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It’s a Woman’s World
19 November 2009

Paco UnderhillSteve Madden Shoes

It’s a Woman’s World

I recently was asked to give a presentation on feminising the in store experience. A relevant topic as women now account for 85% of all consumer purchases. For food this goes up to 93%.
But it’s a more complex subject than meets the eye.

A few minutes on Google will tell you the differences in the behaviours of male and female shoppers. Generally, men are task-based hunters looking for convenient parking, efficient wayfinding (they won’t ask) and a quick exit. Women are immersive gatherers who crave engagement and empathetic service.

Retail anthropologist Paco Underhill points out that men are becoming even less important in the retail world. While the female partner has always had influence over most household purchases, she now spends from her own income, which in some cases equals or exceeds her male partner. Men’s status in the family is increasingly becoming that of “an exotic household pet.”
Retailers are somewhat belatedly catching on to this and designing stores around the needs of female customers, as opposed to the efficiency of the supply chain. Wal-Mart for example has moved away from “boxes on shelves” and even has a “Vice President for Store Experience” whose goal is to “make it more experiential, rather than just the stuff we’re selling.”
Electronics category killer Best Buys recognises several different customer types, one of which is “a busy suburban mom who wants to enrich her children’s lives with technology and entertainment.” In areas where this is the dominant customer group they have set up a Personal Shopping Assistant in a central position of the store. Staff are trained to think in terms of customer groups, not merchandise categories. This approach contributed greatly to the company’s growth in the middle of this decade.
Home improvement giant Lowes attributes its success to owning the female market. If men are from Home Depot, women are from Lowes. Wayfinding, shelf heights and category adjacencies are all set up with female customers in mind.
“I guess my female shopper's soul just likes the more retail oriented layout of Lowes,” says a happy customer. “It feels more like the clothing store at the mall, and I'm comfortable with that.”
Experts in visual merchandising like Anthropologie understand the importance of engaging women. Their intricately chaotic stores, which would send most men off screaming, have a female target customer with an average household income of over $US200,000 who browses the store for an average of 70 minutes. And dwell time is sell time. J. Crew’s new female-only jeans store, Madewell, has a similar chaotic look, which belies the many carefully crafted layers of communication that women respond to while shopping. Even the names of garments are emotionally based. The Time Worn Tee and the Ex- Boyfriend Jeans are perfect examples. Men of course would be much more comfortable in a denim store where jeans are neatly arranged and labeled by size, fit and price, with plenty of checkouts.

However the lines are blurring. As CEO and CFO of the family women are now becoming busier, with many more demands on their time. On many shopping occasions they are taking on the additional characteristics of male shoppers. Parking, easy navigation and quick checkout facilities become as important as engagement and empathetic service.

Recently we helped provide an environment that meets this brief for discount department store Big W here in Australia. For the “male” side of the shopping brain, there is clear wayfinding and a highly disciplined and ordered communications hierarchy- as well as a choice of full service or self service checkouts. For the “female” side, there are lower fixture heights, clearly defined services like dressing rooms and toilets, and huge, emotive wall graphics that help define the merchandise categories.

It’s worth noting that this same female customer on a different shopping occasion would be quite happy to lose herself for an hour at Anthropologie. It’s also true that most task based male shoppers regularly immerse themselves in the more ordered version of the Aladdin’s cave that is Dan Murphy’s, where personal, knowledge based service is the order of the day and wine purchases are made on sensory and emotional bases. And the most hardened of men’s men regularly spend the whole weekend at Bass Pro being anything but rational in their shopping behaviour.

Clearly we can’t use just gender as a consideration when creating our customer experience. Category, psychographic, shopping occasion and mindset should all come into play. But it’s the experience that’s the thing- it’s not just about selling “stuff” any more.

Gary McCartney is Managing Director of design company McCartney Design, ( He can be contacted on

19 November 2009
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