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Senior Housing Investors & Operators Should Watch Online Grocery Trends

December 13, 2021
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Joseph F. Coughlin

The insight and courage to think differently often comes from strange places. Some ideas come from brainstorming sessions, the mythical solo ‘aha!’ moment that some believe leads to a novel idea, or even from a long hot shower.

Consumers learn what works for them through trial and error. They often hack together solutions that no innovation team in their right mind would consider. Innovation teams are typically too rational and don’t often feel the passionate overwhelming desperation to find a solution to a problem.

The pandemic made many family caregivers desperate. That desperation led to innovation. MIT AgeLab’s industry research consortium on caregiving, CareHive, identified a significant uptick in the number of family caregivers – and older adults – that viewed technology, such as smart speakers, smart door locks, and tablets, along with online shopping, as a way to provide support and care to an aging loved one when simply dropping by was no longer feasible.

Online grocery shopping, in particular, became a new lifeline for many caregivers. The ability to order and to have delivered to mom – food, medications, adult beverages of their choice, and other needs as well as treats like my favorite chocolate fudge brownie ice cream with the tap of a finger became a new way to ‘hack’ caregiving. Services and technologies once reserved for those desperate only for convenience became a way to remain virtually connected and to provide care.

All too often we forget the market reality that caregivers are also consumers. As consumers they successfully hacked a problem and invented, what I call, virtual assisted living. Caregivers simply call it a solution or at least a workaround. A workaround that may work for sometime.

The numbers are in. Online grocery shopping does not appear to be going away. As I write in my recent MarketWatch article, many find the convenience of online shopping too good to give up. That said, grocers are not selling their brick-and-mortar stores either. Grocery retailers, of nearly every size, now realize that serving the customer is about serving them wherever and whenever.

How does this impact senior housing? People hire products and services to solve problems or to address jobs they need done. Senior housing, particularly independent living and assisted living, are solutions to address the friction often felt by people aging-in-place and by adult children that live too far away or are too busy to care for an aging loved one. There are certainly other valuable and compelling functions provided by the industry of course, but making life easier, safer, or assuring responsive care are significant reasons to choose senior housing.

Senior housing today, however, remains a location-based service business in a world where location matters less each day. Older consumers and family caregivers are hacking new ways to manage aging-in-place and to provide care by using technology and on-demand services. It may be time for senior housing investors and operators to rethink their value proposition and business model. Are you in the real estate business or services business? Grocers have decided to serve the customer wherever they want to be served, have you?