Surfs Up For Seniors

From e-mailing relatives to planning cruises, older adults are logging on and living it up.

Senior Americans are flocking to the Internet. And given their leisure time and purchasing power, its time to crank up the bandwidth at Web sites devoted to health care, genealogy, travel, photography, e-mail, investments, scuba diving and about 1,000 other pursuits.

"Its been incredible," 71-year-old retired social worker Elinor Sheldon said of her forays onto the Web. "Im communicating with people I havent talked to for years." In fact, one e-mail friendship led Sheldon to vacations in Ireland and Italy - a trip she researched via the Internet - and a nice little romance that is flourishing in both the virtual and actual worlds.

Sheldon is far from unique. Forty-three percent of people age 55 to 64 now use the Internet regularly, up from 36 percent in November, and 31 percent 18 months ago, according to Mediamark Research Inc.s Cyber Stats.

Internet use by those older than 65 is lower, but its rate of growth is faster. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, Internet use by Americans over 65 will grow a staggering 368 percent, from 3.7 million users at the beginning of last year to 17.3 million in 2005. Among those 50 to 64, Internet use will grow from 30.3 million to 47.2 million.

Thats 64.5 million Americans in the age groups that control most of the wealth, and are more likely than other adults to travel for pleasure, own high-end electronics, buy cars and have brokerage accounts.

Yet its a group that has been largely ignored by companies in their Internet marketing efforts.

Few of the giant brick-and-click retailers are trying to reach seniors online. Sears, Roebuck and Co., for example, focuses its online marketing efforts on its core demographics: women age 25 to 54 with children at home - "those who buy the types of products we sell," spokeswoman Ann Wolman said. "We do not specifically target seniors on the Internet."

E-tailers and other business-to-consumer sites, however, may do well to reassess their strategies. According to the Census Bureau, Americans over 50 will number 85.3 million by 2005 and have $900 billion in purchasing power - 42 percent of all consumer demand. is one site that is already tapping that market. As part of its effort to appeal to senior buyers, the company has posted pictures of its senior agents on its Web site, establishing a connection with 50-plus Internet users, who make up half of its clientele.

"Eighty percent of our business comes through the Web, and since seniors are the majority of our business, they certainly are finding us on the Web," said Don Bohan, president of "We try to make it simple. Everything is point-and-click and large type. A lot of the more mature people, especially men - Im a senior, too - never learned to type very well." The Web site advises travelers to call to make final reservations.

From E-mail to Shopping

Last to embrace the computer revolution, the older age groups cant be rushed, and should be invited politely onto the Internet, said Richard Adler, senior vice president of SeniorSurfers, which teaches older adults how to use computers at dozens of West Coast senior centers. After they get comfortable with e-mail and zipping photos to their grandkids, seniors often become the most enthusiastic e-shoppers.

"The bias that when people get older they stop being consumers just isnt true anymore," Adler said. "A few folks have woken up and started smelling the Sanka. It behooves everyone in this business to at least pay attention to who these folks are and to take them seriously." Some two-thirds of seniors who use the Internet buy merchandise online, slightly lower than the 72 percent of adult Net users who are also online buyers.

According to Mediamark, the favorite Web sites of older adults are auction site eBay, portal iWon, and the online trading sites of Charles Schwab & Co. and TD Waterhouse Investor Services.

By categories, the favorites for surfers over 55 are genealogy, taxes, mutual funds, business news and online trading. Theyre also big users of health, pharmacy, lifestyle, family and coupon sites. They rarely visit sites devoted to games, movies, kids, toys or parenting.

Companies marketing to this group need to understand that one of the biggest fears seniors face today is isolation, and that helping them connect to other people is a great first step toward making them enthusiastic Net surfers - and buyers. That could mean advertising at e-mail Web sites or providing links to those services from the retailers own sites.

Indeed, Sheldon says the Internet has become a lifeline for many people her age.

"Its a matter of educating yourself, knowing the sites that are there. I just joined Mature Traveler. I cant imagine anyone every being bored again at any age. Theres so much there."

Initially, the incentive for seniors to try using the Internet is to keep in touch with friends and family, particularly grandkids. When they learn that their grandkids arent going to write them or call on the phone but are happy to fire off an e-mail, older adults quickly become converts. "If they know that if they can do instant messaging, they can talk to them - thats very powerful," Adler said.

For seniors, the Internet has gone from a novelty to something much more. "If you want to be a part of contemporary life, you need to know about it," Adler said. "Theres tremendous interest. The biggest barrier is unfamiliarity."