Young Apprentice: How to win the over-50s market task

This week’s task marks the mid-point of this season’s Young Apprentice. It sees the remaining nine candidates take on the apparently straightforward assignment of selecting products aimed at the over-50s and then selling them at an exhibition. Of course, we can be sure that things won’t go according to plan.

Here are my pre-episode thoughts ahead of tonight’s episode as to how the task will be won and lost.

The task

This week’s task requires both teams to choose two out of a selection of eight products that they think will appeal to the over-50s market and then sell them to the public at a major exhibition. In some ways it is similar to week two’s parent-and-baby task, as it requires the candidates to second-guess the needs of a market – their parents’ (or even grandparents’) generation – they have no real experience of. But the challenge is even more difficult here because the entire team must conduct sales face-to-face with potential purchasers, as opposed to one or two members leading a pitch to trade buyers.

Here are the five key issues which I think will determine the outcome of the task.

1. The over-50s are older, but don’t think of them as ‘coffin-dodgers’

This is a really difficult task for the candidates, because they have so little relevant insight into the market to draw on. If I think back to when I was the same age as the candidates (16 or 17), I could barely conceive being in my 50s or 60s, let alone understand what their needs might be. But that is exactly what faces the two teams this week.

Product selection is critical in this kind of task. A poor choice can scupper an otherwise brilliant team before they have even started. Conversely, picking a great product which hits a specific need in the market will generate huge sales in return for comparatively little effort. Therefore understanding the needs of the potential consumer is all-important. Which is where this task gets difficult for our teenaged teams.

It is too easy to be drawn into the trap of thinking of this segment of consumers as being concerned only about their ailing health and impending death, whereas in reality the ‘over-50s’ covers a huge range of differing ages, lifestyles and needs, only a small proportion of which are health-related.

Here are a few important facts to consider. Firstly, there are 22 million people aged 50 or over in the UK – that’s 35% of the population – with just over half of these aged under 65. They are also the age group with the largest disposable income, with many being empty-nesters who have paid off most if not all of their mortgage debt, and those who are still in employment likely to still be in their peak earning years. Healthcare is an increasing but still small part of their overall expenditure – they are more likely to be spending their money on holidays, hobbies, consumer durables and other big-ticket items.

The teams would do well to underestimate such consumers at their peril. To think of them as coffin-dodging pensioners who can easily be persuaded into buying anything would be a fatal error. Indeed, thinking of the over-50s as one homogenous group would be a mistake. Target a specific need and a particular age range, and don’t treat customers as ‘old’ – think of them as consumers with very deep pockets who will pay the right price if you can deliver the right value to them.

2. Be nice to the product owner

In this kind of task, the teams are each asked to pick two out of the same selection of products. In most cases there are at least one or two items which obviously stand head and shoulders above the rest, which often leads to the product owner/inventor having to choose which team they prefer. On several previous occasions this early moment has been pivotal in determining the outcome of the task.

Liz Locke proved adept at both product selection and sales in similar tasks to this week's one (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Going back to season six (2010) of the main Apprentice series, this lesson was hammered home in consecutive weeks. First Stuart Baggs alienated the inventor of the Baby Glow sleep-suit, leaving Liz Locke‘s team to benefit from her record-breaking pitch, and then Paloma Vivanco‘s less-than-effusive approach with the following episode’s must-have designer cost her the opportunity to sell the stand-out range in the fashion task. Liz’s ability to quickly build rapport was decisive in the designer’s choice in that task, as was the case earlier this year when Susan Ma‘s enthusiasm won her team the best-selling spray-tanning service in the beauty task.

The lesson here is a simple one: when interviewing your potential suppliers, ask the questions you need to ask to make a decision about whether their product is the right one for you, but be polite and enthusiastic rather than attempting to recreate the Spanish Inquisition or looking vaguely bored. Such meetings are a two-way process: you are trying to make a judgement about them, but they are also doing so about you – and their opinion may count in the event of both teams wanting the same product.

3. High and low?

In general most teams take the approach of selecting one high-priced and one low-priced product, and this is widely held to be the correct approach. Having one cheaper but high volume product keeps the tills ringing, racking up the sales and keeping confidence within the team high. In an exhibition environment, as is the case on this task, it is also important in keeping a team’s stand busy and creating a sense of buzz – passing punters are more likely to be drawn to a busy stand than a quiet one manned by people who are twiddling their thumbs.

It is certainly possible to win with two cheaper high volume lines, but there are frequently advantages in having a premium-priced product. Get it right, and a handful of sales are often enough to swing the task decisively in a team’s favour. It is a strategy which has frequently been successful in previous tasks, but it is of course higher risk. Get it wrong and you could generate no or few sales, which leaves a team totally dependent on their other product.

The price mix of a team’s products can often make the difference in a closely contested task, but it is of course secondary to the need to select good products in the first place.

4. A different type of selling requires a different selling style

After the frozen treats and floristry tasks, the teams might think they have had all the practice in the art of salesmanship they need for this task. That would be a fatal error.

In both those previous tasks, the teams were trying to tempt passers-by into impulse buys – a simple yes/no decision on a low-value purchase. Here the value of the products is likely to be higher, meaning a more considered purchase. And it is also important to remember that at an exhibition buyers do not have to decide on the spot. Indeed, they are just as likely to gather some initial information and wander off before returning to buy later. Which leads me on to my final pointer …

5. Don’t panic if early sales don’t materialise

At any exhibition sales are always at their most sluggish in the early part of the day, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, footfall is relatively low to start with, with traffic generally picking up over the course of the morning and peaking at lunchtime before tailing off again as the day draws to a close. Some people want to see everything that is available first and compare possible alternatives before buying. Others want time to digest information, or simply do not want to be carrying lots of heavy bags around with them all day.

Therefore it is important that the teams do not despair or panic and slash prices prematurely if sales are disappointing initially. Business will build as the day progresses, and it is vital to maintain energy levels right through to the very end, with sales made in the last hour or two often crucial in the final analysis.

And that’s it. This is a deceptively tricky task, and one in which it is difficult for any one team member to hide in the background, as it requires all hands on deck to maximise the sales effort – particularly if candidates are measured individually on sales. By the end of it, we will have a much clearer view of who the genuine contenders are, and which ones are mere also-rans.

Young Apprentice continues on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm.

Link: BBC official website

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