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Seniority: The Growing Market For Bigger Buttons

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the New York Times, December 14, 2003.

I THOUGHT about Richard Nixon the other day as I was struggling to twist the "easy open" lid off a jar of olives. I remembered reading in a book that his prescription containers had tooth marks on the childproof caps because, in frustration, he had tried to gnaw them off.

I know how he must have felt. I finally used a screwdriver to pry the vacuum-sealed lid off the olive jar. For a fleeting moment I had considered breaking the jar in the sink and salvaging what olives I could (or resorting to a lemon peel for my martini).

The higher point here is that many products, and how they are packaged, ignore the physical limitations of an aging population. I\'m a fairly healthy specimen; however, I often find myself struggling not only with lids but a lot of other things, like the thick plastic armour that encases most small electronic products. It has also taken several months for my wife and I to master just the basics of the tiny, unclearly labelled buttons on the remote control for a combination TV-DVD-VCR. I\'m still not sure what "zero return" and "repeat A-B" mean.

Sella Palsson of Salt Lake City was so frustrated looking for products to help her mother see better that in 1999 she started a business called SeniorShops to sell products to aid older people in coping with everyday problems. She has a retail store in Salt Lake City, but 95 percent of her business comes through the internet (www.seniorshops.com) or the telephone (800-894-9549). In the last three years sales have more than tripled.

Ms. Palsson is among a growing number of entrepreneurs taking advantage of the apparent unwillingness of many big manufacturers to tailor their products to accommodate the graying of America.

"Manufacturers that make packaging that is hard to get into are just not thinking," she said. "The baby boomers are the largest part of the population and they\'re getting older and have money to spend."

One of SeniorShops\' most popular products is a cordless phone for people with hearing and vision difficulties. It amplifies a caller\'s voice and has large lighted numbers for dialling. It costs $109.95, plus shipping. Another is a device called a Videolupe for people with macular degeneration. It can be hooked up to a television so that magnified images of photographs or printed material can be displayed on the screen. It\'s $499.95, plus shipping.

Other popular products include low-cost gadgets for kitchen chores like opening jars. There are also talking clocks and watches, and even a talking caller ID device ($36.95) that announces who\'s calling.

Of course, some of these products are available at big retail stores. But they are usually not displayed in one place, and finding them can be a haphazard process.

"What makes companies like us unique is that these products are our sole focus," said Andrea Tannenbaum, who started Dynamic Living (www.dynamic-living.com; 888-940-0605) as an internet-only retailer in Windsor, Conn., in 1997. Since then it has had yearly sales growth of 30 to 40 percent and has expanded to include catalogue sales, which now account for 30 percent of business.

"We\'ve been increasingly moving to catalogue sales because many of our customers don\'t have access to the internet," she said.

One of Dynamic Living\'s most popular offerings is offset hinges that allow a door to be opened a couple of inches wider for wheelchairs and walkers. They cost $24.99 a pair, plus shipping.

Lids Off is another big seller. It\'s an electric jar opener made by Black & Decker and priced at $39.99. Demand is so strong that the product is back-ordered. "I don\'t think Black & Decker anticipated how popular Lids Off was going to be," Ms. Tannenbaum said.

She noted that many of these products were not made exclusively for older people. They could also help those with disabilities or temporary limitations resulting from an accident or surgery.

She is keenly aware that the baby boomers are a prime target for businesses like hers. "Older people will often just get by if products like this aren\'t put in front of them," she said. "The baby boomers, on the other hand, will seek out products to help them because they won\'t accept limitations as readily as the older generation. But boomers don\'t like to think of themselves as old. So we don\'t use the words \'disability\' or \'senior\' on our website. We just say, here\'s a functional problem and here\'s a solution to that problem."

Connie Hallquist, the owner of an online and catalogue store called Gold Violin (www.goldviolin.com; 877-648-8400) in Charlottesville, Va., says her internet sales have increased about 25 percent a year since she started in 1999. But overall business this year has grown threefold because of a marketing arrangement with QVC, the television shopping channel.

ONE of her big sellers is the Secret Agent Walking Stick ($69, plus shipping), which has a built-in flashlight and pill compartment. Big-button remote-control devices for televisions are also popular, along with the Jar Pop, a device for opening jars; it looks like a cross between a shoehorn and a bottle opener and costs $5.95. There\'s also a jumbo caller ID display ($89.95) that shows a caller\'s name and phone number in large type.

"We try to stress products that are stylish, well designed and fun; nobody wants to face shopping in a medical supply store," Ms. Hallquist said. "I aspire to be the Williams-Sonoma of products that will help people stay independent and active."

Fred Brock is an editor at The Times. His column on the approach and arrival of retirement appears the second Sunday of each month. Email: fbrock@nytimes.com

Copyright 2003 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.