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Retailers step up their act to bring in the elderly


Crain's New York Business, June 25, 2012

When Randy Ochart opened the French Sole Comfort store on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 71st Street early last year, he knew exactly what it takes to prosper in the neighborhood, having run another footwear store across the street for 22 years. "There are a lot of older people on the Upper East Side," he said. "We try to cater to that customer as much as possible."

Richly aware of both their needs and their numbers, Mr. Ochart made sure his new store has comfortable seats with good back support, rather than the backless benches most shoe stores favor. Similarly, the stairs to the second level have wide steps with an easy-to-hold handrail. Completing that elder-friendly picture, two of Mr. Ochart's staffers fall into that category themselves; one of them is 75.

If the New York Academy of Medicine and the city have their way, there will be a lot more spots on the Upper East Side like Mr. Ochart's. In a citywide campaign, they are trying to get merchants to offer the 65-and-over set everything from easy-access ramps to free glasses of water. About 1,000 businesses have pledged themselves to age-friendliness to date, but many thousands remain uncommitted.

"Local businesses don't necessarily recognize that they have a growing customer base of older adults who they can either be serving and wooing and earning the loyalty of, or making life more difficult for," said Ruth Finkelstein, the academy's senior vice president for policy and planning, who is spearheading the effort with city retailers.

On the Upper East Side, where one in five residents was born before 1947—nearly double the Manhattan average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—the going has been tough. Some of the Academy of Medicine's guidelines, such as offering a folding chair or simply greeting seniors when they come in, are a snap. Others, like adding an easier-to-open door or a customer restroom, are dicier.

"When you start looking at the physical structure—changing lighting and doors, adding ramps—that's a massive cost to a small retailer today," said Michael Londrigan, chairperson of the fashion merchandising department at LIM College in Manhattan. Such things could cost as much as $50,000, he noted.

Last summer, the Academy of Medicine distributed fliers and bumper-sticker-size signs merchants could use to trumpet their eagerness to serve seniors. In Community Board 8, which includes the vast bulk of the Upper East Side, fewer than two dozen retailers signed up—and many of them then failed to display their sign.

Getting the neighborhood's seniors on-board is also proving to be no walk in the park. Some of them are singularly unimpressed with the effort.

"It's a little condescending," said Barbara Meltsner, an 82-year-old who has lived in the area for six decades. "It's hard enough being a senior without having to be reminded that stores should be nice to you. If people are going to be nice, they're going to be nice—a little sign isn't going to make a difference."

Other, older Upper East Siders point out that many of the suggested practices have been used by better shop owners for years. Indeed, Gloria Frank, a 91-year-old who lives on East 56th Street, applauds the neighborhood for its friendliness.

Though stairs can be difficult for her three-wheel, Burberry-swathed walker, she simply skirts the few stores that have them.

"I don't go where I can't manage," said Ms. Frank.

One such elder-friendly establishment is Sylvia Pines Uniquities, a 32-year-old shop on Lexington Avenue that sells vintage bags and jewelry. Proprietor Judy Freedman has long embraced elder-friendliness. Though she admits the door can be heavy, she hastens to add that she compensates by rushing to open it for older consumers. She also is ready to offer them a place to sit by the heater and a big magnifying glass to help them scrutinize her smaller wares.

Nonetheless, Ms. Freedman is eager to have more merchants follow her example. "I think these initiatives are great," she said.

Some of the biggest chains around are already on board. They include the ubiquitous Duane Reade. A spokesman said the drugstore is picking up some lessons learned by its Midwest-based parent, Walgreen Co., in its stores in senior-heavy precincts such as Florida. Among other things, Duane Reade has lowered shelves for many products that seniors buy, provided magnifying glasses and added extra seating in its pharmacies.

Councilman Daniel Garodnick, D-Manhattan, whose district includes the Upper East Side, is also getting in on the act. His office, in conjunction with the Academy of Medicine, the mayor's office and the City Council, just allocated $10,000 to put out 1,000 copies of an age-friendly grocery guide for the neighborhood. The guide, which includes 32 markets, such as Delmonico's on East 59th Street and Guru Grocery on Second Avenue, notes which stores offer such popular perks as home delivery, restrooms, seating, water fountains and, of course, senior discounts.
"We want to showcase those stores that are doing good things for seniors," Mr. Garodnick said, "and encourage others to do the same."

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Gina Ravosa
Director of Marketing & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 822-7285

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