‘Men Buy, Women Shop’: The Sexes Have Different Priorities When Walking Down the Aisles

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When it comes to shopping, women are from Nordstrom’s and men are from Sears.


Women are happy to meander through sprawling clothing and accessory collections or detour through the shoe department. They like to glide up glass escalators past a grand piano, or spray a perfume sample on themselves on their way to, maybe, making a purchase. For men, shopping is a mission. They are out to buy a targeted item and flee the store as quickly as possible, according to new Wharton research.


In a study titled, “Men Buy, Women Shop,” researchers at Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative and the Verde Group, a Toronto consulting firm, found that women react more strongly than men to personal interaction with sales associates. Men are more likely to respond to more utilitarian aspects of the experience — such as the availability of parking, whether the item they came for is in stock, and the length of the checkout line.


“Women tend to be more invested in the shopping experience on many dimensions,” says Robert Price, chief marketing officer at CVS Caremark and a member of the Baker advisory board. “Men want to go to Sears, buy a specific tool and get out.”


As one female shopper between the ages of 18 and 35 told the researchers: “I love shopping. I love shopping even when I have a deadline. I just love shopping.” Compare that to this response from a male in the same age group who described how men approach retailing: “We’re going to this store and we buy it and we leave because we want to do something else.”


Price says women’s role as caregiver persists even as women’s professional responsibilities mount. He speculates that this responsibility contributes to women’s more acute shopping awareness and higher expectations. On the other hand, after generations of relying on women to shop effectively for them, men’s interest in shopping has atrophied.


According to Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, shopping behavior mirrors gender differences throughout many aspects of life. “Women think of shopping in an inter-personal, human fashion and men treat it as more instrumental. It’s a job to get done,” he says, adding that the data has implications for retailers interested in developing a more segmented approach to build and maintain loyalty among male and female customers.


Feeling Important vs. Checking Out Fast


“Men Buy, Women Shop” also found that women are more likely to experience problems while shopping than men — 53% vs. 48%, with women over age 40 reporting more problems than men in the same age group.


For women, “lack of help when needed” is the top problem (29%). It is also the likeliest reason that stores lose the business of women shoppers. Indeed, according to an analysis of the study’s data, about 6% of all female shoppers could be lost to stores due to lack of sales help. Men, however, ranked “difficulty in finding parking close to the store’s entrance” as the number one problem (also 29%). The problem most likely to result in lost business from men is if the product they came to buy is out of stock; about 5% of all male shoppers could be lost to stores for this reason.


Male and female shoppers also have different reactions to sales associates. For men, an associate’s interest in helping them find an item is most important, followed by the sales associate’s effort in getting them through checkout quickly. For women, store loyalty is related to sales associates’ familiarity with the products in the store and an ability to determine what products best suit the customer. Women shoppers also value sales associates who make them feel important, according to the survey.


In an interview with researchers, one woman in the 18 to 35 bracket described the employees in a favorite store. “The sales associates are always great. They always show me different styles. They will show me something new that’s come in.” Meanwhile, a man in the same age bracket said this: “I haven’t had much interaction with most sales people. I don’t really need them — as long as they’re at the checkout.”


Paula Courtney, president of the Verde Group, suggests that the attitudes expressed toward sales associates reflect subtle, but important, differences between men and women. When asked what problem would make respondents so angry they would never return to a store, women cited employees who “acted like you were intruding on their time or their own conversations.” Men were most miffed by employees who were “lazy, i.e., would not check for additional stock or take you to the item you were looking for.”


Courtney points out that for women, it’s more personal. For men, problems with associates are still linked directly to getting the item they need. “Women are more apt to be angered by a lack of engagement behavior from the sales associates. For men, while engagement is still important, it’s not as important as the product and getting in and out quickly.”


Retailers can use the study findings to tailor services to build sales, she said. “In a highly competitive market, where people are price-sensitive and there are tons of choices, if you can get one more strategy up your sleeve that gives you that edge, then why not?” she asks. “If we treat men and women differently, then we are going to be more successful.” Erin Armendinger, managing director of the Baker initiative, puts it this way: “Men and women are simply different,” she says. “It’s important for retailers to remember it’s not only what they’re purchasing, but how they’re doing it.”


Price suggests that retailers who want to improve their ability to reach shoppers based on gender can take some concrete steps. First, however, they must be sure that their operations are running as smoothly as possible in order to avoid irritations, such as out-of-stock merchandise or a lack of advertising circulars that diminish the shopping experience for men and women both. He also says that efforts to reach out to women shoppers cannot be superficial, such as simply putting up signs or changing the color of uniforms.


Communication is critical to reaching women shoppers, Price adds. Sales associates need to understand whether the shopper is looking for a product that will come out of disposable income, such as cosmetics, or a more essential and difficult to understand product — such as an over-the-counter drug or first aid treatment. Helping shoppers in those two different categories requires different styles of communication. Sales associates must be trained to recognize and react to shoppers’ cues.


Retailers hoping to appeal to women shoppers also need to devote attention to editing their assortment of items, Price says. Managers may be tempted to offer a wide swath of products, but he cites research showing that women who have to balance many responsibilities prefer stores with limited selections, such as Coach, Trader Joe’s and Sephora.


Finally, he says, hiring women throughout the ranks will bring retailers more in touch with what women want. At his company, women make up the majority of sales associates and are heavily represented in the marketing department. No idea gets floated too far before a woman can reflect on how it might impact her own life, he notes.


The Many Faces of the Sales Associate


Women spend $4 trillion annually and account for 83% of U.S. consumer spending, which makes up two-thirds of the nation’s gross national product, according to WomenCertified, a women’s consumer advocacy and retail training organization headquartered in Hollywood, Fla., which also worked on the study.


The “Men Buy, Women Shop study is based on a random, national sample of 1,250 shoppers who were asked about a recent shopping experience in telephone interviews conducted from October 20 to November 4, 2007. The sample was dominated, two to one, by females.


While many of the study’s findings do not come as a surprise to retailers, the hard data may help companies focus better on some of the problems cited by men and women, according to Delia Passi, founder of WomenCertified. She says retailers have long sensed the differences between men and women as shoppers. “It goes back to gatherers versus hunters. Women are gatherers. Men are hunters. Women walk into a store and scan. Men look for a specific aisle.” Scientific research, she notes, shows women have better peripheral vision than men, which would benefit them as gatherers.


Passi says the underlying attitudes that frame the shopping experience for men and women — with women more focused on the experience; men on the mission — do not necessarily play into sexist stereotypes of women as more emotional and weaker. “When it comes to the retail experience, men and women both go into the store to buy something, only she wants more. She wants more interaction. She wants more eye contact. He wants quick answers while she’s looking for support and collaboration in the buying process.” Passi acknowledged that many of the observations revealed in the survey still reflect generalities and that many women and men do not fit into the broader patterns. Indeed, as the owner of her own business, she is pressed for time and often behaves more like the survey’s male respondents when shopping.


According to Hoch, the recent study, along with other Baker research, indicates that sales associates are critical to retail operations because employees are one way competitors can differentiate themselves from one another to gain market share. “It’s hard to do anything about parking or the mall being too crowded, but they can do things about the sales associates,” he notes. “What I found interesting is how women tend to be more focused on people while men act almost as if they are dealing with an ATM machine. In fact, they want to deal with an ATM machine. They really don’t want to deal with a person.”


Courtney acknowledges that responding to the study’s findings adds another responsibility for sales associates who are often already juggling many different priorities on the retail floor. “At the end of the day, a sales associate has to be multifaceted,” she says. “They have to be an engager, an expediter and an educator. They must be authentic, but what this study tells us is those buttons have to be turned on and off — or turned on more or less — depending on whether you are dealing with a man or a woman.”


She says retailers need to step up and deliver more sophisticated, segmented service, not only taking into account gender, but also age, ethnicity and regional differences. “There’s no such thing as customer homogeneity. We’re not a homogeneous bunch at all. Yet as organizations, we end up treating customers as one big happy family. You’ve got all sorts of demographic and psychographic forces at play.”


Gender, she notes, is one of the easier customer attributes to address in a strategic fashion. Truly sophisticated marketers could get into attempting to differentiate services by gender and age or between professional women and those who manage households full-time. “At some level, what is practical and ideal start to diverge, but I think gender is a pretty simple segment to do differently.”

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