American companies are alienating the most important customers -- and it's hurting everyone from Whole Foods to Macy's

Baby boomer shopping macy's Keith Bedford/ReutersPeople shop in a Macy’s store in New York.

American consumer companies are obsessed with millennials.

Brands including McDonald’s, Macy’s, and Target are all desperate to attract millennials, which are defined as people aged 18 to 35.

“Millennial mania that is overtaking all manner of businesses, and seems to be getting more obsessive by the day,” writes Hilary Stout at The New York Times.

She asserts companies should be focusing on baby boomers instead.

“After all, the millennial generation has less wealth and more debt than other generations did at the same age, thanks to student loans and the lingering effects of the deep recession,” Stout writes.

A recent report also reveals why the obsesseion with millennials is misguided and could be leading to sales declines from department stores like Macy’s.

“While addressing older shoppers is often perceived as less sexy, they are a larger segment of the population than those under 35 and have significant disposable income,” writes Sucharita Mulpuru at Forrester Research. “They are already spending more on shopping than young shoppers.”

Whole foods millennialsDamian DovarganesWhole Foods is pushing for millennials, but risks alienating its most lucrative customers in the process.

Millennials, defined as people aged 20 to 35, are spending less on consumer goods because of expensive healthcare and education costs.

But Baby Boomers, who are aged 51 to 69, are the “biggest spenders” because they have extra cash from decades of saving and investing, according to Forrester.

Older shoppers also make up a larger segment of the population than ever before and could meaningfully influence retail sales.

In 1973, older consumers comprised 25% of discretionary spend; by 2013, they drove 35% of all discretionary spend, according to Forrester.

They’re also the only consumer segment that has made gains in real income since the 1970s.

Still, retailers tend to market to young people in hopes of making them customers for decades to come.

Mulpuru believes this strategy is flawed.

“Consumers are often willing to try new things, and the availability of greater choice and cheaper goods means that few retailers are able to hold on to customers for very long without significant investments in their products or promotions,” she writes.

Whole Foods is opening a discount grocery store targeting millennials.

The new chain is meant to fend off growing competition in the organic foods market.

But the cheaper prices could end up hurting Whole Foods’ existing stores, according to Deutsche Bank analysts.

“It could backfire if price points are materially different, because an obvious price spread between the two formats could create doubts with their existing loyal customer base, and this could lead to erosion of their very strong brand equity,” analysts write in a recent research note.

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