Leuven 22.02.2022

The Silver Surfer stigma – Why e-marketers shouldn’t just focus on the Gen Z’s of the world


The Silver Surfer is a force to reckon with. No, I’m not talking about the Marvel superhero on a surfboard, who has some kind of cosmic power enabling him to travel through time, be stronger than the Hulk, fly at lightspeed and never age (don’t we all dream about that?). Aside from the superhero, the Silver Surfer is also a phenomenon in the e-commerce landscape and is in that perspective definitely a consumer group to take note of. Silver Surfers are consumers in the age group as from 55 or 60 years old, who are enthusiastic about online shopping. This group appears to be a true conundrum towards (e-)marketeers as many of them pretend or even assume this group doesn’t exist or is not important. Instead, they tend to invest all their focus on and resources in the younger age groups like Millennials, Gen Z, etc. The Silver Surfers are consistently overlooked by marketeers, brands and companies. This despite the fact that this age group has access to a large disposable income, significant spending power, tend to be in better health than their age peers in the past, , … Most importantly, they make up 32% of the Belgian population, so in size as well, they are relevant to put in the center of marketing efforts!

The Silver Surfer is claimed to make use of the internet for online shopping in very much the same ways as younger consumer groups. Hence, contrary to popular belief that the internet is driving a wedge between the different generations, it is also put forth that the internet is able to break down the boundaries between different consumer groups. Now how alike or massively different are the Silver Surfers from their younger counterparts? 


Potato - potato, they are the same…

In some regards, widely expected differences between potential Silver Surfers and younger generations are just myths. They may have been true at some point for the previous generations of the older age groups but bear no truth at this moment anymore. For instance, based on GfK Consumer Life 2021 data in Belgium, it becomes evident that older age groups are similar compared to younger age groups in  smartphone usage, with around 80% in both age groups having used their smartphone in the past 30 days. The numbers are also alike between the age groups for desktop and laptop usage.

When looking specifically into online shopping, it also becomes evident that the purchase factors for online shopping are the same across all consumers. The key aspects to prefer online shopping, such as saving money, free delivery, and convenience, carry the same importance for all age groups. Furthermore, the process of getting to the stage of an actual purchase and thus the level to which browsing, comparing information and researching is done online is also quite alike for the older versus the younger age groups: 33% versus 43% have done this online for their last purchase.


Potato - apple? Silver Surfers do differ! 

Despite their similarities, of course, there are also quite some distinctive features between the potential Silver Surfers and the younger age groups. Whereas it might be true that they use devices such as smartphone, laptop, and desktop to a similar level, the specific activities on these devices differ strongly: Shopping online and paying using an app is done less frequently by the older age groups, both with their laptop and with their smartphone.

As already mentioned, browsing, comparing information and researching online is similar between potential Silver Surfers and the younger age groups, but the degree to which the actual purchase is completed online does differ strongly: Whereas 37% of the older age groups have made their last purchase online across different categories of products, this number rises up to 51% for the younger age groups. The difference is even more striking with respect to buying groceries online: 12% of the older age group buys groceries online, whereas 30% of the younger age group does so.

In terms of innovative shopping possibilities, it is quite clear that the potential Silver Surfer is lagging behind the younger age groups on the Product Adoption Curve. For instance, they are less likely to purchase via social media: 68% of the older age groups have never done this, as opposed to 56% in the younger age groups. Using click and collect or buying directly from an online-only brand is also less likely to happen in the older age groups; they have a lower openness to try these rather new methods of shopping.



But it all depends on how you look at it

In the end, there are several arguments putting forward similarities as well as differences between Silver Surfers and the other age groups. For instance, for completing the actual purchase online in specific categories, the potential Silver Surfer is at the same level as the younger age groups. These categories include skincare products, but also OTC healthcare, small and major home appliances, home furnishings and toys. The biggest differences between the two groups are present for completing the purchase process online with an actual purchase in categories such as clothing.

Additionally, the Silver Surfer might be lagging behind, but that doesn’t mean that he will never catch up. In fact, generations consistently change so the 55-year-old 10 years from now is only 45 years old right now, which is very likely to shine new light on their online shopping behaviors.


Don’t underestimate the Silver Surfer

That brings me to the first sentence of this article: The Silver Surfer is a force to reckon with. Sure, they are not at the same level as the younger generations, but they show clear signs that shopping online is not as foreign as marketeers, in general, might think. Their purchase factors to shop online are the same, although their openness to complete the purchase process online with an actual purchase differs strongly depending on the specific category. There is still some warming up for them to do towards innovative online shopping possibilities, but they represent both currently and in the future great opportunities. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that reluctance and adaptation challenges can be overcome fairly quickly. Hence, do not underestimate the Silver Surfer, whether it’s the Marvel hero or the 60-year-old who frequently shops online.