Boomers still love high-tech toys, but can't always afford them

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Something rather curious happened when MP3 music players hit the market.

Baby boomers didn't rush out to buy them. The same people whose appetite for electronics drove the explosive growth of the high-tech industry didn't go after MP3s the way they did VCRs, the Sony Walkman and the first-generation Macintosh.

Are boomers losing it?

No, there are still plenty of boomer techies who have to have the latest and coolest. But as they pay for college tuition and worry about retirement, many people in the 38-to-56 age group aren't buying as much tech stuff as they did when they were younger and had fewer responsibilities.

''You don't use disposable income on techie toys that are no longer critical,'' said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a Campbell, Calif.-based consulting firm.

Moreover, for generational and cultural reasons, some of the latest equipment doesn't appeal to many boomers.

These days, boomers are more likely to buy tech items that can benefit the whole family, such as DVD players, home theaters and digital TVs, said Stephen Baker, director of research for NPD Techworld, a marketing research company in Reston, Va. Retailers saw that trend this past holiday season, when tech items were among the few big sellers in a generally disappointing season.

Jerry Waldron, 46, knows plenty about cutting edge technology through his position as chief information officer at Salisbury University in Maryland, but he's conservative when buying for personal use. He limits his spending to such things as highspeed Internet access and networking the three PCs in his house.

He would rather wait for prices to come down on more frivolous items. He's holding off on a digital camera and doing fine with a regular 35mm camera and a scanner in the meantime.

''I see where the technology's going and when they get to a point where it's worth making a jump, as in the digital camera, I'll do it,'' Waldron said.

But even when they're being sensible, boomers are still crazy about tech.

''They are eternally kids. ... They buy things to make them feel younger or look younger -- or just toys,'' said Mike Bisceglia, senior vice president of marketing for Technoscout, a Richmond, Va.-based retailer. Besides home theater items, he finds boomers buying equipment for their cars, including global positioning systems and portable DVD players.

Yet there are those MP3 players that boomers aren't exactly clamoring for.

Sean Wargo, a senior analyst with the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va., said MP3 buyers tend to be ages 18 to 34. ''These were very savvy computer and Internet users and were exposed to it earlier,'' he said.

Wargo said younger people are more interested than boomers in downloading and recording their own music from the Internet. Most boomers, having progressed from vinyl to cassettes and CDs, are more inclined to pre-recorded music, although they certainly spent plenty of time in their youth making cassettes with a mixture of their favorite songs, he said.

Baker, of NPD, noted that younger people have more time for downloading music and browsing Web sites like Napster, unlike their time-strapped parents.

Wargo predicted that MP3 and other newer technology will creep into the boomer market. ''A lot of boomers with kids at home are getting exposure'' to new tech toys, he said.

And MP3s are just a small part of the high-tech offerings on the market. Boomers have a plethora of other toys they can buy -- and some of them are buying everything they can.

Randy Bailey, 52, who gleefully disclosed he was being interviewed while on his cell phone, has been a technophile since the 1970s. ''When the very first word processors came out, they were about $20,000. ... I bought two,'' said Bailey, a marketing director at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

Married with two children, Bailey has six state-of-the-art PCs at home linked with a wireless network, and plenty of peripherals. He also has iMac, ''although I don't turn it on very often. It looks very nice in my computer room.''

Of course, he has a personal digital assistant, and plans to get a cooler one next month. He has two digital cameras and his cell phone can browse the Web.

But with all this equipment, sometimes things can get a little hairy. Bailey accidentally plugged his Hewlett-Packard CD writeable drive into the wrong power strip and blew out the machine. But he was able to turn disaster into a techie's dream: ''I found a new one that was twice as fast, got that, and so I'm really happy.''

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