It's not just its increasing size that makes this category so important. Mintel research states that 32% of the over-65s describe their financial situation as 'healthy', which means having money left at the end of the month. This compares with 20% of all adults in the 16+ category.
Will you still need them?
Food manufacturers obviously need such a growing and lucrative group of consumers. But do they know how to feed them? Age UK's senior media officer, Mallary Gelb, says firms are missing the mark. "Age UK research has shown that older people think there is too much packaging and much of it is difficult to open."
The results of Mintel's report 'Food and drink packaging trends UK' concur. In the research, 81% of the over 55s said 'easy to open' was the most important attribute of food packaging, followed by 'resealable' at 76% and 'keeps food fresher for longer' at 72%. The latter two figures reflect the need for longer shelf-life and smaller portion sizes as the increasing number of single-occupancy households rises.
Mintel data also indicated that manufacturers were missing a trick in terms of on-pack claims that targeted the needs of this market sector. Mintel's Global New Product database tracks the UK's new launches. Running analysis of the food and drink categories indicated that fewer than 1% of new products used the terms 'easy to open' and 'easy open' on the product packaging. Considering that this is the biggest concern of the category, isn't this a little short-sighted?
Dr Joe Langley, research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, thinks so. His work explores the mechanical interaction between packaging and user and he began studying glass containers for his Phd project back in 2000. In those days the industry standard of torque was set so tight that opening the jars was "beyond the capability of old people". Langley says there was a conflict of interest between containing and preserving the product and making it easily accessible.
Modern techniques and materials, however, "enable sufficient sealing and preservation of the content without 'oversealing' and hence it is easier to balance these conflicts", he claims.
Manufacturers are exploring new possibilities, which include redesigning existing forms as well as moving into new mediums. Langley cites Crown's multiple award-winning easy-open Orbit closure for jam jars as an example of the former and Heinz's new plastic containers for baked beans as an example of the latter.
Will technology feed them?
But, in Langley's view, the biggest technological breakthrough in the arena of easy-open packaging is a new material called FibreForm. "It has the same structural integrity as card and corrugated board systems but is a fraction of their weight," he says. Not only does this meet seniors' desire for less packaging, it can be formed, embossed, pressed and moulded more easily, which enables designers to design more detailed opening systems for easier access.
Sealed Air Cryovac says its goal of "no knife, no scissors" product openability has been met via its Darfresh skin packaging. UK sales director, Neil Dunn explains: "Inherent in every pack is an easy-peel corner. We're looking at making the easy openability aspect more identifiable to the consumer by enlarging the size of the peel corner and embossing the base material to make the points at which you need to peel more obvious. It works across the protein industry for packs of fresh meat, poultry and fish."
Tetra Pak has embraced direct injection technology, according to portfolio manager Mike Jarvis. Its Tetra Brik (TB) and Tetra Brik Aseptic (TBA) Edge packs, are based on direct injection moulded closures. The seal is positioned towards the back, which frees space for a larger closure. The 34mm diameter closure has an easy-open top cap with an inner plastic membrane for resealability. TB Edge has been approved by the Swedish Rheumatism Association for ease of handling, opening and pouring.
"We're looking forward to it winning some awards," says Jarvis. "We were aware of an ageing population and the need to move to better functioning packages and this solution ticked those boxes but was not limited to the elderly."
The business case
Jarvis is not alone in not limiting his packaging solutions to the elderly. The consensus seems to be that inclusive design is the smart approach: to design easy-open packaging not specifically for the senior consumer but because it fits with the overall drive towards convenience, which incorporates the needs of the over-65s. Research also shows that elderly people don't want special treatment.
"It's not about singling out older people," says Age UK's Gelb. "These kinds of modifications are potentially lucrative because consumers regardless of their age are more likely to buy a product they can open or use easily and to steer away from those they can't."
Langley says: "There is a business case that recognises that the elderly population is growing but others also benefit from packaging that is easier to open. The appeal is far broader. If you design a product for the weakest consumer then everyone will have the strength to open it."
Sealed Air Cryovac's Dunn agrees: "We're aware of the fact there is a growing senior market but the new technology applies to everyone."
Yet manufacturers are still reluctant to invest money in making their products easier to access, according to Langley. There are competing priorities such as greener materials, waste minimisation, energy reduction and on-shelf presence. Not to forget the obvious issue of cost.
Tetra Pak's Jarvis highlights the pressures created by the competitiveness of the UK market. "Trying to get a new innovation to market is a challenge because there's probably going to be an added cost in terms of investment in new packaging machines," he says. "The answer is to work with a value-based innovation approach that takes the cost element into account. It may be that a particular package development that adds cost could be suitable for the premium end where cost is less of an issue. But at the lower end of the market we have to be very smart in terms of innovation especially in the current economic conditions."
Benefits need to be translated to the customer and retailer so any new development is not just a tweak it has to be really worthwhile. Ideally, it will also be backed up by consumer research.
Development teams must also bear in mind the impact that adding certain types of closure will have on supply chain efficiency.
"The more uneven the top of a packet is, the more damage could occur when several layers are stacked on a pallet," says Jarvis. "We have to add functionality without affecting the number of layers that can be stacked together because this could be detrimental to cost."
When we're 64
So where will packaging be at when we're 64? Jarvis says: "Consumers and brand owners are getting more demanding in terms of their expectations of accessing food. It's all part of the convenience trend and our development needs to make sure it's all about the consumer experience. If the customer has trouble accessing the product they won't go back."
For Sealed Air Cryovac, reducing food waste is a major driver. "There will be a continued move towards smaller portions and the ability to use only part of packages and retain that which is isn't used in high-quality state."
And if you're ignoring the needs of the senior consumer then bear the words of Lennon and McCartney in mind: "Ooh ooh ooh. One day you'll be older too."