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As the 75-million-strong baby boomer generation reaches 60 years old and the wages of Woodstock and rock music take their toll on millions of ear drums, phone makers have begun eyeing up a new retail niche: phones for the hearing impaired.
Typically the domain of medical distributors, several manufacturers have promoted hearing-impaired cordless models to retail, arguing that the demographics and medical statistics reveal an enormous — and untapped — market.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 28 million Americans (one in 10) suffer from some form of hearing loss. The percentage shifts dramatically for those age 65 or over to one out of three. According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost one out of every five Americans (72 million people) will be 65 years or older.
“This is a huge market, but it's also challenging,” said Michael Frieburn, sales director, Clarity. “Many people with hearing loss don't know they have a problem or won't admit they have a problem,” he said. Another issue is cost. The price erosion that has beset the cordless market has made it difficult to market a phone with expensive “frequency shaping” technology to help those with hearing impairments, he said.
“When people go into a retail store they see a sea of cordless phones and even with a sales-assisted floor, it's hard to communicate why they should pay a lot more for a phone,” Freibrun noted.
Clarity, which is a division of Plantronics, is currently selling several corded and 900MHz cordless models through RadioShack and a corded SKU through 300 Wal-Mart stores, Freibrun said. The company also picked up distribution in Walgreens.
“We've had success with corded phones because there just aren't that many of them on the shelves,” Freibrun said.
Whereas the elderly are typically disinterested in the frequency or technology of a phone, the growing boomer market is more cognizant of both the form and the function. “We will offer a 5.8GHz phone that's styled to attract the boomers,” Freibrun said.
ClearSounds, which produces a broad range of devices for the hearing impaired, including phones, decided to make a stab at the retail market two years ago with its own branded product after offering private-label services for major cordless brands and for Sony-Ericsson, said Michele Ahlman, president, ClearSounds. She said that while the demographic trends were obvious, the pitch had to be subtle.
“Aging is not being 'old' — today we're all very much active and so your product needs the right blend of features and styling” but doesn't necessary scream over-the-hill, she said. The products also needed to be backed up with good tech support, Ahlman added.
“People in their 80s will call you,” she said.
As smaller brands stepping into a retail universe dominated by the likes of Panasonic, Uniden, VTech and Motorola, ClearSounds and Clarity are staking their differentiation on patented or proprietary technology designed specifically to combat hearing loss.
Offering phones for the hearing impaired is not a matter of making them louder, Freibrun said. “It's like the difference between analog hearing aids — which made all sounds louder — to digital hearing aids, which just made the sounds you needed to hear, louder.” Clarity is currently marketing a $249 piece to the medical market with a digital signal processor and other proprietary technology that can key-in on sounds that people with hearing loss typically miss.
A less expensive 5.8GHz cordless with a DSP chip and 35dB amplification will be offered at retail in 2007, Freibrun added. It will feature ITAD with a DSP in the answering machine and fall in the $129 to $179 range.
“Our products are designed by audiologists. We have audiologists on staff,” Ahlman said. ClearSounds products include an expandable cordless SKU with adjustable tone control and up to 50dB of amplification for $179.
Yet the major telephone makers are also sizing up the market. Panasonic offers two 2.4GHz cordless phones with amplified handsets, and Uniden recently added a 5.8GHz cordless with amplification alongside a 900MHz piece.
While the market is still a small niche in the telephony universe, Uniden enjoyed success with a 900MHz amplified phone with large keypads and lighted ringer, said Richard Tosi, president, Uniden.
“Retailers were a bit skeptical, but we've been pleasantly surprised by its success,” Tosi said. Uniden's phones are not designed per-se for a special needs market, Tosi said, adding that it was “certainly possible that Uniden could develop new technology to address that market.
“Retailers certainly see this demographic shift, and are trying to cater to it,” Tosi added.