Turning Silver into Gold: Marketing to Japan’s Dynamic Seniors

Did you celebrate September 16, Respect for the Aged Day? If you’re selling products or services in Japan, you should! Japan’s seniors are the nation’s most active consumers, and their numbers are swelling. By 2022, senior, also known as silver, consumers are projected to be 29 percent of the population; by 2035, one of every three people here will be sixty or above. Most no longer have to care for parents, but some still do: as of September 2017, Japan had over two million 90-year-olds. Time for lessons in the buying habits of Japan’s seniors, one of Japan’s most profitable market segments.

Japan’s seniors are not short on cash

Moreover, despite occasional news stories about silver-haired transgressors committing crimes to get into prison—out of loneliness or penury or both—a 2016 Cabinet Office survey of citizens sixty and up reveals that most of Japan’s elders appear to be secure financially. Around 65 percent said they were either very comfortable moneywise or had few financial qualms. The older respondents get, the more likely they are to be smiling, including 71.5 percent of those eighty or older. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reports that average annual income for senior households set a record in 2017 of 3.349 million yen—the third annual hike.

Delayed retirement age

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants companies to abolish retirement ages to keep seniors employed longer and fatten up the shrinking tax base. Around 44 percent of seniors are remaining in the workforce or want to rejoin it so they can stay active, connect with others and earn money. That means more disposable income.

The most active buyers in Japan are seniors

So who are these folks, and what do they want?

First and foremost, don’t call the main silver cohort “elderly” if you want to sell to them.

According to three decades of research by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living (1986-2016), individuals between 60 and 74 are spunkier, more energetic and more adventurous than ever. Most of them fall into the so-called Dankai generation and you can read our profile of them here.

Ikigai keeps the Japanese alive

Although their average actual age was 67, respondents collectively said they felt 53 years old.  That’s probably why a 2016 book called The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity had such a bombshell effect in Japan. Its positive spin on living long and prospering fits in well with the venerable Japanese lifestyle philosophy of ikigai, which basically means to find your purpose in life and follow your bliss.

The low-down on Japan’s senior market

Seniors are avid consumers. The original postwar Baby Boom generation, for example, supercharged Japan’s economy with their spending. Women represent around half their ranks, and drive most consumption among seniors. In traditional households, they also typically buy the bulk of food and beverages and major buys such as household appliances.

The silver crowd is most intent on staying healthy, mobile, mentally sharp and active, but they also want companionship.

The elderly want to preserve their minds and bodies

Minds and bodies break down. No surprise, then, that products and services designed to stave off mental decay for as long as possible are thriving in Japan. For example, Nintendo’s Brain Age video game (which has sold millions of copies) uses quizzes, puzzles, and other brain teasers to keep the prefrontal cortex engaged, staving off dementia. Faced with shrinking numbers of kids, Japan’s cram schools are now offering more lifelong-learning classes for seniors.

Gyms are a big hit with seniors in Japan

Fitness club chains like Curves, Central Sports and Renaissance are openly welcoming and catering to silver patrons, too, such as offering classes focused on functional movements. Renaissance’s Genki Gym outlets are fitness-focused nursing homes for people 65 and over.

Forty percent of Central Sports members are sixty and above; Renaissance is at 32.5 percent. Seniors in their sixties spend more on sports facilities than any other age cohort, and silvers, in general, stay for hours in the gym exercising and socializing. Female silvers are heavy purchasers of gym memberships, clothing for workouts, and new clothes to suit their slimmer figures and greater self-confidence.

Silver consumers spend a lot of money on health foods, supplements, and medicine. They’re also consuming yogurt, milk, and cheese to keep their bones from becoming brittle.

Senior-tailored shopping environments, real and virtual

Senior-friendly shopping environments have been popping up for several years. Retail chain Aeon, for example, already has over a dozen locations around the country that open at seven a.m. They feature sports gyms, bookstores, cafés and bakeries as well as exercise classes and health checkups. They provide the opportunity for community, and people who socialize stay longer shop more. Aeon plans on having a hundred such outlets by 2025.

Japan’s seniors do not shy away from e-commerce

Some people say seniors don’t do mobile commerce. Tell that to Rakuten, whose Rakuma platform is fueling a hot consumer-to-consumer (C2C) market that expanded by a factor of thirty among 60- to 90-year-olds between 2016 and 2018.

One major hindrance is that smart devices are built small. From seeing what’s on the screen to manipulating buttons and so on, they’re just not silver-friendly.  Smartphones like Fujitsu’s RakuRaku model, however, sport bigger screens and buttons and clearer operations. The Mobile Society Research Institute says more than half of people in their sixties now own smartphones, and 30 percent of those in their seventies.

Giving seniors digital literacy and how to use smart devices is a good market to investigate, particularly because it will spur online spending.

The silver market for companionship, comfort, and convenience

No strangers to dating sites

Isolation and loneliness damage the spirit, and many of Japan’s senior cohort are hurting. For men, in particular, their social networks are primarily work ties. Leave the company and your circle shrinks radically. Cut off from the collective, cognitive decline and dementia often follow. Both Fujitsu and Aeon (with its onsite Begins Partner dating service) offer social websites for seniors.

Pets (including robotic ones)

Pets are another option, but live ones require care and activity and cleaning up after. Japan’s abiding emotional attachment for robots has spawned companions like Sony’s robo-dog Aibo and its descendants. But many robos lack “skinship,” referring to the intimacy of touch between mother and child but has a broader meaning. Paro, a baby seal mostly used at care facilities right now, and Lovot, a robo with touch-sensitive fur, expressive eyes and a camera and sensors that recognizes individual humans, are warm and cuddly friends without the mess.


Ready-made dishes and meals are popular with seniors, particularly wives tired of preparing three meals a day for spouses or people living alone who have little desire to cook for one. The FamilyMart chain of convenience stores offers delivery options for both food and medicine.

Mobility masters

Mobility is a pivotal issue in Japan, both in the personal sense (bodies getting old and creaky) and getting from point to point. So is safety. Some pertinent examples to keep the silver cohort moving and safe include:

  • Terumo’s slip-avoidance Upwalk socks, which automatically lift the wearer’s toes to prevent them from catching on carpet edges or other obstacles—a common way to fall and break a hip.
  • Fujitsu’s Next Generation smart walking sticks. Bluetooth and GPS-equipped and capable of monitoring the user’s temperature and heart activity, they can be programmed to indicate a route, and notify carers if their charge has gone off-track. The canes come with wireless connectivity for two-way communications.
  • Cars like Honda Motor Company’s inexpensive N-Box minicar, which offers error-detecting pedals and automatic emergency braking. Originally pitched at young families, it became the top-selling passenger vehicle because its safety features appealed to seniors. About half of N-Box owners are fifty or older.

Sensing a pattern here? Safe mobility and use are prime R&D goals in products designed for silvers. These devices—along with the autonomous cars, taxis and buses on the way—will keep seniors mobile and independent for longer. This is a core issue in rural areas where public transport is spotty and distances to essential goods and services can be daunting.

A global testbed for the silver market

One thing every business should consider is that Japan is the go-to testbed for products meant for superannuated folks everywhere. That’s significant, because the Global Coalition on Aging says the world’s over-sixty population will double to 2 billion between now and 2050, and have combined spending power of over US$15 trillion.

The toromi concept

Anyone in the food business, for example, should know about the concept of toromi (smoothness). Essentially, DuPont and other firms are busy developing additives to make things simpler to swallow, with the main target seniors who may accidentally aspirate food. BASF is developing ibuprofen skin patches to replace pills.

The bottom line here is that your silver-oriented goods and services—and how you present and present them—must take silver physical and cognitive limitations into account, and solve age-related issues if you can.

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