In Search Of The Elusive Male Shopper

A man shopping for sneakers in a store i i

It's typically not hard to find men shopping at a shoe store. A customer shops for sneakers at a store in Stamford, Conn., last March while enjoying a beverage. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A man shopping for sneakers in a store

It's typically not hard to find men shopping at a shoe store. A customer shops for sneakers at a store in Stamford, Conn., last March while enjoying a beverage.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Valentine's Day weekend will see a lot of men doing something that still comes unnaturally to most: shopping. More men shop for everything from food to clothing than ever before. But marketing experts say stores could do a better job of persuading men to stay longer and spend more money.

If women can't decide which product to buy, they're usually happy to consult store staff. But that's not always the case with men. They'll typically read reams of product information before talking to a salesperson.

"Guys typically behave like they generally do — they don't like asking for directions," says Nelson Barber, a professor of hospitality management at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire. "They would rather get lost in a store or on a freeway than actually go up to somebody and say, 'You know, I'm really lost, I don't know what to buy. I need advice.' "

Barber, who studies shopping behavior, says he's a perfect example. He'd love to take up golf. But he says he'd need to spend hours researching the game before buying equipment. His pride won't let him just walk into a sporting goods store and start asking questions.

"Because I know in my heart — or at least that's what I believe — the guy or gal behind the counter or the clerk is gonna say to themselves, 'God this guy's an idiot, he doesn't know how to play golf?' "

Men, Women And Wine

Since Barber is a professor, he took a formal look at buying behavior by examining men, women and wine. He did a study recently that showed what you might expect: Men don't want to appear as if they don't know what they're talking about.

Jesse Salazar, the wine director at Union Square Wines and Spirits in New York City, says a telltale sign of a customer in need of assistance is one who looks around the store for eye contact. He says this overt signal comes most often from women, not men.

"I would say the last thing some of our male customers want to seem is sort of unknowledgable," Salazar says.

Still, Salazar tries to draw them out. He doesn't ask, "Can I help you?" because most guys will just say no. Instead, he asks open-ended questions about what they're looking for.

Making men feel at ease is critical for getting them to spend more time and money in stores, says Paco Underhill, the chief executive officer of Envirosell, a human behavior research firm. Traditionally men haven't lingered in retail locations.

"A man walked into the store, wanted to kill something reasonably quickly and drag it out the door," says Underhill. "The women tended to enjoy the act of looking."

The Elusive Night Shopper

Men may never be the browsers women are. But Underhill says retailers — including supermarkets — could do more to capitalize on men's particular shopping habits.

"A remarkable number of men shop in the grocery at night because they simply don't like the crowd," Underhill says. "And those are the times in which maybe you should have a beer tasting going on in-store."

Some stores are already working the alcohol angle. Mike Gatti, the executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, says several specialty clothing stores have thrown successful beer and pizza events to lure men in and keep them there.

What's On Tap

Then there's the jewelry chain that's meeting customers where they're already at ease: bars.

"Bringing some of the jewelry into local bars so the men can see the jewelry in a place where they're kind of hanging out with their friends, they might decide to buy a piece of jewelry for their girlfriend in this bar," Gatti says. "Also creates a bit of peer pressure: 'Hey, you need to buy that for her.' "

He says efforts like these will catch on. Meanwhile, a new kind of in-store help is on the horizon: touch-screen shelf signs. Shoppers will have pages of computerized product information at their fingertips. Men should love it. They won't need to ask any questions at all.

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