The Quest for Gender Equality Stops and Shops

You might say, haven't there always been men's departments? Do not underestimate the power of the new gender-based selling. As Eric Wilson writes in the New York Times, "it would seem that the fight for gender equality has finally come to the place where one might least expect it."

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Today the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal each take on the topic of gender-based selling. This is how marketers attempt to codify your shopping behaviors and likes and dislikes based on whether you are a man or a woman—and to sell you stuff based on what they know. By shopping as a man or woman, we mean, how you are expected to shop, as such. We've seen marketers do this before, most recently in the New York Post, which earlier this summer published a piece about a grocery store that offered a "man aisle" to make picking up the necessities a little more stress-free for dudes. Now, we're moving beyond chips, salsa, and shaving accoutrement and into more rarified shopping territory—fashion, for instance, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks and Nordstrom, oh my.

You might say, haven't there always been men's departments? Do not underestimate the power and scope of the new gender-based selling. As Eric Wilson writes in the New York Times, "it would seem that the fight for gender equality has finally come to the place where one might least expect it. When shopping, men are demanding better service, and retailers are providing it."

Let's stop for a moment before we rush into the analyses of what you're supposed to shop like and how marketers and retailers are pushing you to shop more based on what they know about your gender to say that we can think of at least a few places where "the fight for gender equality" might legitimately and importantly be addressed, aside from in a boutique on Madison Avenue or, say, at Bloomingdales. Not that shopping's not important, not that men and women are not in some ways categorically different, and not that shopping might, in fact, generally be better for some men, or some women, if it were positioned a little differently. But people are people and not just genders, and while one woman may shop one way, another might not shop at all, or might send her husband out to pick out a new outfit for her because, actually, he loves browsing through racks or whatever. Codifying the way people shop based on gender seems in some ways to woefully miss the point. We are all precious shopping snowflakes! But, on from that, what do they actually think about how we shop?

Sanette Tanaka's piece in the Journal breaks it down. Men hate to browse, women like "suggestions." According to the research, "women are most affected by personal interactions with sales associates, while men are affected by pragmatic factors, like the availability of products and parking spaces." Women are "risk-averse" and want interactive experiences—to touch fabrics, see pieces staged with bags or in full outfits, look at lots of color. Men just want to pick up their product and go, and don't want to have to ask for help. (Contrary to the gender "norms," this female writer will leave a store if a sales associate begins to suggest things without my asking for help—and I never ask for help. Also, I refuse to wait in a long line. What does that mean?)

Eric Wilson's piece in the Times focuses on the men, and some apparent long-held injustices: "There is a reason men’s wear in most stores is relegated to the back walls and the basements, while women’s wear is front and center," he writes, and goes on to quote GQ's creative director, Jim Moore, as saying “For too long, male shoppers were considered to be the stepchildren. There were a lot of assumptions on the retail level that men weren’t interested in fashion and that they just went to department stores to buy socks and underwear.” (This seems to counter anecdotal evidence that many stores have been putting men's wear on the ground floor for a while, now, because men want to walk in and see the goods right there, while women will climb stairs in search of the perfect kitten heel.)

But it's not like a lot of research was needed to support the long-held stereotype that women love to shop, as a social behavior, as an activity with friends, just because they love shopping. And men hate it. These are assumptions that don't only exist at the retail level: Enter the old joke about how many pairs of shoes a woman has, or how she takes up the entire closet, while the poor guy has one beat-up wire hanger upon which to dangle his only button-down shirt. These assumptions are based on stereotypes, and sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're wrong. Because, again, we're humans. It's way harder to market to human personalities individually than it is to genders, though.

Wilson writes of some of the efforts stores are making: remodeled men's floors at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks; a new, separate catalog for guys from Urban Outfitters; "new men's concepts" from J. Crew and Coach; distinct stores for men from Christian Louboutin, Hermès, and others; and more Fashion Week events "tailored to men's wear." This, he writes, demonstrates that "a new generation of male consumers actually embraces fashion. Or at least that younger guys are not so afraid of shopping"—even as male boutiques don't seem all that new, exactly, and more like some honing to the age-old reality of the men's department.

Perhaps more new, though, is Nordstrom's pop-up men's store in SoHo, "with products selected by the editors of GQ, like Warby Parker eyeglasses and Billy Reid sportswear. Other touches intended to appeal to guys include a coffee bar, complimentary shaves and, naturally, lots of gadgets," Wilson explains. Or this key learning that seems to contradict that grab-and-go philosophy of male shopping: "Among the unexpected things they have discovered is that guys like chairs, which create the impression that it is fine for them to hang out in a store, even if they are not shopping." Huh. But, also, this again:

“Women like to be helped, while men like to help themselves, but be guided,” said Greg Unis, a senior vice president. “They don’t want to be pounced on when they first walk into the store.”

Does anyone want to be pounced on?

Tanaka points out that some retailers aren't totally comfortable with the idea of gender-based selling: "Not all stores have embraced gender-based selling because it can be time-consuming and expensive, due to training costs and a high sales-associate turnover rate. In addition, some companies are hesitant to advertise a policy founded on treating men and women differently." Others, though, think it's at least a step above the current reality, which is treating everyone "like an average consumer." And maybe that's exactly the problem—men and women would probably agree that they would prefer their shopping experience to be exactly what they wanted it to be. That doesn't mean any of us think that's the same thing.

Image via Tupungato/

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.