Boomers have broken the mold during each stage of their lives, Thornhill said. When they were hungry babies and busy parents needed practical ways to feed them, Gerber put strained peas in a jar and became a billion-dollar company. The parents of boomers moved their families out to the suburbs and bought fancy homes stocked with modern appliances. Much of it was paid for with credit cards, which previously didn't exist.
"We became the generation of consumption and personal gratification," Thornhill said. "Boomers are not going to spend at all like the prior generations did at 65. They're going to spend at boomer levels. And there's millions more of them."
Jeet Singh, who helped develop e-commerce software used by online retailers such as Best Buy and J. Crew, said retirees hadn't been treated with respect in terms of offering them well-designed high-quality products that meet their needs without announcing their ages.
"You just can't fight the numbers," said Singh, a co-founder of Redstar Ventures and previously Art Technology Group. "All these people are out there. They have needs. Whether it's what they eat, what they buy, where they shop, how they vacation. And I'm not even talking about health care, which is in itself a massive market."
In Myrtle Beach, community leaders see opportunity in boomers' wealth and desire for independent lifestyles. The 65 and older population in Horry County grew 56 percent from 2000 to 2010 and it now makes up 17 percent of the county, according to census data. Brad Dean, the head of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, expects a "tidal wave" of boomers coming to t for the weather, the beach and an array of sporting and entertainment activities.
He said boomers were the leading purchasers of homes after the real estate crash.
"We think we're on the cusp of a large influx of baby boomers," Dean said. "But already, in the last 18 months, we've seen a steady number of baby boomers either relocating to the market or reinvesting in the market. They're one of the few generations who had enough wealth to be able to do that."
A year ago, Myrtle Beach financial manager Aaron Slatton got two or three calls a week from retirees. Now the owner of Grand Strand Retirement Solutions receives two or three calls a day from boomers seeking advice on how to stretch their retirement savings.
Jennifer Jones-Poore, a co-owner of Express Watersports in Myrtle Beach, said that about half of her off-season customers were boomers who wanted to scuba-dive, parasail or kayak.
"It's encouraging when you have a 65-year-old come in here and he can out-swim you," she said.
The town of Hilton Head Island has no official plan or tactics in place to attract boomers, but Mayor Drew Laughlin is exploring ways to stoke the community's struggling arts hub and bring a University of South Carolina-Beaufort satellite campus to the island. He said retirees wanted cultural and educational amenities in addition to sandy beaches, golf and tennis.
The nearby town of Bluffton has grown more than 800 percent in the past decade, largely from empty nesters and retirees. William Court, of Court Atkins Architects, is among the local architects who are designing custom-built, high-end homes for retirees. Many of the new homes are single-story, but others may be designed with elevators and wider doors to accommodate wheelchairs.
People want to know, " 'How can I stay in this house as long as possible? What things can we do in the design process that will make this house more accessible ... for the long term?' " he said.
Twenty percent of Beaufort County, which encompasses Hilton Head and Bluffton, is 65 or older. Their population grew 76 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Sam Farber created Oxo Good Grips in 1990 when he noticed that his wife had trouble holding kitchen tools because of arthritis, according to the company's history. Farber saw a business opportunity in creating more comfortable cooking tools. Oxo now makes more than 850 products that appeal across generations.
Holtzman of AARP likes to share that story when he's trying to inspire new entrepreneurs. He's met with hundreds of venture capitalists, encouraging them to ask one additional question when entrepreneurs approach them seeking startup money: "What's your 50-plus plan?"
"The one question a startup doesn't want to get from its board of directors is this one: 'Why did you leave money on the table by ignoring a market of 100 million people with $3.5 trillion to spend?' " he said.
(Conley, who writes for The Island Packet of Hilton Head, S.C., reported from there. Chris Adams of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)
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