Older consumers left ‘powerless’ by packaging

Negative experience with packaging can begin in the supermarket, according to new research.

Negative experience with packaging can begin in the supermarket, according to new research.

Packaging on supermarket goods can leave ‘older’ consumers feeling powerless and vulnerable, according to a new study.

Research carried out at the University of Portsmouth found that issues such as difficulty reading labels or opening tins can damage consumers’ sense of self-worth.

Other problems included items being difficult to stack or too heavy to carry because of their packaging.

The findings revealed that ageing-related changes – such as arthritis and deteriorating eyesight and physical strength – made consumers more at risk of experiencing ‘vulnerability’ when buying packaged consumables.

Previous studies have shown that an estimated 67,000 visits are made to accident and emergency wards every year in the UK because of accidents involving packaging.

Lead author Dr Nicholas Ford, of Portsmouth Business School, said: “A variety of products and services have been identified as inhibiting older people’s abilities to maintain their independence, from public transport to kitchen interiors and internet banking.

“However, few factors are highlighted as often as difficulties with packaging. Marketing research has found high levels of dissatisfaction with much packaging among consumers at large. In particular dissatisfaction has been reported among older consumers with fast-moving consumer goods packaging – i.e. non-durable packaged items such as tinned food, packet meals and toiletries.

Dr Nicholas Ford interviewed a cross-section of consumers for his research.

Dr Nicholas Ford interviewed a cross-section of consumers for his research.

“Studies show that due to changes in physical capabilities and social circumstances, older people risk suffering embarrassment and anger, and even potential illness and serious injury as a result of difficulties with packaging.”

The latest research, published in the Journal of Marketing Management, is based on in-depth interviews with a cross-section of consumers aged between 59 and 85.

All the study participants were living independently and shopping for themselves, so the packaging ‘interactions’ began in store, often when locating a product on the shelf.

Issues encountered included:

Font size: “The fonts are far too small. I can’t read it when I’m in the shop without my glasses. It’s an inconvenience. When you’re in the shop you don’t want to be fumbling around in your handbag for your glasses, people will think you’re shoplifting.” (June, 61)

Unclear and deceptive imagery: “The ready-made meals are particularly bad. Some of the pictures look nothing like what you get in the pack. You’re not sure what you’re buying, but I never want to ask anyone for help with something so embarrassing.” (Jim, 63)

Items being too heavy or bulky to transport easily: “The size of things is very frustrating now, not just because it’s more than I need, but because it’s so hard to get home. Ever since I fell a couple of winters ago and did my hip in, I always make sure to just buy a few bits now. It was my own stupid fault carrying too much; I should have known my limits at my age.” (Philippa, 73)

Difficulty opening packaging: “I push it forward and then get my finger hooked in [the ring-pull], then trying to oink it back… it’s only a matter of time before I take the top of one of my fingers off.” (Janet, 76)

Participants reported using a variety of methods for overcoming difficulties, including using pliers and screwdrivers, and even leaving items on the doorstep for the postman to open.

They also reported blaming themselves for problems with packaging – such as difficulty reading labels or resealing items – rather than the manufacturer.

Dr Ford said: “Blaming oneself is perceived as being easier than the challenge of voicing complaint.

“While seemingly innocuous when considered in isolation, the experiences shared by our participants suggest that the gradual build-up and continuation of stresses can lead to sustained feelings of frustration and powerlessness.”

The study concluded that ‘easy opening’ packaging could provide just one way for firms to add value for older consumers.

Distinctive packaging was also highlighted as a way of more easily identifying products and giving the consumer a sense of control – but the study warns that products aimed at the senior market can alienate consumers who do not wish to be labelled ‘old’.

‘Good’ packaging can help contribute to older consumers maintaining independent lives, said Dr Ford.

“By focusing only on ‘openability’ much of previous research in this area may have overlooked other elements of packaging which could be altered to aid older people in maintaining independent lives.

“Interestingly, a number of the problems highlighted in the study are also experienced by many younger consumers – so developing new packaging with the needs of older people in mind could add value for consumers in general.”

Dr Ford believes one solution might be the inclusion of discreet symbols to highlight products as examples of ‘inclusive design’.

He said: “Manufacturers need to achieve a balance between communicating the functional benefits to older consumers while maintaining mass market appeal.

Dr Ford is a member of UPAN (the University of Portsmouth Ageing Network), which focusses on the opportunities and challenges arising from population ageing, by undertaking research, innovation, education, and community outreach activities across all academic disciplines. The network promotes partnership working between members of the University, businesses, local authorities, NHS Trusts, charities, community groups, and members of the public.

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Good article. Even as a 40 something I sometimes have problems with tins. The problem seems to be with the ring pull, which is normally flush with the top of the tin so it has to be prised up with a kitchen implement before it can be gripped and the lid removed. More often than not it’s easier to open the tin with a can opener..

  2. My view is that packaging designers should step into the shoes of the target consumers – all demographics not just the Baby Boomers to figure out what information and attributes are required to make it easy to purchase and use ! If Packaging Companies used this approach as part of their differentiation strategy then their customers and consumers would see their service as value added and vote with their feet. It’s a little like build it and they will come as ultimately this value add would increase sales as you are fulfilling the key principle of retail – keep it simple.

  3. When both Shampoo and Conditioner have almost identical labels, and you can’t tell them apart without your glasses, washing hair becomes a nightmare. Such a small thing – not powerless, but quite angry.

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