The Rise of the Singleton

The millions of Canadians who live alone are a fast-expanding market—and a big opportunity for businesses that show them a little respect

Written by Uyen Vu

Trish Sare knows the first question a single person will ask when inquiring about one of her company’s adventure tours: “Who else is travelling?” Sare, director of BikeHike Adventures Inc., says the reason is simple: “Solos want to travel with other solos.” Although her Vancouver-based firm doesn’t solely serve solos, by catering to them it has turned single customers into one of the main drivers of her company’s sustained revenue growth.

BikeHike woos people travelling alone in two ways: by offering several singles-only tours and singles-friendly policies for all its tours. The key policy is what it doesn’t do: charge a single supplement that can jack up the cost of a trip by $1,000. (BikeHike avoids this by asking same-sex travellers to share a room.) Word has spread so widely about the firm’s warm welcome to singles that they typically make up more than half its clients—even on the majority of its tours open to anyone. Given the ever-growing number of solo travellers, says Sare, there’s still huge potential across the travel and tourism sector to attract more business from this group.

That’s old thinking from an era when the dominant group was the family

And many opportunities exist far beyond this sector to target the surprisingly underserved singles market. The 2011 census showed that Canada has 3.7 million one-person households, up by 10% since 2006. These households now make up 28% of the total, having just overtaken those of couples living with children. By 2021, forecasts Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., one-person households will become the leading category. Yet, business hasn’t adapted to this shift. That has left a big opening for firms that tailor products and pricing to appeal to singles.

Demographic and attitudinal changes are driving the rise of the singleton. Many boomers are joining the ranks of seniors living alone, who account for half of one-person households. Young people are marrying later or never; divorcees and the widowed are in less of a hurry to remarry. And more adults of all ages are wanting to live on their own.

Yusuf Gad, president of a5MEDIA Inc., a Toronto-based marketing agency for SMEs, identifies some sectors that are responding to the growing singles market. Developers of the megawave of downtown condos largely target this group, as do nearby bars, restaurants and fitness clubs. Makers of cars and home furnishings are offering smaller options. And even in the suburbs, some restaurant chains are projecting a more urban vibe to attract singles who dine out regularly with friends.

But unexploited opportunities remain plentiful. To identify them, says Gad, first you need to recognize how needs differ among the discrete groups of people living alone. A young female foodie who wants to make connections while pursuing her interests may prefer to shop at a high-end grocery store that offers cooking classes and meetups with fellow gourmands to sample fine cuisine around town. A newly divorced middle-aged man might welcome a service that will do his laundry or prepare healthful meals. And a just retired solo boomer may be keen on products that make it easier to keep living on her own. “If you’re old and your reflexes aren’t as good,” says Gad, “an iron skillet might not cut it.”

Along with such differences, singles share common ground. “One of the most immediate pain points when you’re living by yourself is the cost of everything,” says Gad. Life is expensive without another adult chipping in for furniture and power bills. “Price points become very important for single households,” says Gad.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has responded to this reality by introducing small cabins designed and priced for solo travellers on its newest ship. And the company plans to add these cabins to three more ships.

But many businesses continue to drive away singles unwittingly. Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at the Toronto-based Schulich School of Business, says pricing models such as single supplements for travel “are totally old thinking. They come from an era when the dominant group was the family.” Middelton says the same is true for items sold only in family sizes. He concedes that grocers may be reluctant to, say, allocate some of their shelf space for strawberries to small cartons priced for less than family packs. The solution, he says, is to get clever about adding value. The grocer could instead sell a variety pack with small quantities of each of several fruits.

Bella DePaulo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of Singled Out, says singles are looking for signs that companies value their business. Her pet peeve is discounts for spouses that, as a single paying full price, mean she’s subsidizing couples. “Businesses need to think about the big picture,” says DePaulo. “Are we going to ignore and disrespect this huge and growing segment of our potential customer base?”

Originally appeared on