What Women Want When They Shop

"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."*

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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.

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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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