What Women Want When They Shop

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"If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female. If the business world had a sex, it would be male. Therein lies the pickle."*

600 consumers shopping REUTERS Kevin Lamarque.jpg

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Bridget Brennan is the CEO of Female Factor and the author of Why She Buys, a book about how women shop and how advertisers and retailers can better understand the psychology of female consumers. We corresponded recently on how advertising and retail strategy spoke to women's needs. This is an edited transcript of our interview.

One theme of your book is that while women lag behind in corporate executive positions, they continue to dominate consumer choices at the family level. What's the best evidence we have that men and women have a fundamentally different approach to shopping?

The biggest difference in how men and women view the shopping experience comes down to this fact: in virtually every society in the world, women have primary responsibility for both children and the elderly. They look at shopping as part of their caregiving role in the family and household. This means that women are buying on behalf of everyone in their lives, and as a result they are constantly considering the needs of others when they shop -- even when they are shopping for themselves. If a mother is standing in a grocery aisle choosing ingredients to cook for dinner, she may think, "I'm going to go through a lot of trouble to make this, so it better be something everybody likes." Or if a woman is buying a shirt for her father's birthday, she may think, "I hope it fits, because if he doesn't, I'm the one who has to go back to the store to return it." They are constantly considering the implications of their purchases in terms of other people's wants and needs.

Generally speaking, men typically do not have the role of primary shopper for their households, and so they tend to view shopping in a more transactional manner.

How do retail stores take advantage of the differences between male and female shopping? Who's doing it right/wrong?

American Girl has done for dolls what Starbucks did for coffee.

Lululemon, American Girl and Nordstrom are three of my favorites when it comes to retailers with female appeal. Yoga apparel retailer Lululemon creates a sense of community in their stores by thoroughly "localizing" each location. The company has elegantly simple customer service practices: for example, when you go into a Lululemon dressing room, an employee writes your name on the door (on a whiteboard) and asks you how to spell it. Then you will be called by name the entire time you're there. It almost feels shocking to be called by name in a store today, because the modern retail environment has become faceless and nameless in so many places.

American Girl has done for dolls what Starbucks did for coffee. The retailer's female appeal lies in its ability to deliver a wildly personalized experience for both young girls and their mothers, grandmothers and other caregivers. A young girl can walk into an American Girl store and leave with a doll that looks like her, complete with the same haircut and matching outfit. She can have her picture beamed onto the wall of the store for others to see, and take home a photo of herself on the cover of American Girl magazine. If her ears are pierced, she can get her doll's ears pierced, too. Each doll comes packaged with a life-story (in book form) of courage, valor and strong values, all of which have great appeal for parents. During their shopping trip, girls can have lunch or tea in the American Girl Cafe, with their American Girl doll tucked in at the table in her own special high chair. Because of these kinds of activities, American Girl stores have become a travel destination, and women are willing to pay for the experience in the hopes that it will be an event a young girl remembers for the rest of her life.

Nordstrom is famous for its customer service, and deservedly so. The bar for customer service is so low in so many industries that women flock to retailers that provide it. Nordstrom sweats the details. For instance, the stores typically feature seating for weary shoppers. This important detail impacts women because they will often cut a shopping trip short if they sense it's inconveniencing their companions. I am astonished at how few retailers offer chairs. It's one of the simplest tools out there to keep people inside a store -- especially in places with dressing rooms.

Can you think of a TV campaign that succeeds according to your criteria for how women consumer advertising?

Yes -- I think Kia does a great job creating advertising with female appeal. Their Sock Monkey campaign features humor without victims, which is just how women like their humor served up.


The same is true for Kia's Hamsters campaign. In some ways, the Hamsters campaign almost seems to wink at traditional "machismo" automotive advertising. And finally, the ad for the Kia Soul, featuring LPGA golfer Michelle Wie, is a wonderful example of "woman as hero" instead of "product as hero." You can see them all on YouTube. Through these campaigns, Kia is producing clever and entertaining advertising that has broad appeal across both genders.

It's said that women see shopping more as an activity than men, who see it as a task with a goal. What explains that?

In commercials, women like humor without victims.

Contrary to popular stereotypes about women and shopping -- which tend to be based on a "Sex and the City" type of image -- most of the shopping that women do is routine, and there are still many pain points in the retail and sales experience. In the time-compressed world of busy women, shopping for pleasure in the company of good friends is usually a rare experience -- and one that's meant to be savored. Often when women are shopping with their friends, the best part of the day is simply the time they spend together talking and meandering from store to store. Shopping is the backdrop, but catching up and connecting with one another is usually the main event.

Which of the trends in your trend chapter has strengthened the most since you first published the book, and which do you expect to be the most important in the next decade?

Boomers! Boomer women are the key demographic for the next decade. They are enormous in number, they have the largest amount of wealth in this country, and yet most advertisers and marketers don't spend any time marketing to people over the age of 54. It's a huge miss for firms that choose to ignore this segment.

Again, can you think of advertiser who's doing this best for both female-first products and more generalist products?

    Procter & Gamble is best-in-class. From those funny "Baby Come Back" ads for Swiffer, to the hilarious Old Spice ads, to the powerfully effective ads for the Olay brand --to name just a few -- P&G is the one to watch. The company is one of the most admired firms in the world, and they have built a global powerhouse by consistently creating products and marketing campaigns that appeal to women.

    *From Why She Buys, by Bridget Brennan

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    Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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