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Stores for Boys
11 February 2010

GapRalph Lauren

Stores for Boys

In my last post I discussed the feminisation of the retail marketplace and how gender roles are changing in the world of shopping. I quoted Paco Underhill who says that men’s status in the family is increasingly becoming that of “an exotic household pet,” and most of the purchase decisions are now made by women.

However this pet does get taken for walkies and often ends up in shopping malls- where he can be a severe distraction to his owner. Mary Portas points out that a woman’s dwell time in store is reduced while shopping with her partner. So while we may gear the shopping experience towards the superstar spenders, we’re still stuck with the cheap hangers on.

The argument is that that men don’t enjoy shopping. But is this a self perpetuating myth? Women’s floors in department stores- fashion and cosmetics- provide the most colourful and exciting environments. These are the showcase floors. In contrast, if a man wants to buy a suit in the same store he is faced with a monochrome sea of racks in a somewhat intimidating and bewildering environment, guarded by a mixture of stern old men and gangling, acned youths. Even in Top Shop in Soho, NY, the women’s floor gets the double height space, the DJs and the over the top VM, while men are relegated to a lower budget experience in the basement. Who are we designing these environments for? Suburban Gen X and Gen Y men have grown up with shopping malls and are more comfortable in the shopping environment than their fathers would have been. Increasingly, men are selecting and purchasing their own clothes. Some of them (shock horror probe) go clothes shopping with their mates. Here in the design industry the male uniform tends to be Nudie jeans and obscure T shirts, but in the legal profession there is now hot competition among young men in the fashion stakes and big money is spent just to keep up. This is the new customer for suits and mainstream retail isn’t catering for them. (Notable exceptions being Ted Baker and Suit Supply, who purvey crisp and affordable tailoring with an engaging store environment and a healthy dose of attitude)

It’s true that men are becoming less task focused and more “female” in their shopping habits. But there are still certain rules in catering for the male customer.

By far the most important is that MEN WON’T ASK. As a designer of many male oriented concepts like SuperCheap Auto and BCF, I’ve found that the most important thing you can do is provide a logical layout and very clear signage. Because if he can’t find it within two minutes, he’s decided you don’t sell it and he’s gone.

Where women require engagement and empathy, men are more information biased. A woman will be happy with someone who simply understands them, a man seeks out people who know what they’re talking about. The Dan Murphy’s Fine Wine managers, for example.

Men need inspiration and guidance in fashion. Few know how to put a look together and most will buy the entire outfit displayed on a mannequin rather than look for separates. The Gap recently realized that American men needed so much help in dressing that they devoted all their windows to showing how to put simple outfits together for dates, social gatherings and casual Fridays.

The ones who do it beautifully are Polo Ralph Lauren. They are the masters at designing environments for men: an engaging but non threatening environment, different spaces to wander in, plenty of mannequins, non-pushy staff, a wide but not overly complex range to shop. I’ve always thought that their store plans are exemplary.

I believe that there is an untapped potential in shopping malls to engage male shoppers. Simply by making the male shopping experience as engaging to men as the female one is to women, we can encourage men to shop independently. And if they’re doing that, they’re not distracting our superstars!

11 February 2010
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