Study says packaging can leave older consumers feeling powerless

Packaging on supermarket goods can make ‘older’ consumers feel powerless and vulnerable, according to a new University of Porstmouth study.


Research 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 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.

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.”

Dr Nicholas Ford, Portsmouth Business School

Dr Nicholas Ford, Portsmouth Business School

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.

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’.