Living alone has been called the most important demographic trend since the baby boom, and the numbers are indeed startling. More than one-quarter of all the households in the United States are now made up of a single person. Fifty years ago, the ratio was about one in ten. And, this kind of living arrangement is growing faster than any other. The solo lifestyle is highest in big cities. In Atlanta, Seattle, and Denver, over 40 percent of households are just one person. Nearly half of the people who live in Manhattan live alone.
What does it mean for retailers when 40 percent of those at home in big cities aren’t preparing meals for anyone except themselves, and 40 percent of the bathrooms have only one toothbrush? It means several things, but maybe not what you’d expect. Singles still eat and brush their teeth. They spend just as much as anyone else on housekeeping and personal care items, and also on entertainment. And they spend much more than other people do on restaurants, and gifts of jewelry. Of course they do! A lot of them are dating.
About 5.6 million solo householders are under the age of 35. Eighty-six percent of this group have never been married, and 53 percent are men. Young adults who live alone might not have much in their refrigerator except beer and maybe some beef jerky. But they also are not poor and they can afford the luxury of no roommates. So they ARE buying food outside of restaurants. They are among the best customers for products that are ready to eat.
More than half of people who live alone are between the ages of 35 and 64. Half of this group is divorced, and another 38 percent have never married. Again, men outnumber women. And their refrigerators are much more crowded, because middle-aged people who live alone usually know how to cook. Solo householders spend just as much as other people do on food to eat at home, with two exceptions: they spend less per capita on beef and pork. This makes sense. If your kitchen isn’t doing much volume, you’ll quickly learn not to buy expensive food that spoils quickly. The rise of solo households is a big reason for the popularity of single-serve packages and shelf-stable packaging.
The number of people of working age who live alone increased 22 percent in the last decade, as the total population increased less than 10 percent. In a new book Going Solo, sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that “singletons,” as he calls them, are one of the main reasons why city centers are booming again. Solo householders are much more likely to hang out in cafes, parks, and in the community halls of churches. The data show that singletons aged 35 and older are more likely than married people to spend social evenings with neighbors and friends. So singletons buy a lot of snacks and other party supplies.
The other big group of singletons is retirees who live alone. There are more than 11 million one-person householders aged 65 or older, an increase of about 16 percent from ten years ago. Almost two-thirds of elderly singles are widowed and nearly three-quarters of them are women, because women usually live longer than men do. Almost all of the retired singles Klinenberg spoke to said they have no plans to remarry either. As long as the Social Security and Medicare payments keep coming, they will be happy to live in peace and solitude.
As baby boomers move into the retirement years, this is the group of singles that will grow faster than any other. And the big story for this group is getting assists from technology, especially online services. Once an older person learns how to use social media to keep in touch with friends and family, he or she will go online just like anyone else. What older singles don’t like to do is drive. Combine this with high gas prices, and you can see why home delivery services are doing so well.
So, what does all this mean for store brands? The size of the market makes it attractive, but the complexity means there is no one-answer-that-fits-all. Retailers are well-positioned to satisfy the needs of solo householders through their own brands. Remembering that their interests go beyond single-serve snacks is the key to success.
For PLMALive!, this is Brad Edmondson.
The Single-Person Household