are running into trouble
Seniors with dementia
order same product over and over
The number of issues related to Japanese seniors using e-commerce is rising sharply. There were 25,800 consultations related to online shopping at the National Consumer Affairs Center by people aged 60 and older in fiscal 2019, 15 times more than in fiscal 2010, according to a Nikkei investigation. That is a sharp increase compared to those aged 59 and younger, which increased less than 6 times. Unfamiliarity with screen layouts and operating procedures among the elderly leads to a high rate of erroneous orders and other issues. A system that can detect and limit unusual orders is needed to protect these new “vulnerable shoppers.”
Consultations by elderly increased by 15 times
Nikkei obtained data from the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan about consultations related to problems in mail orders by phone and the internet and performed an independent analysis. Goods-related consultations, which are bought and sold on a daily basis, were selected and analyzed while video distribution and financial services were excluded. In fiscal 2019, there were 183,000 inquiries, a 3.3-fold increase from fiscal 2010. Among them, there were 50,500 consultations by those aged 60 and older, a 3.5-fold jump.
Over 50% are via internet
Problems with online shopping among people aged 60 and older increased 15-fold, while the number of non-internet-related cases, such as through mail, telephone and fax, only doubled to 24,700. As a result, the number of consultations for internet trouble surpasses those for non-internet issues for the first time, with about 1,000 fewer non-internet consultations than internet-related ones. The number of cases of online shopping problems among people aged 59 or younger increased only 5.7 times to 98,200.
Health foods jump 102 times
For people aged 60 or older, consultations about health food orders increased particularly sharply to about 11,000 inquiries, a six-fold jump. Breaking down the ways to order health foods into online and other -- such as by phone or post -- the problems seniors face become clear. The number of online orders grew to 7,400, 102 times greater than in fiscal 2010. At the same time, the amount of inquiries from people who used phone or mail for their orders changed little.
Ten million yen gone in six months
Greater internet connectivity is not the only reason for the rise in online shopping among the elderly. Based on the population by age cohort and research on rates of online shopping by Nomura Research Institute, we estimated the incidence of online shopping-related problems among those aged 60 and older to be three times that of those aged 59 and younger. Why are the elderly more prone to online shopping-related problems?
First, many elderly people are unfamiliar with online operations. According to the National Consumer Affairs Center, there have been an increasing number of consultations about over-ordering by repeatedly pressing the purchase button even after payment, or for purchases that were intended to be one-time only, but have turned into subscriptions. One reason for this is that the confirmation and warning signs are small and difficult to notice. Even if elderly shoppers want to cancel their orders, they often give up when they have to do so online.
Cognitive decline, a problem that can affect anyone, is another reason the elderly a more likely to encounter problems using the internet.
“Even living with family, we didn’t notice the massive health food purchases. I wonder what would have happened if she lived alone,” a housewife from the town of Echizen in Fukui Prefecture who declined to give her name, shrugged her shoulders.
She was surrounded by carpets, vases, health foods and beauty products that her mother-in-law had bought. Her mother-in-law, now 86, started showing signs of dementia three years ago. Since then she has continued to buy the same products over and over. While she thought it strange, she did not question the behavior. They were relatively wealthy, and the purchases were deducted from her mother-in-law’s own bank account. By the time she realized the scale of the issue, her mother-in-law had spent about 10 million yen ($94,800) over six months. She quickly put a stop to the purchases.
For many of the purchases, she does not know how or when her mother-in-law bought them, and her mother-in-law cannot remember. The deadline for returning many had long since passed, so she had to keep them.
But a pent-up sense of worry still lingers. “I wish there was something to stop these crazy orders if they keep coming,” she said.
“Many Alzheimer’s patients repeatedly purchase the same product. E-commerce sites with screen designs that guide purchases can be dangerous for dementia patients with impaired judgment,” said Jin Narumoto, a professor at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and a leading researcher on dementia. People with dementia tend want to stay in more, leading to more time in front of the computer or television. People with Alzheimer's disease are at a high risk of forgetting their most recent activities. “This could become a serious social issue,” he added.
Estimated dementia patients (millions of people)
The World Health Organization predicts that the global number of people with dementia will continue to increase by almost 10 million each year, reaching 150 million people in 2050. Alzheimer’s patients, like those who buy excessive amounts of the same product, account for 60% to 70% of those people.
It becomes harder to spot trouble
with more seniors living alone
It is an especially serious problem for seniors who live alone, where no one can discover the problem and intervene. There are nearly 7 million households in Japan which are people aged 65 or older living alone, and about 22% of elderly women live by themselves. Those numbers will continue to grow.
Those in their 80s caught up in trouble
The notion the seniors are not familiar with the internet is a thing of the past. Looking at the methods of purchase of those who made inquiries about their problems, over 50% of those in their sixties were making purchases online. Even those in their seventies are rapidly shifting to the web, with more than 40% of them making purchases online. That number is also close to 20% for those in their 80s.
Of course, the proportion is higher among those 59 and under who are accustomed to using the internet, but for those in their 60s, 70s, and 80 and older, the numbers of online shopping problems have increased 14-18 times over the past nine years, and they are getting closer to the level of those under 59.
Use of the internet picks up due to coronavirus pandemic
Moreover, with the outbreak of the new coronavirus and the requests that people refrain from going out, the amount of elderly using the internet is set to increase even faster. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ survey of household consumption, the amount of elderly household of two or more people making orders online has been increasing more than normal since April. Among those in their seventies, about 7% bought something online. The amount those in their eighties spend online on major everyday items has also jumped since April. In June, spending was more than 6,000 yen, a 56% increase from the same month last year.
Few safeguards for over-orders
How are the e-commerce giants, one of the gateways to the internet for seniors, addressing users facing cognitive decline? Nikkei chose a representative health food product sold online and ordered the same brand at the lowest price displayed on Amazon Japan, Rakuten Ichiba and Yahoo Shopping twice a day for eight days in a row. That's an unusual number and frequency of orders.
Amazon immediately produces a display at the top of the screen informing the user about the duplicate purchase. There were no warnings at all on Rakuten and Yahoo’s sites. However, Rakuten displayed a pop-up at the time of purchase asking the user to confirm the terms and conditions of the site, and that pop-up enables users to place some degree of constraint on excessive purchases. Users are unable to confirm the measures on Yahoo’s site. The major Japanese e-retailers’ efforts are lagging those of U.S.-based Amazon.
“Dementia patients’ ability to concentrate on one subject is less than half that of people without dementia, and their line of sight tends to focus on the center of the screen,” said Shuko Takeda, an associate professor at Osaka University who analyzes dementia patients’ line of sight using infrared cameras. “Given a short amount of time, they can only process up to six objects at once.” The e-commerce giants’ measures to prevent repeated purchases are unlikely to work for seniors, especially those with dementia.
Saki Hirohashi, a senior consultant at Tokyo-based beBit, a web consulting company that designs screen improvements for older customers, agrees. Amazon’s warning at the top of the screen “is in a place that’s easy for seniors to overlook,” she said. “It should be located near the payment button, which they have to press to make a purchase. Regarding Rakuten’s terms and conditions, “the font size is too small, and seniors won’t be able to read it,” she said.
Are there any legal issues in repeatedly selling the same product to seniors with impaired judgement? “It would be hard to make the case that it’s illegal, because the regulations aren’t in place,” said Takaaki Someya, a lawyer who specializes in e-commerce. “But as a matter of corporate ethics, there needs to be kind of mechanism to handle it.”
Amazon explained that they are alerted to duplicate orders and can cancel unwanted or incorrect orders. Rakuten said that in some cases, if a family member asks, we will remind the storefront to refrain from selling the product," while Yahoo said that it has no immediate plans to respond.
Detailed anomaly detection and notification
needed using big data
In Japan, both demographic aging and internet usage are quickly advancing. It is a test case for the West, China and India, all of which have massive e-commerce markets. The challenge is making the online world easier for the elderly to use.
Japan is most advanced in terms of aging and internet penetration
Population aging rate, Internet penetration rate, and Internet shopping market size
Internet service providers have developed technology to protect vulnerable consumers, mainly minors, by limiting viewing content, time and billing. However, mechanisms to protect the elderly are still in their infancy. Major health food companies like FANCL and Q’Sai in Fukuoka, and Egao in Kumamoto, are placing limits on orders that clearly exceed normal consumer needs. However these measures for the elderly are not widespread.
Internet giants like Rakuten and Yahoo Japan operator Z Holdings, a SoftBank Group subsidiary, who are not limited by insufficient data or funding, can develop technology to detect signs of excessive purchasing based on buying patterns. Technology can provide great benefits to the elderly by giving them access to the market, but it also needs to evolve to protect them from risk.