Internet sites are ignoring the mature savvy traveller at their peril

He also revealed that the computer that occupied the desk of his boss, Tony Blair, spent the majority of its time idle. While not all those of advancing years are such unreconstructed technophobes, the perception is that the navigation skills of the mature web user are less than consummate.

And so, given recent figures from the Office of National Statistics that show customers aged 50-64 spend almost twice as much on package holidays as those under 30, are mature web users missing out on a bargain?

One company, Co-op Travel, was so concerned that older customers might not be spending on its website that last month it released a guide on how over-50s might get more out of the internet. But according to E-consultancy, the research organisation and online publisher that helps companies to maximise online sales potential, its concern is misplaced. Older internet users are not as ham-fisted as some would have us believe.

"About three years ago, somebody coined the term 'silver surfer' in response to the trend that saw older people both getting and spending online," says Chris Lake, E-consultancy's editor. "The web has been perceived as a young person's medium, so the 55-plus market has been largely ignored by online retailers."

Yet a report by the Future Foundation, the consumer organisation, found that almost two-thirds of over-55s now use the web, compared with just a third in 2001. "One of the major issues with internet commerce has always been one of trust," explains Lake. "And one of the assumptions has been that the older generation wouldn't trust the internet in the way the younger generation does." Yet "it doesn't follow that older equals Luddite". Indeed, research by Age Concern reckons about 40 per cent of 50-60-year-olds are computer-literate.

And when it comes to booking holidays, Lake points to research by Nielsen Media Research which found that 64 per cent of over-50s regularly visited travel websites. Of the sites used, says Lake, the most popular are those known as "pureplays", sites with no offline presence, such as Expedia, Travelocity and Opodo.

"It is interesting," adds Lake, "that Thomas Cook was the only high-street brand to make the top 10 among silver surfers. Online there's an issue between brand and price." It is often assumed that older users favour companies with whom they have an "offline relationship" but the reality suggests no such loyalty.

In the UK, the average annual online spend among over-55s is estimated at £527 per head. Despite this, Lake believes that mature consumers are poorly served. "Most of the sites are rubbish. Sites have to be accessible. Older users are more likely to be visually impaired, so sites with tiny text that cannot be re-sized are going to lose out."

But it's not all doom and gloom. Lake believes some innovations in website design do appeal to the more mature market. "It's a very research-orientated medium with lots of checking in advance: Where do I want to go? Where do I want to stay? The buzz-words in the industry are 'user-generated content', the thinking being that consumers are more likely to trust other consumers."

As for the future, E-consultancy predicts the next big shift for the online travel industry will be a move towards retaining customers, rather than simply using the web to acquire business and process sales. "With competitors just two clicks away, reducing customer 'churn' is hugely important. [Improved] customer service tools are one way of going about this," says Lake, "but timely bargains and offering the best user experience is another way of keeping customers happy and loyal.

"Site navigation must be easy and intuitive. Research has found that those sites that do make changes to their design and functionality often suffer from a significant decline in customer satisfaction as a result."

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