Ask a teenager to describe the ins and outs of today's consumer electronics, and he can probably more easily document how many megapixels are on his camera and how much the service plan for an iPhone costs than he can list the last 10 presidents. Question someone over 55 on the same topic, and the conversation will likely take a whole different turn—especially when it comes to digital photography.
OK, so maybe we're not talking about folks who can remember when the news about the daguerreotype filtered out of the French Academy of Sciences in 1839. Still, some of those who grew up with film can find the whole digital thing a little overwhelming. "My mother took pictures of me with a box camera," says Ruth, 79, of Weston, Florida. "Then I moved up to another little camera, and I would stay up all night developing film in the bathroom; I'd bring my negatives to school, where they had the enlarger. Today I have two digital cameras, given to me by someone else, and I don't really use them."
Surprisingly (or maybe not so, considering the elevated electronics sophistication across all age groups), today's AARP-card-carrying members aren't just "coming around" to the digital camera, the computer, and the internet for their picture-taking-and-making needs: They're becoming an increasingly important demographic that retailers should keep on their radar.
Creating With a CCD
There are many reasons why seniors would want to jump on the digital bandwagon. Whether they're taking pictures of their grandkids or documenting their travels now that they're retired and enjoying their golden years, seniors can enjoy the immediacy, convenience, and creativity that comes with a digital camera purchase.
And it does seem that this seasoned audience is catching onto the benefits. According to a recent NPD Group study (documenting the 12 months ending in May 2007), those respondents 55 and over with no children at home represent 21 percent of all digital cameras sold (with the average price spent on a digicam at $228, just slightly above the overall average of $220).
Where they're buying their new digital gear is important as well. While seniors may be perceived as being intimidated by and not very internet-savvy, they're just as likely to spend their digital camera dollars online as the average consumer (about 20 percent of all digital camera dollars are spent online). Seniors just may need to rev up their speed on the information superhighway: Nearly 26 percent are still using dial-up, the largest age category still using this antiquated connection method, according to a recent InfoTrends survey on online photo service adoption and usage.
And, perhaps most important for the independent retailer, the AARP-card-carrying generation is also more likely to spend their money at photo specialty: Seventeen percent of all digital camera dollars spent by those 55 and older were ponied up at photo specialty stores, versus 11 percent of the same digicam dollars by consumers as a whole, according to the NPD study. Retailers still need to reach out and educate the senior market, however, since many are still flocking to what they perceive as the convenient big-box store. "I believe I bought my camera at Best Buy, or it may have been at The Wiz before it went out of business," admits Denise, 56, of Smithtown, NY.
And while 20-somethings may go ga-ga for a new MP3 player or other slickly packaged CE products, don't think that the more cynical senior market is such a sucker for outward appearances. "They care a lot about features, but not so much about product looks," explains Liz Cutting, senior account manager, Consumer Technology, for The NPD Group. "They're really looking for something that's more functional."
"Megapixels was probably the biggest consideration at the time I bought my camera," agrees Denise. "And I wanted the smallest camera I could buy with the biggest LCD display so it would fit in a pocket. I researched cameras on the internet and settled on the one that I thought would be the best fit for me. This camera was also compatible with my Sony camcorder, which was important to me."
Analyzing how often seniors use their digicams and why proves interesting as well. The InfoTrends survey shows that 64 percent of the 55-and-older crowd (20 percent of the survey respondents) own a digital camera, with 58 percent of them saying they use their digital camera more often than their film camera.
"Right now I have a Sony DSC-P9, which I've had for at least five years," says Denise. "Film is such a pain in the neck, especially for vacations. If you take a lot of pictures, you have to cart around a multitude of rolls—rolls that have a tendency to melt in the heat and deteriorate if you don't develop them in a timely manner. One digital Memory Stick holds an awful lot of pictures, and if you really want to carry a spare, the stick is tiny. Also with film, you never know how your pictures are going to come out until they are developed. If they turn out badly, your moments are gone. With digital, you can check your images immediately and reshoot if necessary."
That's not to say that digital is an easy transition for everyone who vividly recalls the "I Like Ike" presidential campaign. "I tried using one of the digital cameras I was given, and I didn't do so well with it," says Ruth. "I don't do very well reading complicated instructions, or ‘destructions,' as my family likes to call them. That really holds me back from using it. If I had someone to help me [listening, retailers?] or easier instructions to follow [hello, manufacturers!], I might want to try again."
The expense of upgrading from their trusty film cameras is also an obstacle to some seniors, many of whom are living on a fixed income. "I use my regular camera because it's got a nice zoom," Ruth continues. "If I were to get a digital camera, it would need to have a zoom lens, since I like being able to fill the frame and compose good shots. That's a lot of money to spend again. Plus, I don't know that the extra expense is always worth it. For years I had a camera that I paid $25 for at Walgreens, since we were traveling a lot in the RV and I didn't want to lose an expensive camera. That $25 camera went to Alaska with us, on all our cruises, and honestly, I couldn't tell the difference between the pictures taken with that camera and the more expensive camera I have now."
The same InfoTrends survey indicates that over 30 percent of seniors consider themselves to be family "memory keepers" (using the camera to record memories and milestones), while a somewhat smaller percentage view themselves as snapshot photographers (taking pictures for the "fun of the moment," but not necessarily into photography as a whole). Denise confesses to being an amalgam of these profiles. "I bought my camera mostly for family pictures and vacations," she says," though lately I've also been taking a lot of pictures of sunsets and clouds."