As the U.S. population grows older and the popularity of online shopping continues to rise, it seems inevitable that senior citizens will shape the future of e-commerce. In fact, recent surveys show many older adults are already taking to the internet for their products and services, with 41% of baby boomers and 28% of seniors choosing to click to purchase.
The popularity of online shopping among older folks isn’t surprising. By shopping online, seniors can save time and money right from the comfort of their own homes. In contrast, brick-and-mortar stores suffer from long checkout lines, crowded aisles, and packed parking lots — three things most seniors can easily live without.
However, seniors didn’t grow up with the internet (let alone the Internet of Things). For some, online shopping is intimidating and confusing. Age-related issues can also make shopping online impractical — vision or hearing loss, for example, or loss of motor skills. This Guide to Online Shopping for Seniors contains helpful information and many affordable or free resources to help seniors shop safely and independently.
Cybersecurity guidelines that will keep seniors’ personal data out of the hands of cyberthieves.
Benefits of online shopping
Online shopping offers older adults many benefits aside from saving money. These include some high-priority considerations for seniors: greater independence, more time, and better health. Here’s how online shopping impacts the lives of senior citizens for the better.
Some seniors don’t like the hectic atmosphere of stores. Others don’t have a reliable way to get to them. For seniors living in assisted living facilities, the weekly bus to the shopping mall may not be enough or may conflict with other plans.
Brick-and-mortar stores can be noisy, confusing places for seniors. Stores also get more high-tech every year, with self-checkout lines, product scanners, and chip readers changing a once-familiar payment process. The narrow aisles and high shelves are particularly irksome for those seniors who require wheelchairs or walkers. Online shopping can help seniors stay more independent by letting them shop at their leisure in the comfort and safety of their home.
Online shopping saves time. No more wasted hours driving to the store, hunting a parking spot, and searching the miles of aisles. Once a senior creates an account with their favorite online store, they can easily search products, add them to their online shopping cart, review their order, and checkout with their desktop or mobile device.
Online shopping saves the most time for items seniors buy regularly — like groceries, pet food, and medication. Seniors can easily order their groceries online, and many major stores like Walmart, Target, and Safeway offer online grocery shopping with delivery or pick-up services.
Shoppers can also save their grocery lists online, making it quick and easy to place the same orders weekly or monthly. Customers who buy from local grocers or stores that don’t deliver, can also use third party delivery services like Instacart.
Health and well-being
Online shopping can help seniors stay healthy by relieving the stress of in-store shopping and keeping their medication, food, and service orders consistent. Online pharmacies like Walgreens allow seniors to set their medication refills to automatically reorder and ship before they run out. Automatic refills ensure scheduled medications aren’t missed or forgotten.
Along with a tight food budget, many seniors also have dietary restrictions. Keeping salt and sugar intake down is harder when your sense of taste has diminished. Too much of either is a health hazard for those with hypertension and diabetes.
Online shopping gives seniors easy access to local and national meal delivery services that can ensure they’re consistently getting their prescribed daily dietary needs. Like automated prescription refills, delivered meal plans can keep their dietary needs on track. Plus, most meal plans are more affordable than eating out and more convenient than preparing meals at home.
Saving money online
There’s only so many brick-and-mortar stores a senior can realistically visit in a day, but the number of online stores they can shop are endless. Seniors can compare the quality and price of similar products from dozens of online vendors until they find what they want. Comparison shopping leads to lower prices for seniors, with all of those stores competing for their business.
In addition, e-commerce stores like Amazon or Thrive Market lower their prices by acting as wholesalers, shipping directly to the customer. Older shoppers, in particular, can save even more by taking advantage of online senior discounts.
Many businesses in the travel, entertainment, and service industries have special discounts for seniors. Saving money is the easy part; the hardest is locating and organizing all of the senior discounts. But, no worries. Here’s a handy list of companies and discounts that’ll put more money in your pocket and more fun in your life.
Travel is a big part of the retirement plan for many seniors. Lucky for them, most major airline, bus, train and rental car companies offer seniors discounts. Here are a few you’ll want to remember when planning your next trip.
Entertainment venues like resorts, theme parks, and museums offer senior discounts for day passes and admission fees. For example, the U.S. government has an National Park Senior Pass for U.S. citizens 62 and older. The pass grants holders free entrance to any national park and most Federal recreation facilities. Here are some other ways to save on entertainment.
Seniors support the service industry much more than its advertisers realize, whether by getting their car’s oil changed or hiring a plumber to unclog the sink. Because seniors use services so much, even the smallest discount can add up to big savings over time. Here are a few places to get started.
Online shopping gives shoppers an advantage over stores. Online, you can quickly and easily compare prices among a wide range of similar products and services. It’s a bit different from the grocery store experience, where customers can hold up two bottles of spaghetti sauce, read their nutrition labels, and compare price tags. With online shopping, customers can compare dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce and prices at dozens of stores before buying.
While general web browser searches usually result in thousands of product choices, most customers need to search a little further to find what they want. Along the way, there are pitfalls to avoid. Online prices can change depending on when you buy and where you live, and not every product or seller has a 5-star reputation. But seniors will find the right products and services much easier with the following resources and guidelines.
Web browser search
Web browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox have “Shopping” tabs that narrow down your search to e-commerce and retail store results. Typing “high heels” into either browser will return pages of heels in every color, price, and style imaginable. Use the search power of these web browsers to get your search started off on the right foot.
Wikibuy is a Chrome extension that allows consumers to see lower prices for products they see on many ecommerce sites. Here’s how it works:
1. Someone with the extension visits a product page on an ecommerce site — say, Amazon.
2. Wikibuy checks other online retailers like Jet, eBay, Walmart, and others, to see if there’s a better deal.
3. Within seconds, the extension shows possible matches with total prices, including tax, shipping, and any coupons that apply.
Every time someone with the Wikibuy extension checks an Amazon price, we record the Amazon price they see and the lowest price they can get — then share that price with the rest of the community.
Unit weight and size
When comparison shopping, double check that the items are of the same weight and size. Sometimes, unit count differs for products because of packaging changes made by the manufacturer. Companies often “downsize” their products instead of raising the price. So, a bag of potato chips may contain fewer chips but cost the same. Shrunken packages are harder to notice than growing prices, so check the weight, size, and unit count for products you’re comparing to make sure it’s apples-to-apples.
Be skeptical of the prices you see. Many e-commerce websites use specially designed software called dynamic pricing that can automatically change prices based on the demand for items and services. Dynamic pricing even adjusts prices based on individual shoppers.
If you live in sunny Florida and buy sunglasses on a day in December, you’re likely paying a different price than someone buying sunglasses the same day in rainy Oregon. That’s because dynamic pricing can adjust prices based on what it knows about you — your location, income level, previous purchases, and your internet search history to determine how much it thinks you’re willing to pay. However, there are ways to keep your purchase history private and avoid being overcharged.
Go incognito. If websites can see you’ve searched for a product before, they may raise the price. Use an incognito browser window to shop privately.
Hide your location. Many websites ask to know your location when you first visit them. Say “no thank you.”
Switch browsers. Search for a product in one browser, then switch to another one to actually make the purchase. If you’ve never visited the website with that browser, the vendor will think you’re a new customer, and the price may be lower.
Recheck prices. Check over the course of several days to see if prices change in your favor.
Buy in advance. The closer it gets to that bus trip to Reno, the higher the ticket price.
Online customer reviews are a valuable benefit of online shopping. They can help point seniors toward quality products and trustworthy services and away from disreputable services looking to defraud them with shoddy workmanship or half-completed work.
Websites like Angie’s List and Mr. Handyman rank plumbing, electrical, and landscaping services so seniors can find legitimate professional service people based on customer reviews. Here are a few tips for using customer reviews:
Read the reviews. Don’t just buy products and services with the highest rating. Read what customers are saying. Some customers leave bad reviews just because a chair was the “wrong shade of red”.
Check different websites. Read reviews from a variety of websites to get a good overview.
Don’t buy the product with the most reviews. It can be tempting to choose a 3-star product with hundreds of reviews over a similarly-rated product with only five reviews. However, studies show this strategy leads to consumers actually buying lower-quality products.
Use professional reviews. Websites like Consumer Reports conduct professional product testing and reviews.
Getting comfortable with technology
Seniors need to be comfortable using devices that give them access to online shopping. But computers, tablets, mobile phones, web browsers can be frustrating to use at times, even for the most seasoned shopper.
Anyone can master these devices with a little perseverance and patience. And for those seniors who need a few hours of computer introduction, there are plenty of training and assistive resources available to get them up and shopping in no time.
Many community resources like public libraries, universities, colleges, and senior communities offer free, basic adult computer classes and internet training. Universities and colleges across the nation offer free or reduced tuition for seniors. For-profit companies like Microsoft partner with organizations like AARP to offer free computer classes to seniors. Here are some more technology learning resources to check out:
For seniors with age-related disabilities like vision or hearing loss, adaptive devices help them use computers or input devices like a keyboard or mouse. Here are some common accessibility issues and resources that can help.
Seniors with vision impairment may have trouble viewing product images, reading service descriptions, or locating their online shopping cart. But adaptive devices like large-button keyboards, screen readers, text-to-talk apps, and screen magnifiers are a senior shopper’s best friend.
Screen readers and text-to-talk apps translate the words on your screen to a voice you can hear. Screen magnifiers increase the size of the images and text on your computer screen using either software or a physical device. Here’s a list of some resources:
Although seniors with hearing loss can still access photos and text, they may have problems understanding product demonstration videos, or ads for services, or audio-only customer reviews.
Most large ecommerce websites make sure their videos support closed captioning or include subtitles, but not all do. Here are some resources to help seniors with hearing loss get the most out of their online shopping experience.
Hand mobility issues for older adults have many different causes, from carpal tunnel to Parkinson’s disease. But all of them make using a keyboard or computer mouse challenging.
Comparison shopping can take time, and seniors with rheumatoid arthritis may find it difficult holding their hands and arms in one position for an extended period of time. Those with essential tremors may lack the fine motor skills to move a mouse pointer correctly or successfully enter their payment information into the keyboard. Here are some resources for seniors with hand disabilities to gain access to their online devices.
Digit Grip: Ergonomic grip makes it easier to hold onto mobile devices.
With the number of identity fraud cases rising every year, online shoppers of every age need to practice good cybersecurity habits to keep their personal data safe. Here are some tips that will help keep information out of the greedy hands of cyberthieves.
Create secure passwords
Your passwords protect against cyberthieves gaining access to your online accounts, stealing your identity, and spending thousands of dollars with your credit card. It’s easier than you might think for someone to steal or guess your account passwords. Cyberthieves often use password hacking software or phishing emails to get your personal information. To keep hackers out of your accounts, follow the guidelines for creating secure passwords:
Don’t use “password”. Phrases like “password” and “123456” are easy to remember, which is why they’re two of the most popular passwords used today. But they’re also really easy for cyberthieves to guess.
Make it long. A strong password is at least 8 characters long, but longer is better.
Use special characters. In addition to letters and numbers, include a few special characters like these: !@#$%^&*()_+.
Include capitalized letters. Use a mixture of upper-case and lower-case letters.
Change your passwords. Change your passwords anytime there’s a major data breach or when you suspect suspicious activity on your account. Occasionally changing your passwords can protect your data, but they need to be completely unique. Just adding an extra number to the end of your current password won’t make your data safer.
Use different passwords. Using the same password for all of your online accounts gives a successful cyberthief access to them all.
Use an acronym. Make your password easy to remember by using the first letters of each word in a longer phrase. (e.g. “The Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog” becomes the password: TbFJotLD.
Make it unique. When choosing an acronym or phrase, pick one that expresses something only you would know. (e.g. Your biggest phobia).
Get a password manager
Online shoppers usually have many different online accounts for all of their e-commerce websites. In that case, you can simplify the process of creating and remembering secure passwords by using a password manager.
You can use a password manager to automatically create a unique, secure password and remember it for each of your online accounts. Plus, password managers will automatically log you in, so no more getting locked out of your account because you typed in the wrong password too many times. Password managers work across multiple devices to organize all of your passwords in one place, which makes changing all of your passwords easier.
Although password managers usually require monthly subscriptions, the most popular brands also offer free versions with some restrictions to features you’ll probably never miss.
Secure your payments
Most online shoppers connect their credit or debit cards to a store’s online account or to an online payment service like PayPal to make purchases. Both methods of payment are relatively safe, but putting your payment information out on the internet always carries a certain amount of risk. Here are some guidelines for making secure online payments.
Look for “https”. Only enter your payment information if the website’s address starts with https:// (NOT http://). The “s” stands for “secure”.
Beware of email links. Never sign into a website through a link in an email. It could be a phishing email. Always bookmark an e-commerce website and visit it through your browser.
Don’t shop on a public computer. The public library’s computer isn’t the place to buy an e-reader on Amazon. You could forget to log out of your online account, and the next patron will have access.
Avoid public Wi-Fi networks. Only buy online when you’re using your home Wi-Fi network. Cyberthieves can steal your personal data over public wireless networks.
Pay with a credit card. Unlike debit cards, purchases made by credit card are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which limits your liability for fraudulent payments to $50.
Keep your computer up to date. Your information is safer when you keep your operating system current, whether it’s a Mac or PC.
Don’t give out your Social Security number. You will never need to supply your SSN for simple online purchases. If a seller asks, it could be a scam.
Check your statements. Make it a habit to check your credit card and bank statements every month for any unauthorized purchases.
Here are some resources to help you make your online payments secure:
Web of Trust: Chrome extension that warns you of unsafe websites.
iCrumz: Easily creates bookmarks for visiting websites instead of using suspicious links.
Use multi-factor authentication
If your e-commerce or online payment account offers multi-factor authentication (MFA), set it up to provide an extra layer of security. MFA is a security layer that requires multiple pieces of information to prove your identity. It’s also commonly referred to as “two-step authentication”, “two-factor authentication”, or “2FA”.
When you swipe your bank card at the ATM and then enter your personal identification number (PIN), you’re using MFA. Today, websites often connect your cell phone number to your online payment account to limit access.
After you sign in with your password or make an online purchase, the MFA feature texts a numeric code to your cell phone. You then input that code to authenticate your identity or authorize a transaction.
For a cyberthief to purchase something using your credit card or online payment system, they would need both your password and your phone. Here are instructions for setting up 2FA for some popular online payment services.
Online is the future of shopping for everyone, not just seniors. But to stay up with the constantly changing world of commerce, senior citizens need access to accurate information and effective training that will let them take advantage of everything online shopping offers. As the U.S. population ages, the threat of a widening technological gap increases. However, resources like those listed here will help ensure aging adults can participate in a growing online marketplace that continues to span cultures and borders.