The feeling of familiarity was found to increase older adults’ confidence in making choices (Carpenter & Yoon, 2015). These are all observations that website interface developers need to take into consideration if older adults are the main target consumer group of online stores.

Decisions about buying an offering online or shopping in-store is often influenced by the type of product purchased (Lee at al., 2017). In fact, older adults have been found to consume more services (e.g., health support, home security, car maintenance and lawn care) than goods (Schewe, 1984). Although this finding is more than 30 years old, it is probably still valid, especially due to the fact there is very limited academic literature on the current consumption patterns of older adults. The variety of services offered has increased substantially since then and some of these services are delivered online only. Seniors quickly adopt the use of digital technologies, including mobile phones, to access online content. For example, more than a half of older population consume television products online in some European countries (Kuoppamäki et al., 2017). A similar trend was observed in Japan where spending on online entertainment delivery increased during lockdowns (Watanabe & Omori, 2020).

Telehealth is another online growth area for older people in 2020 since it was found to be very effective in the management of infectious diseases (Smith et al., 2020). The fact that telehealth services are offered for free in most cases can be another factor contributing to ICT adoption among older adults in times of the pandemic. Remote access to services may require additional time and effort. In the case of healthcare, patients must collect health data on their own if they want to hear a more accurate opinion about their health condition (Dunlap, 2020).

As news reports from different countries reveal, long-life shelf food, health and homecare products have become especially popular among consumers since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. In some cases, shoppers fight over essential food supplies (McLoughlin, 2020). Due to their more limited physical abilities and physical distancing requirement, elders cannot participate in panic buying even if they wanted to. Instead, shopping for groceries online has become a more feasible solution. For example, in the UK, the number of older adults buying food online increased by 27% during lockdowns (Smithers, 2020). During the pandemic, interest in food – especially healthy food – soared. To minimize the chances of being infected, people need to maintain their immune system which is hardly possible without a balanced and healthy diet (Jayawardena & Misra, 2020). ‘Homebody economy’ is another phenomenon contributing to online shopping. Some people, especially in Asian countries, prefer to spend most of their time staying at home even as restrictions are lifted. Many of them abstain from in-store shopping altogether and satisfy most of their needs, including food, with the help of ecommerce (Nielsen, 2020b).

Being homebound, many people start cooking and baking on a regular basis. In general, cooking is a set of interrelated activities that can be quite complex due to the need for multiple motor tasks and sensory evaluations (Short, 2003). Although motor skills of older adults deteriorate with age (Seidler, 2007), they have been found to cook more often than younger adults (Hamrick et al., 2011). Cooking requires availability of numerous ingredients and appliances. Some of them could be purchased only online during lockdowns. In particular, there has been a growing interest in shopping online for specialty foods with immunity boosting ingredients (Watrous, 2020) and kitchen appliances (eCommerce Spotlight, September 2020).

Homecare products in general and antibacterial cleaners in particular are another category of goods that consumers show a considerable interest in since the COVID-19 outbreak (Nielsen, 2020a). Although consumers are less likely to purchase these products online due to potential spillage of liquids during shipping and handling, companies have already started manufacturing spray bottles that are hard to spill and, therefore, more likely to be purchased online (Rosenberg, 2020). Older adults with their weaker immune system and physical distance restrictions during lockdowns appear to be more likely to shop online for these antibacterial products. As industry reports suggest, consumers have become ‘emotionally engaged’ with cleaning products during the COVD-19 crisis (Rosenberg, 2020). The fear of being infected made these products as essential as water and food for some people. For this reason, the demand for these products is not likely to reduce after the end of the pandemic.

As people get older, the question of faith becomes more important to them. Thus, the average age of churchgoers in the US is 50 (Einstein, 2007). Many of these people visit religious websites on the regular basis. In 2020, 33% of Americans watched religious services online or on television (Nielsen, 2020c), while in the UK this number constituted a quarter of the adult population (Sherwood, 2020). Not only in the US and the UK, but globally, more people turned to religion since the beginning of the pandemic. Google searches for ‘prayer’ have increased by 50% reaching the highest level ever recorded (Kelly-Linden, 2020). Some authors suggest that religiosity will not recede to the pre-COVID-19 level and this will affect the wider economy (Bentzen, 2020). A plethora of religious products from books and music to clothing and bumper stickers are sold online (Einstein, 2007). If religion has become a more important part of life for many people, they are likely to keep purchasing religious products even after the end of crisis.

The growth of ecommerce in 2020 revealed numerous issues with supply and delivery. As the Nielsen Report suggests (Nielsen, 2020d), consumers have become less tolerant to delivery delays and out-of-stocks than they used to be before the virus outbreak. As a result, an array of businesses has started to use direct-to-consumer (DTC) distribution which allows product manufacturers to reduce costs and delivery delays. According to Astound Commerce (2020), more than a half of consumers prefer to shop directly with product manufacturers over retailers. Companies planning to shift to DTC distribution need to invest in the improvement of the online shopping experience (Astound Commerce, 2020). Virtual and augmented reality are some of the tools that can contribute to such improvement. A growing number of companies have already introduced virtual retailing during lockdowns or plan to start using it (Ladd, 2020). There is already some evidence suggesting that older adults enjoy using virtual reality, finding this technology easy to use and beneficial (Syed-Abdul et al., 2019).

Among other ways to improve seniors’ online shopping experience is an online product search function with the option of voice input, since some older people with physical impairments may find it difficult to use a keyboard. Also, products can be bundled together to reduce confusion and facilitate decision-making. Shopping must be supported by an online customer service (preferably not chatbots). It should be available during the day and especially in the morning hours when older adults are more likely to shop. Overall, there must be clear guidelines and tutorials as for how to use the ordering system with a visible phone number for assistance (Haire & Miller, 2020).

3. Conclusion

There will be always consumers wanting to shop in store, especially in the case of certain products. However, many experts, including those in the UN, predict that consumers who started buying products and services online due to the COVID-10 restrictions will continue shopping online in the future (UNCTD, 2020). To some extent, the interest in ecommerce in the post-pandemic world will be defined by knowledge and experience acquired in the pandemic world. People who purchased something online for the first time become more confident with digital technologies and more aware of the benefits and potential risks involved in online shopping. Older adults who invested time, effort and money in understanding the principles of online shopping as well as devices and communication technology behind it will continue to consume online.

As long as distribution channels work flawlessly, convenience is likely to be a key motivator for seniors to rely on online shopping. After all, elderly people may feel uncomfortable visiting public places even after restrictions are lifted and keep buying products online. Some of them may start combining online and in-store shopping by using showrooming or webrooming. These practices of browsing products either online or in-store before their purchase can be especially attractive to price conscious and/or socially active seniors.

For some product categories, prices in online and brick-and-mortar shops may not differ significantly. It could be one of the reasons for low interest of seniors in buying groceries online before lockdowns were introduced. Thus, only 5% of Americans in their 50s and older ordered groceries online in the pre-pandemic times (Gavin, 2020). With the outbreak of COVID-19, seniors had to start adopting new technologies and acquiring new habits to fill their fridge without getting infected. This is why buying food and other household items online has become a part of life for many seniors. Among them, women are especially likely to buy groceries online. This group of older adults was found to eat home-cooked meals more frequently compared to other age and gender groups (Mills at al., 2018). Having more vulnerable immune system (Montecino-Rodriguez et al., 2013), seniors show the interest in shopping online for organic and specialty food as well as cleaning antibacterial products. In some cases, online shoppers in 65-plus category spend on these products 35% more than other age groups (Bhattarai, 2021). This early evidence suggests that seniors will remain loyal customer of online grocery stores even after the restrictions are lifted.

In addition to goods, older adults will continue purchasing services online in the foreseeable future. Online telehealth services are especially likely to thrive thanks to older customers. Unlike younger people who may become less dependent on telehealth after the pandemic recedes, seniors will keep using it out of sheer convenience and due to the higher number of chronic conditions among them. Apart from convenience, these services are more affordable than in-person doctor visits. In the countries with less accessible healthcare, lower price of online telehealth services makes them especially appealing for older adults. According to the US National Poll on Healthy Aging (2020), the number of older adults using telehealth increased from 4% in 2019 to 26% in 2020. The same report predicts that telehealth visits will become a standard part of healthcare services for American seniors.

The pandemic also triggered the interest in consumption of online entertainment among older adults. Many of them started using paid-for video and music streaming services to alleviate anxiety and stress of staying at home during lockdowns. Thus, over 55s constituted more than a third of new subscribers for music streaming services in the UK compared to 2019 (Loughran, 2020). Video streaming services are also growing in popularity among older adults. On average, these services are less expensive than cable and satellite television (AARP, 2019). Video streaming can also satisfy seniors’ longing for classical shows in a more flexible manner than network television (AMICA, 2020). These are some of the reasons for more people in their 50s and 60s to start using video streaming. However, the 70s and up age category will remain loyal to traditional network and cable television due to their higher resistance to change (AARP, 2019).

Some consumers with little pre-pandemic online shopping experience are predicted to reduce the level of their online consumption as soon as physical shops open (Watanabe & Omori, 2020). However, the COVID-19 induced changes of how older adults shop appear to be irreversible. The current interest of older adults in online shopping can be solidified by building up trust in this type of retailing. The ongoing work on improving shopping experience is the key for such trust. Older people have ventured online in unprecedented numbers – because they had to, and because it worked. It is up to the retail industry whether they stay, or go.


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