Communications Key in Selling to Female Baby Boomers
Aging baby boomer women will increasingly be using their power of the purse to buy new homes, but the sales will go to those builders who understand their wants and needs and the special handling these customers require, according to panelists at NAHB’s Building for Boomers and Beyond Seniors Housing Symposium in Chantilly, Va. on May 16-18.
Boomers of both sexes are a major economic force, according to Doris Perlman, founder and president of Possibilities for Design. They control 70% of the nation’s net worth and spend $2 trillion annually on goods and services. Also, they’re not getting any younger: 10,000 are turning 50 every day.
But among the boomers, it is the women who merit closer attention from builders, she indicated, because they control 80% of consumer purchases, direct 91% of housing decisions and guide 94% of home furnishing choices.
While Perlman’s research has delineated many of the specific home features that are likely to particularly attract older women, in their shopping habits she suggested that these customers are apt to be “circular, exploring and tactile” and “do not make linear decisions.”
“Her needs for personal connection and security are key,” Perlman added. “Women don’t just buy a product; they join it.”
Among Perlman’s observations on what will sway boomer women home buyers:
- This target market is looking for character and comfort, which translates into demand for wider hallways and stairs, living areas on the main floor, open and airy floor plans and multi-functional spaces.
- Among boomers of both sexes who are 55 or older: 68% want a single-family detached home; 79% prefer a single-story home; 53% prefer three bedrooms; 45% visit a model home; 75% will settle for a smaller house if that’s what it takes to get high-quality products and amenities; and 60% prefer brand name products in their homes.
- These women are very attuned to colors. In 2005-2006, the color trends include brown becoming the new black; grayed-out greens; reds coming up orange; classic colors with such new names as Wasabi, AeroBlue and Vanilla; and textural effects suggesting copper, pewter and stone.
- Illumination — both task lighting and natural light — is of major importance to compensate for declining vision and to add drama. For aging eyesight, anything smaller than 13-point type in marketing materials is “retail suicide.” Model homes should be well-lit and use high-contrast furniture.
- Feminine buyers are looking for strong character in home design, such as cottages with a crisp and clean look, urban enclaves with rich colors and textures, and calming and contemporary Asian influences.
- Women who are 55 or older are cyber savvy and use their computers for ordering and correspondence.
- Women this age now have more time to relax, engage in social activities and explore hobbies, making “special interest” rooms an essential feature in new home marketing. Perlman also advised builders that “women shop with peripheral vision: they notice everything,” and “harness the power of grandparenting.” It’s okay to include a grandkid’s room.
- Universal design features include: multiple and lower showerheads that can ease the transition to showering while seated; faucets with lever-style handles or sensors for arthritic hands; higher toilets that are easier to use for someone in a wheelchair or having sitting down or standing up limitations; higher sinks to eliminate the strain of bending over; a side-by-side refrigerator and freezer; stove tops with easier-to-reach knobs in front; and Kohler’s Assure™ Kitchen Sink, which features a custom-fit cutting board and colander to make meal preparation easier.
- Perlman suggests that builders “put lots of effort” into walking trails, club houses and other amenities related to fitness, and aim for a “hotel/resort” feel.
Sara Lamia, founder and president of Home Building Coach, said that builders who hope to succeed in selling to the older woman need to learn how to build their trust first. “We need to be respected and heard and expect nothing but the best,” including luxury and superb customer service, she added. “We want to be able to die in our new homes” and don’t want to ever have to move to an institution.
Lamia cautioned that women over 50 “are especially perceptive and will know if you appreciate them or not.”
“When these buyers come into your sales office,” she said, “you need to be inviting them into your family.” Lamia said she achieves that effect by setting up the office with portraits of staff members accompanied by quotes, comparison charts showing what is being offered, tea and cookies, testimonial letter displays and an armchair view of amenities.
Printed materials should include action photos of women enjoying the benefits of living in the community; they should use few words, bullets and large type to convey the message; and they should describe the home buying process in chronological order, she said.
Sitting down and looking at the sales contract — by which time the customer is emotionally sold on the purchase — is an opportunity for the builder to set the buyer’s expectations and guide her behavior. The home buyer needs to be educated about standard builder procedures such as payment, change orders, contingencies, visitations and inspections, and warranties, Lamia said, because if something arises that they don’t understand, “they will resent it.”
Be a Good Listener
Aging baby-boomer female buyers are active and they are proud, said Joanne Chappell-Theunissen, president of Howling Hammer Builders. “Do not talk to her as if she’s elderly,” she advised; today, even “the average 70 year-old thinks of herself as middle-aged.”
Unlike younger women, the 50+ female buyer is also likely to be relatively unaccustomed to business dealings.
Builders need to be exceptionally good listeners with these women and do everything they can to make them feel comfortable, because that is the only way to succeed in eliciting the customer’s concerns and preferences. “What isn’t she saying to you, and why? She’s not comfortable talking to you about her frailties. Turn it into a third-party conversation and take the onus off her,” Theunissen said.
The builder will be working with a woman “who likes to have the rules set for her,” so it is important to set them at the start, explaining her responsibilities and what can, and cannot, reasonably be expected as the construction process moves forward.
“Lay out the plan,” said Theunissen. “Establish weekly meetings, or regularly scheduled appointments to go over responsibilities and task lists.” If that’s not possible, at least communicate by telephone or e-mail but have an actual “face-to-face” once a month.
“Schedule site visits,” Theunissen said. “If you don’t set them, she’ll visit anyway. You want to be her contact person. You don’t want her to be on site talking to your employees.”
- Maintain a dialogue, never downplay her concerns and never make her feel foolish for having asked a question.
- Avoid being vague. Use common terminology and not industry lingo to convey information to your customer. Watch her carefully as you answer a question. You may think you are saying one thing, but she may be hearing something else. “It’s all in how you say it.”
- If your customer sees something she thinks is wrong or needs to be changed, “don’t say, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll fix it.’ Instead, tell her how it’s going to be fixed, who’s going to fix it and when it will be fixed.”
- The extra effort to communicate is well worth the effort. “You are never going to find a more loyal customer,” said Theunissen. “She’s going to be giving out your business cards in the grocery store.”