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Senior Products With 'Tude

Elegance has not been a hallmark of products marketed to the elderly, but an online company is changing that.

February 08, 2001|PATRICIA DANE ROGERS | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — If a walking stick is required, by all means let it be lipstick-red lacquer.

The marketing of products targeted to seniors traditionally has been a rather dreary affair: utilitarian walkers, clunky hospital tables, lighted magnifying glasses, plastic pill organizers sold through medical supply centers and catalogs.

Online sources such as drleonards.com and seniorstore.com feature a broad selection of products for the frail and infirm, from bedpans and lift chairs to orthopedic aids.

Another online store is aiming to inject a little attitude into the world of the aged.

"There are catalogs . . . with a low-end, hard-core medical orientation, without an ounce of optimism or style," says Connie Hallquist, who launched Gold Violin in March. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to do the exact opposite.' "

Part of what distinguishes Gold Violin is an emphasis on style and vitality: a "Secret Agent" walking stick has a concealed pill compartment; shower benches are available in peacock blue and teal, along with the more predictable white; ergonomic pens are made of sleek chrome; a lap blanket is 100% cashmere.

And part of what distinguishes the company is packaging: On the Web site--http://www.goldviolin.com--and in the catalog, words like "old" and "mature" are banished from descriptions. A folding wheelchair is presented as a "travel chair." A wheeled walker is "a four-wheel cruiser." Instead of a cane stand, a handsome "wicker artillery basket" is shown holding golf clubs along with walking sticks and canes. And a pill organizer masquerades as a red ostrich skin day planner.

The pillbox, like the chic red walking stick, is the creation of nonagenarian fashion legend Pauline Trigere, who designed them for the Gold Violin label. Now 92, the Paris-born couturiere, who has been in business since the '40s, knows a thing or two about style. She dressed Josephine Baker and the Duchess of Windsor in their day.

Prices for the products--more than 400 online and 120 in the latest catalog (877) 648-8465--cover a wide spectrum. The three-wheeler, at $625, is the most expensive item. The "Jar Pop," a $5.95 jar opener, is the least.

The idea for the company began in 1993 when Hallquist went searching for a practical but attractive gift for her grandmother and found little to choose from. "I was tired of predictable gifts like perfume, assorted soaps or another picture of me," says Hallquist, 37.

Catalogs targeting seniors, she says, were either youth-oriented or totally "bland and medicinal." She ended up buying a cane, which she painted bright pink and splashed with decoupaged cabbage roses. (A similar model is now available at Gold Violin.)

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Seven years later, Hallquist and her sister, Ann Hallquist Taylor, who grew up in Bethesda, Md., pooled their talents to create the company.

Hallquist was formerly managing partner of Prophet Brand Strategy, a New York and San Francisco consulting firm with a client roster including Williams-Sonoma, Audi and the Discovery Channel stores. Now CEO of Gold Violin and living in Manhattan, she focuses on the growth of the Web site and catalog.

Taylor, 42, called on her experience as executive vice president for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and runs Monticello. Charlottesville, Va.-based Taylor ran the foundation's financial and retail operations and launched Monticello's mail-order catalog. As the chief operating officer for Gold Violin, she directs customer service.

The company takes its name from the aphorism, "The older the instrument, the sweeter the music."

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"The violin," Hallquist says, "is a metaphor for the elderly: The older they get, the more they should be cherished."

So far, Gold Violin is playing a happy tune.

"Our goal for the first year was $1.8 million, and it looks like we'll hit that," Hallquist says. The fall catalog, their second, had 32 pages. The current one is up to 48.

Most of the products reflect Hallquist's attitude that items for the elderly can be therapeutic without being depressing. Package them as small, affordable luxuries, she says. Her $15 pop-up magnifier-flashlight is a case in point. Another Web site bills a similar item as a solution for "people with low vision." Gold Violin's version is described as "perfect for viewing the menu in a dimly lit French restaurant." Take your pick.

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